The Screen Where You Started

Coming home to a place that doesn’t change

I was up in New Jersey back in late July, visiting my parents in Flemington. I’d kind of forgotten how much I love my old surroundings, and I’m planning a fall visit to drive around and observe these familiar places with my adult interest in urbanism in mind. I love Virginia, where I now live, and I even specifically love Northern Virginia. It’s the part of the country where I developed the interests that drive this newsletter and my other writing. But I don’t have the deep familiarity with the D.C. metro area that I do with Central Jersey, so exploring it with everything I know today is a unique and fruitful experience.

While up there, I also visited my childhood best friend (he still is, but it had been too long), at his parents’ house, as he was also visiting parents. We usually chat about things less important than work and professional affairs, but we got to thinking about a familiar theme for me: the tension between the need for change and growth in communities, and the strong and often quite natural preference for continuity in our daily surroundings and built environments. (This building, on Flemington’s Main Street, is a former train station, later turned into a diner, where I first met my friend. Now, it’s a bank.)

Flemington is quite affluent, and it’s Hunterdon County’s county seat. Hunterdon County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. But the town of Flemington has long suffered physical and entrepreneurial stagnation, largely because local politics has been vociferously NIMBY for years. So the town, around which we grew up, is a great object of such discussions. But, more on Flemington itself in another piece(s)!

Somehow related to this discussion, my friend and I remembered an old thing we used to say we would do, back when we were maybe 11 or 12 years old. We had this idea of saving a game of Dynasty Warriors 4 for the PlayStation 2 (our favorite video game and console) on a memory card, and then setting the memory card aside for, say, 20 years. One day, when we were married and had our own homes and all that, we’d visit my friend’s parents, have the wives and parents chat upstairs just like our parents did when we were kids, run down to the TV corner in the basement, dig out that memory card, and boot up a circa 2005 save file.

The details don’t quite pencil out, of course, but the point was that having an artifact from the past is almost like going back in time. I still love the thought that my friend’s cozy half-finished basement, with its rickety shelf for holding video games and its secondhand Sony Trinitron tank of a TV, would still be there. It still is. Maybe it will be.

It’s interesting to grow up, and develop professional interests that at first feel new, and then begin to rediscover the childhood memories, experiences, and influences that helped form the basis for those interests. There’s a common thread between that memory card idea and my interest in the histories of old buildings, or my affection for old-fashioned stores or restaurants, like this since-demolished faux-village, not far from Flemington.

I’m also sure that growing up Catholic (we both did—in our parish homeschooling group!) shaped these attitudes, specifically the sense of ritual, the intuition that ordinary things can be alive in an almost metaphysical way. Catholicism does that, with things like holy water, incense, candles, and of course holy communion; it’s suffused with the idea that ordinary objects can represent or even convey the divine. I suppose I see the ordinary, physical world in a sort of sacramental way.

Some without faith might find this a little silly; some Christians of other denominations might find it approaching idolatrous. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that an old memory card, or an old restaurant building, conveys the divine. But I mean...something. Something I can’t quite express. (I reflected on the same thought here, discussing old and really well-made consumer goods.)

Relatedly, for almost as long as I can remember, my friend and I had this idea of likening our parents’ houses and our old childhood main street to the starting screen of a video game. Think of the screen where you begin a game of Harvest Moon, or the Pokémon Gameboy games, or really most adventure games or RPGs. They have massive worlds you can explore, and various ways to grow or “level up” your character, but you can usually wander back to that beginning screen. In Pokémon, for example, it’s the town and the house where you were given your first pocket monster. In a game you really like and have invested hours and hours of gameplay in, it can be comforting to go back to the beginning, and think about where you started. No matter how far you progress, it’s always still there.

It was kind of meta, talking about and remembering all of this, while floating in my friend’s outdoor pool, thinking about all the childhood gatherings and barbecues we spent here, the time a family of raccoons approached us one evening at the patio, the pizza and Chinese takeout nights when we worked a daytime visit into dinner and a sleepover. All in that house, altered here and there but very much the same place throughout the last 20 years. A place that changed and grew and matured and aged with us but was still there and still itself, just like our timeworn main street. An exceedingly brief moment in time, all things considered, but our whole lives.

Writer Rebecca Solnit, in her 2001 book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, wrote: 

When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back.

Of all the arguments or sentiments that might lead to “NIMBYism,” (“not in my backyard,” or the tendency to oppose new development) this is probably the one that appeals to me the most, and which I find most valid and most personally moving. Perhaps I just have a ritualistic, sentimental personality. But I’ve always felt there’s something valuable about physical continuity, and the interplay of human relationships, growing up, and physical surroundings. That’s what led me to write fondly of an old roadside motel, the sole surviving such establishment along a highway stretch just outside Flemington once dense with them. My friend and I mulled over the fact that because so much of our childhood surroundings are still intact, we can reap that invisible crop of memories, every time we visit home. Time can enliven and elevate places, even those which are ordinary by any objective standard. I’ve got to think this contributes, maybe not in a way most people can quite express, to trepidation about redevelopment or new buildings, in places which don’t really, from the outside, look or seem very special, or worth preserving as they currently are.

Crucially, I think this particular variety of NIMBYism has little to do with racial resentment, or sneering at the city, or right-wing culture war. I think it’s a fairly normal and natural human tendency to resist major, disruptive change, as I wrote for Strong Towns, critiquing multi-stage megaprojects that seem to drag on forever. At the same time, I consider myself lucky, blessed—privileged?—to have had the upbringing I did, to have a sense of permanence and groundedness both in my family and friends and in my everyday surroundings. Neither my friend nor I ever moved—and recall that we were homeschooled—so our houses and our properties and our adjacent town probably had an outsized impact on us. We spent more time in those places than most kids do. I don’t think my attachment to my original place is morally superior to any other attitude about any place. But I’m happy I have it.

However, I struggle. I think a lot about whether, or to what extent, my urbanist opinions and my support for growth and change conflict with my affection for my hometown, stuck in time. And I have to admit, it’s comforting to drive into Flemington and be able to recognize almost everything. Change isn’t nonexistent, but it is very slow, such that even new things spark old memories (This used to be that! Remember when….”). The place, overall, is readily recognizable to me nearly 30 years after my first memories of it.

Is this selfish? Am I putting my emotional satisfaction above a much more urgent need for, say, housing? For new businesses and commercial life, which invariably push out some of the old?

Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I ultimately don’t think there’s a contradiction here. You might think there is if your only exposure to urbanism is lefties on Twitter...or right-wingers cherry-picking lefties on Twitter. In that case, you might get the impression that the goal of urbanists is to put apartment towers everywhere, and gleefully, sneeringly wipe out every other form of living. There are people who think this is what it means to advocate for urbanism or infill projects or new housing or a modest reduction in the need to drive everywhere. All of those proposals, beneficial for the environment, for civic and commercial life, and for equality and socio-economic diversity, are swallowed up, by some, including the previous president of the United States and the nation’s most-watched primetime television host, into “liberals want to destroy the suburbs.”

When I come home to Flemington, I certainly don’t want to destroy it. I see how resistance to any change at all, for any reason or no reason, has greatly diminished its life. For me, and for the vast majority of people who care about these questions, urbanism means balancing growth with continuity, which can absolutely be done. There are different kinds of places: Manhattan is Manhattan, and Flemington is Flemington. But that doesn’t mean encasing the latter in amber. “Neighborhood character” is often a racial and/or class-based dog whistle, but at a broad level, small towns are small towns, suburbs are suburbs, and cities are cities. They can retain their basic, high-level character but still accommodate and adapt and mature. Other towns in New Jersey have done it. Communities in my new home, the metro Washington, D.C. area, are doing it, pioneering a new kind of place that’s distinct from both the big city and the 1950s image of suburbia.

The result is places that are stronger, more resilient, more complex and layered, more diverse, and more inclusive. If Flemington were to make that transformation, I think I would be overjoyed to come home to it, once again.

Related Reading:

Growing Up in College Park

A Piece of New Jersey We'll Never Build Again

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