There’s something depressing, to me, about living in a “city” that has a permanent population of less than 80,000 people. Part of it could be that the anonymity of larger cities is like a breath of fresh air to me — even as a little kid, I’ve always been “weird”, in appearance or demeanour (at least as far as other people are concerned; and if you have no idea how a five-year-old could look weird, think of a kid who had a dark but somehow vibrant auburn haircolour and who never had a haircut until the age of twelve — now add to that the fact that just talking to this kid was described by their parents and said parents’ friends as “being a contestant on Jeopardy! who wasn’t prepped). Thankfully my parents didn’t parade me around like some “gifted” kids who are practically side-show attractions, but I’d often feel like even living in a city with 250,000 people (that would be Toledo, Ohio), I never had any place where I could just pretend, for a few minutes, that I was a normal person and nobody recognised me from school, or the church choir, or from when my father dragged my younger sister and I to his AA meetings cos it was cheaper than getting a babysitter. Then my father moved my sister and I to a small rural town in southeastern Michigan — try being the anonymous weird brainy-arty kid in Tecumseh, Michigan. Now add to this the fact that at fourteen, I was really trying to emulate Marc Bolan — because that’s the kind of shit young teens do, we don’t prioritise what we want at that age, so it seemed perfectly reasonable that I’d have wanted to be able to perm my hair, cover myself in glitter, and take up guitar AND want to be ignored by people who weren’t my friends. Duh! Small towns are hell when you’re “the weird kid”, and even more so when even your friends don’t really “get” the same things that you’re into.
Ann Arbor is a little better than all of Lenawee County combined, but not by much. The gentrification bug bit this town bad and hard — didn’t get leave a mark, didn’t just draw blood, either. No, what bit this town ripped a large chunk of flesh from this town, so what was kind of my “weekend respite” when I was in junior high and high school, where I’d go with my friends cos there were cool record stores and the art-house cinema and little punk boutiques like The Cat’s Meow (which is now gone), is now very depressing and unwelcoming. Oh, it could be worse — it could be much worse, and I know it. Hell, I lived in Gary, Indiana, for six weeks (and in a welfare hotel, of all places), and briefly stayed in Virginia and encountered bona-fide Neo-Nazis. I know how much worse it could be, so I definitely count my blessings when I remember some of the places I’ve been. Still, “it could be worse” is by no means a real compliment — it implies “it could also be a lot better”.
This isn’t the town I moved to when I left high school. The name is still the same, I still occasionally run into that guy on the bus who still calls Iggy Pop “little Jamie Osterberg”, PJ’s Used Records (praise the Gods!) still exists — but for a town that prides itself on its “arty” and “bohemian” image, she sure has taken great lengths to drive the “arty” and “bohemian” people out by a systematic effort of raising rent prices (if only through the insane property taxes — which are directly related to the fact that the University owns so much of the downtown area tax-free, a university that is funded by the absolute bare-minimum state monies to qualify as a “public” university, over 95% of U of Michigan’s non-tuition income is from private donations, I shit you not), and not just the rent on housing, but all of the “quirky small businesses” that gave this town such “flavour” have such a high rent / property tax that they’re slowly being driven out in exchange for national and regional chain businesses.
And with this homogenisation, my anonymity of being “another drop freak in a pool of Punk & Hippie” is shot through the head.
I may have been homeless most of my time in Los Angeles (a city with over 3million), but I had the freedom to be as anonymous or as centred in the spotlight as I wanted to be. I was far more anonymous in Chicago (2.8million) than I’ve ever been in my life — it was a strange and disorienting feeling at first (at first, I decided I hated Chicago, with this new total anonymity and a psychotic room-mate who seemed hand-picked by the Gods to prove to me how sane I and everybody I had previously known truly was [OK, I exaggerate, but only slightly, trust me, honeys, you don't want to know Pattie]), but it’s grown on me to the point that I think I really could live there quite happily for years (provided i find myself in a neighbourhood I can afford). I might even be happy again in Toledo (which now boasts 300,000), but I’ve made the decision that when I leave Ann Arbor again, this time I’m never again going to live in a city with less than 1million people. Sure, this may limit my options, but not as much as limiting myself to cities of 2million or more.
I bring this up because I’ll be visiting the 1.4million-strong city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, next week — my mission: See The Dead Milkmen live at The Trocadero on Halloween. I’ve arranged lodgings with somebody on Couch Surfing, and I’ve already checked out his neighbourhood on-line — I think this may, in fact, be “the Gaybourhood” that Rodney Anonymous seems to think so highly of. I’ve checked out more things about Philadelphia on-line — in addition to having the next most Greek name for a city after Ypsilanti, Michigan, this is a city with possibly the most public art out of any other city in the world. There are several neighbourhoods that seem truly bohemian (at least as best as I can discern from the Internet), and the live music scene seems to still be in good health.
I was once told, by the boyfriend of one of my high school co-choristers backstage after a performance “I mean this in the best way possible, you need to get out of this town; it will kill you.” One of my room-mate’s old gaming friends once said to me “you need to leave this place; maybe once-upon-a-time, like the 1960s, Ann Arbor was an oasis to people like you, but even then, you personally, you’re far more New York or Chicago to really fit in here. Hell, you’d even fit in better in Philly than you ever would have here.”
This town depresses me. Emotionally and spiritually. Probably the primary culprit for why I’ve been such a shitty and neglectful blogger of late.
I’m sorry. I wish I had something really profound and insightful to say — or at least something far more-so than what amounts to one-thousand-plus words of “I’m depressed and I think this small town is what’s made me so”.
I guess, when you think about it, where one lives may have a greater effect on one’s spiritual life than most people generally think it would. I started reading Urban Primitive, for the purposes of review, a while back and found it (at least up to the point I got to) steeped in rural bias and romanticism. At one point, in the introduction or first chapter, it warns that even if one loves the city, one needs to periodically “get out for … your own sanity”. This is dangerous advice to somebody like myself, whose emotional and spiritual well-being seems intricately linked to the freedoms, opportunities, and anonymities afforded to people by large cities.