The Placed and the Placeless

By Salena Zito

December 11, 2018 8 min read

YOUNGSTOWN — There is a house I see every so often in my travels. It is perched where the alabaster 33-mile marker stands along the long-defunct Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad line, by an old stone foundation that has likely stood for over a century.

Every year, ivy and wild vines suffocate its simple charm, climbing up and over its slanted gingerbread slate roof on its right side, the one that faces Cedar Street. And every year, it loses one more shingle and sheds more luster from its ancient apricot-colored paint.

In the back of its sloped property, a smaller structure sits — likely a cold cellar, where the family would have stored roots, canned fruits and vegetables, and jerky. The elements have been less kind to it, and its roof has nearly peeled off.

Once upon a time, a man and a woman likely walked through the threshold of its front door and began their lives together, with the same hopes and aspirations most young couples share. They may have struggled; they may have sacrificed; they may have raised their family; and they may have grown old in this home after their children left for far-off places.

At least, that's how I imagine this story goes. I don't know the ending other than to say the owners are gone, and I wonder why no one came back to love this home again.

It is a line of thought my mind travels down every time I see a place, whether it is a home or a business, that time and people have left behind. How did that impact the neighbors? The community?

It's increasingly popular to criticize journalists today for spending too much time reporting on places that used to be something much greater. Those who are not populists have become bored, and ultimately dismissive, of places that used to prosper and the people who made them thrive.

The reaction has gone from a mild annoyance to full-on hostility — placing the blame of the places' collapse on some sort of racism, denialism or lack of intelligence. The root of this hostility may be irritation at who is president and how that insults their sense of place in society.

"People like to talk about the dichotomy between coastal elites/fly-over; rural/urban; low density/high density," said Tom Maraffa, professor emeritus of geography at Youngstown State University. "I would add that the difference is between the placed and placeless, or people who are rooted in their places versus people who are essentially nomads."

These placeless people, like those highly critical of fly-over folks, develop affinities for ideology and abstractions, as opposed to neighborhoods and cities. The lives of the coastal elites, academics, big-business owners, high-tech innovators, entertainers and media personalities have led to this, because they are so mobile.

People who live in the heartland are not so mobile. Neither the rooted nor the rootless are "better." But too often, the cultures clash, with one spending an inordinate amount of time putting the other down, usually on a widely read platform.

"Many people in small towns, rural areas and some cities ... are tied to their places for generations. So, issues such as climate change and globalization are therefore viewed fundamentally different," said Maraffa.

The placeless think of global policies, abstract efficiencies and lofty ideas like social justice.

The placed think of how things will affect their neighborhood, town and city.

"Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both demagogues," Maraffa said, referring to the president and the independent Vermont senator. "Trump is the demagogue of the placed. Bernie Sanders is the demagogue of the placeless."

Examples abound, said Maraffa: "People who voted for Trump share a rootedness in place. Think of people in J.D. Vance's 'Hillbilly Elegy' or the TV series 'Justified,' which was tied by the phrase 'We dug coal together,' an expression of place."

"The recent GM/Lordstown discussion is fundamentally about corporate abstraction versus the impact on places," he said on the Detroit carmaker's decision to render the 52-year-old plant "unallocated" to make a car beginning next year.

So, how do we bridge the gap between the placed and the placeless? How do we get the placeless to recognize the importance of place and that opposition to certain policies is not about ignorance or racism or denialism but about how those policies affect places?

Maraffa said Youngstown State is a good illustration: "Most universities talk about preparing students to go out into the world. At YSU, the discussion is about creating students to stay in Youngstown and doing things to create employment so students won't have to move away and doing things so that people can move back."

When Maraffa first started teaching there, he never saw anything like that. "I've seen students who were very bright and who could really have made it big somewhere else decide to stay here with a lesser-paying job or future because they were so tied to the greater region," he said.

It is a very distinct attitude that is sprinkled between places like Washington, D.C., and New York, but that kind of identity to place is very foreign to people who don't mind being transient, who have left places like Clark Street for bigger and better things.

There is no easy bridge across this gulf, but it is worth considering that there should be a balance of discussion. Politicians, policymakers, media, academics, business leaders and the elite could consider that place may have more value and importance over a person's attitudes than they ever understood. And that the root of that tie impacts many of the decisions they make, not just when it comes to politics but how they consume goods and view globalization.

No one wants to see houses like the one on Clark Street dot their community. It's a reminder of loss and abandonment of their social structure, just like so many businesses and churches and social clubs that used to be where they were from.

Photo credit: Salena Zito

 An abandoned house sits along the long-defunct Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad line.
An abandoned house sits along the long-defunct Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad line.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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