“Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
(A research paper submitted to the Graduate Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto.)
1. Phenomenological Beginnings
Discussions about place in geography often begin with the notion of here, and this one is no exception. Here, at the moment, is my desk on Clinton Street in Toronto. It is an unremarkable desk in a rented house on a street I moved to fifteen months ago, and whose nuances remain for the most part a mystery to me. I would be hard pressed to say that I am of this place, in any profound way. Its essential character is elusive.
And yet from where I sit, just off to my right, I can see a twisted
pair of thick black wires stretching from the telephone pole across the
street to the side of this house. One of the wires feeds 75 channels
of television, the other carries both a phone line and a connection to
the internet. The phone sits a few inches from my elbow, waiting to be
summoned to ring. The internet connection leads to a slot in my
computer beneath my left palm. Somewhere amid the piles of papers here
is a cell phone about the size of a deck of cards. The four bars on
its screen indicate that it is currently in good communication with the
network. The same could be said for myself. This array of
telecommunications may seem excessive but it is certainly not unusual,
nor is the attention I pay to news from all over the world of
relatives, friends, armies, athletes, disease, corruption, or
movies–the whole range of human experiences absorbed through my
particular consciousness, just like places.
And then there is the world outside. The top of the CN Tower is visible above the houses across the street, a blinking symbol of both Toronto and the radio networks that its antennae serve. On the sidewalk below, groups of Korean teenagers walk by singing soccer fight songs and an old man on a porch across the street argues with his wife in Italian about their garden. Overhead, jetliners make their final turn before landing at Pearson. Down the block, the nearest corner of Bloor Street is occupied by a diner, a Korean restaurant, a Salvadoran taco restaurant, and a live music bar–this week there’s a band playing called “Dharma Blues.”
My immediate surroundings–the “here” of my day-to-day existence–is full of elements of faraway places. I may be eager to understand this place, but this place is not explicitly or even primarily about here. Instead, it is a “hybrid place”, best characterized by the presence of other places. Its organic spirit, it genius loci, does not so much bubble up from the earth over time as arrive nearly instantaneously on a wing or a wire. And yet that makes it no less meaningful to me, no less rich an experience. It is neither “placeless” nor a “non-place”; the appearance of the remote or the faraway is not a “virtual reality” nor a “media-space” (although perhaps it has elements of both); and for all this confusion, this place is not entirely lacking in what could be called intrinsic character (although often what character there is seems incongruous to me). What results is, if not a paradox, then an incongruity in our understanding of the concept of place. These places are not purely local, but a hybrid of the local and the remote.
September 10, 2002