Opinion » Column | Oct. 14
Even as a first-year college student, I struggle to define the importance of place in my own experience. Living in Princeton demands that I acknowledge differences between this vision of suburban grandeur and the contrasting urban minutiae of my most recent home, Detroit. It is important to address the significance of displacement from one’s origins (dare I say, one’s roots). By addressing the process of familiarization with a place, perhaps we can understand more clearly our own habits of self-identification in relation to physical spaces.
Although I was born in Detroit, I had lived in the suburbs bordering the city for most of my life. Thus, as a child, I thought the realities of urbanity did not concern me. The spatial discrepancies between my home at any given time (I had lived at eight locations prior to moving to Detroit) and the city established an emotional distance from the concerns of inner-city life. Growing up in a comfortable environment similar to that of Princeton benumbed my preparedness for the “other” — that not-so-distant reality that lay only miles away. As a black male myself, I would later realize how peculiar it was that, for the first seven years of my life, I had few African-American acquaintances. Separated from typical perceptions of inner-city culture, I held a myopic view of Detroit. In this way, suburbia served a dual role in my life. I adored it for its quasi-pastoral serenity; I would regret it for its prescriptive worldview.
I could attribute the little I did know of Detroit to my grandparents, who had moved to the city soon after the 1967 riots. My grandmother’s unchanging mandate of safety restricted me from walking beyond their block unaccompanied. News of the city’s economic devastation, educational shortcomings and immoderate crime rates only reinforced my skepticism. Simply, I could not find Detroit’s appeal. But when I would visit the city, my grandfather would humble me. He was a gentle father geared toward a Southern sensibility. A retired firefighter for the city, he had many friends and emulators. In addition to maintaining and beautifying a local park, he sold clothes and hats as a vendor. Whether he was removing litter from his neighbors’ yards or dressing the city with fine attire, my grandfather wanted to help revitalize a place that was once the “Paris of the West.”
Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer, took his life in the summer of 2011. Beyond the immediate grief, I was shamed by my reluctance to embrace Detroit as he had done. If a man could devote himself to a place so freely, why couldn’t I open my eyes to it? My grandmother returned to Tennessee, and my mother and I moved into my grandparents’ old home as a symbolic gesture of preservation and renewal. Over the course of the following two years, I would immerse myself in the city, walking along the Detroit River to appreciate the Windsor-Ontario skyline, reading books on the edge of the fountain in Campus Martius Park, frequenting the small, locally-owned restaurants planted across the city. My conceptions of home shifted gradually from the outlying suburbs to this new, surprisingly familiar place.
Perhaps it is because I made the transition to Princeton while trying to understand whether Detroit was my place of belonging that I felt the faintest sense of loss. It was as though by removing myself from this vision of home, I was constructing an irresolvable dissonance in my mind. Although Princeton is perhaps more reminiscent of my youth than Detroit, I suspect that whatever conceptions of “home” I may have lean away from simple comfort and physical security to a faux-romantic pursuit of urban fervor and undeterred movement. Here, it seems that my attempts to “become at home” involve harmonizing like elements so as to render a more familiar and inviting image. The process can often be quite nuanced. Consolidating the architectural elements of Alexander Hall with those of Saint Anne de Detroit Catholic Church, for example, allows a fluid exchange of sites peculiar to specific locations. Still, I can’t comfortably claim that I understand where my home truly is. Indicating a physical space may be the simplest solution. But there must be more. Whether I will learn to prize this new, intellectual domain as my primary (albeit temporary) home is undetermined. I think the ongoing discovery of home — whatever definition that word may imply — is an important narrative to consider. I urge all Princetonians to contemplate the degree to which we feel obligated to our birthplace — even those of us who call Princeton home. Once we graduate, having the advantages of a strong educational upbringing, where will we be expected to serve? Is there any goal superior to that of helping the community in which you were raised? I’m not yet fit to say. I suspect, however, that the kind of people we will be remembered as won’t be determined by one place alone. Instead, every location that fulfills us will, like a beautiful pigment, complicate the broad portrait of who we are.
Aaron Robertson is a freshman from Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.