Monday, March 2, 2009

What is a place?

One time I was sitting in a restaurant in Helsinki and I overheard a woman in the next table discussing her night out in Kallio, which is traditionally thought of as the working class part of town. She thought there were a few excellent bars there, but in between there were scruffy people and scruffy businesses, which ruined the overall feeling. If they could only clean out all the scruffy people, the woman observed, the whole thing could come together really nicely.

It's been years but I can't get this woman out of my head. I am trying to understand what "whole thing" she was talking about. The neighborhood? Her experience in a neighborhood she had visited for the first time? The restaurant scene? The city itself? Kallio? Kallio would "come together" if the people who live there now only moved out?

I guess that is what they call gentrification, but I wonder if what makes a place is the lives that are lived there, or the buildings, or the coordinates, or the addresses, or what? What is a neighborhood? Is it a continuum of place and time, that incorporates changes? Is it a feeling? Can you move into a feeling, and how do you change that feeling when you do? The word "neighborhood" means "the action of being a neighbor". 

Kallio is not that scruffy really. We were walking through Kallio with my American husband when he asked where the scruffy part of town is. I told him we were in it. That Finnish woman I overheard in the restaurant should not visit New York City or San Francisco or Oakland, because those experiences would never ever "come together" for her.

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