Over the past few months I’ve visited Occupy LSX, in London, with its neat rows of tents hugging the perimeter of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and marvelled at how much of a village it had become. That village was evicted in February, long after many other cities pushed out protesters. This late eviction seems remarkable to me, and perhaps says something about London.
A core group of supporters still gather each Saturday on the steps of St. Paul’s for meetings. A few weeks ago they shared the space with a large wedding party, the groom with his top-hat and the bride impeccably groomed. They still speak about economics and social justice and the police. The rhetoric of the movement, much of it clear-minded and informed, is very prominent. But despite the broad focus (or, some say, lack of) few people observing Occupy seem to be speaking about home: questioning what it means in a city where few of the so-called 99 percent can afford to buy one, where it is a landlords’ market, where people in their 30s with full-time jobs live with two, three, four housemates. I write this having spent an intense four weeks searching for housing in every corner of the city; the frustration, anxiety and fear that I will not find something suitable is still fresh.
Home, mobility, and the fluidity and impermanence of community is one of the central themes of Occupy. Or, I think, it should be.
Last year, The Atlantic , which has become a forum for ideas about urbanism, cities and notions of home with its Atlantic Cities site, published a story called “The Psychology of Home: Why Where You Live Means So Much.” The author, Julie Beck, wrote that Westerners (or North Americans, if you prefer) are deeply attached to homes but do not necessarily see their homes as manifestations of their inner selves.
Home ownership is about more than mere shelter, as the subprime mortgage crisis affirms. It is also closely related to mobility: “The endless options can leave us constantly wondering if there isn’t some place with better schools, a better neighborhood, more green space, and on and on,” Beck wrote. “We may leave a pretty good thing behind, hoping that the next place will be even more desirable. In some ways, this mobility has become part of the natural course of a life.”
We are shopping for the Good Life and its various components: spouse, children, real estate, a lawn of one’s own. Real estate, like work, plays an enormous part in what course our lives take. Parents choose neighbourhoods for their access to good schools; people choose cities for a job as much as for its quality of life. How else can you explain the phenomenon that is Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta? (For a great introduction to Fort McMurray, see Dan Rubinstein’s feature for Alberta Views magazine.)
“But in spite of everything,” Beck wrote in the Atlantic, “in spite of the mobility, the individualism, and the economy—on some level we do recognize the importance of place. The first thing we ask someone when we meet them, after their name, is where they are from, or the much more interestingly-phrased “where’s home for you?” We ask, not just to place a pushpin for them in our mental map of acquaintances, but because we recognize that the answer tells us something important about them. My answer for ‘where are you from?’ is usually Michigan, but ‘where’s home for you?’ is a little harder.” I don’t quite buy Beck’s own answer, that home is where she happens to be, but I can’t quite answer her question, either. My grandparents lived in the same home for decades, and most of their children lived near by. My family is more scattered, my own flight path more diverse.
“Where are you from?” is code for “who are you?” For modern nomads, those us who pick up sticks and move across provinces, state-lines, country borders and continents, that question is probing but practically impossible to answer. It’s a question you might ask of the people taking part in Occupy. It’s a question I constantly ask myself. I have not yet come upon an answer.