I was away for three weeks in June, and for two of those weeks I was away not only from where I live, but from the internet. In a sense, separation from the internet was the more telling separation -- I know more people available to me online than I do in New Haven, to say nothing of the people I ‘follow’ (or stalk?) on Facebook.

While away, I visited all my ‘homes away from home’: including three of my four siblings’ homes in Delaware, one of which is the house we all grew up in, where my mother still lives. I also visited my stepson and his family who live a bit west of Philadelphia -- Philly is where we lived when he lived with my wife and I, and where our daughter was born. And I got over to rural New Jersey where a longtime friend (a Philly native I met in Philly) lives with his family and writes -- and where I am an honorary “Uncle Donald.” And I made it down to Rockville, MD, outside DC, where my sister-in-law lives and where my mother-in-law is now in an assisted living home, which I visited for the first time. The main reason I went away at all was to visit the shore in Ocean City, MD, where some version of my family has gone to unwind in June since we were all kids together, and where my parents spent their honeymoon, and where there was no internet connection, which helped to emphasize the feeling I have down there anyway -- that I’m in some perpetual version of my youth, either the late ‘60s when I first went there, or some memorable teen visits in the late ‘70s, or those years in the ‘80s when it was all about my daughter.

All of this is to introduce the thought which I’ve had before, when returning ‘home’ to New Haven, this town I’ve lived in for ten years (moved here from Hamden when our daughter went off to college in Baltimore), and frequented for five years before that (after moving to CT straight from grad school): I’m hard-pressed to say what makes this place my home other than the fact that I live here -- at some distance from all the people I’ve known longest. My way of life and general outlook seems a continuation of grad school, which is to say, transient, not in for the long haul, expecting to go elsewhere, someday, and only hoping ‘there’ won’t be worse. And that feeling, I think, is sustained by the fact that the population of New Haven, as I experience it, is tied to Yale and recurrently transient: students, grad students, junior faculty are here for awhile and move on.

Yet, while in this limbo (working on long term writing projects and at ‘teaching gigs’ tends to sustain a certain disconnect from my surroundings ... maybe even requires it?), I have become accustomed to New Haven, even though I consider myself barely a resident. There are places I frequent, and which I like seeing -- Willoughby’s, Yorkside, Book Trader, Labyrinth, Odd Bins, Anna Liffey’s, Cutler’s, Mamoun’s, Rudy’s, Royal India, etc. -- but I seem never to move much beyond the familiar grooves worn by making my way, mostly on foot, to the orbit of that big educational concern in town, which I refer to affectionately, or not so affectionately, as the Mighty Fortress.

When I’m back in the environs I hail from, I’m always glad to know I’m only passing through. Much as I like seeing everyone, it’s good to know I don’t really live there. And I can think of one event, a few years ago, that made me realize that I actually have a kind of relation to New Haven. It was the closing of The Rainbow Café, and at the time I :

We rely on such places as providing identity for what "our town" is, and for providing us with a renewable sense of who we are as their steady patrons. You are where you eat, and where you shop? Something like that.

Realizing the place was pretty new when I first went there and that it was now gone, it seemed to matter that I'd outlasted a business.

So, a question to any long-standing or native New Haveners reading this: what do you consider to be definitive aspects of New Haven ... the kinds of things one shouldn’t miss while living here? Or: what's a change you've seen in your time here that had some effect on you?

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4 Responses to Whither Home?

  1. I grew up on Brooklyn and attended all my life the public schools to which I walked nearly every day of the thirteen years I had to go. At the age of 17, I left my family home and never came back.

    This is not the same as saying that I didn't return to New York or even Brooklyn. I did. But I didn't return "home" in that most traditional of senses: taking up residence, as my brother did till age 35, in my parents' five-bedroom home on Glenwood Road.

    When I left New York for the last time after a two-year stint as an editor to return to New Haven (yes, I lived here twice), my wife and I were not only overjoyed, we even returned to the neighborhood in which we had rented the first time around: that part of Westville between Whalley & Derby on the north and south respectively; and Yale Avenue and Forest Road as far as east and west go. We have had no regrets since in the last 10 years that we have resided here, and we both chalk that up not to New Haven itself, but the neighborhood in which we reside.

    I could write electronic ream after ream on the wonderfulness of this neighborhood. My children walk two blocks to school (Edgewood School); my wife walks two blocks to work (Mitchell Library); we walk two blocks to synagogue (Beth-El Keser Israel); we have farmer's market directly across the street in the summers; access to tennis courts in Edgewood Park (across the street) and Yale fields (three blocks) respectively; sledding at the Yale golf course in the winter five blocks away we can walk less than a block to five art galleries, four bars, five restaurants.

    It's the neighborhood thus that has made New Haven home for us (and our children) and not "New Haven" itself. The spatial proximity of creature comforts, leisure activities, the necessities of food and culture have created a latitude and lassitude in time: it moves more slowly, more relaxedly, more satisfactorily, with less alienating effects as I wave at friends going north along my block to synagogue or walking their children south along it to school or heading in either direction with dogs in tow or on bikes or in jogging suits.

    Were I to leave New Haven, what I would miss is not its individual places or events but entire gestalt of a community created in a small corner of the city.

  2. Donald Brown says:

    Bennett,

    Thanks for the detailed, enthusiastic evocation of life in Westville. Nothing grounds one in a place like raising a family, and I can well imagine the satisfactions of that settled, small-town type variety of life you describe. It's a bit different for me, since my family is spread all over the DE-PA-NJ-MD area, turning me into a house-hopping nomad when I visit -- and to see my daughter, I can add NYC.

    I do like the scale of New Haven quite a bit, and walking to work is a main element in enjoying that scale, which is what has makes Westville 'off the beaten track' to me.

  3. Mark Oppenheimer says:

    Scale is so key -- the best places in the world tend to have manageable size, it seems to me. Or they have to be broken into neighborhoods with manageable size. I mean, I love Los Angeles, but there is a reason that San Francisco is a more pleasurable place to live (even if I find L.A. a more pleasurable place to visit, because it is so weird and out of bounds).

  4. Donald Brown says:

    Mark,

    OK, but what about New Haven? Apart from the great street you live on, what makes it work for you -- or does it?

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