Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
People have all kinds of reasons to use proxies for the place they're "really" from. So have an open mind.
An American woman in a crowded London bar asks the American man she's just met: "Where are you from?" He sips his drink and replies, "Boston." They are far from the U.S., after all, so specifics don’t really matter. But the woman presses: Where in Boston? She loves Boston. Her mom grew up in Newton, and her aunt still lives in Somerville. The guy, reddening, fumbles: "Well, not too far from there, sort of north of Boston ... I'm from Maine, actually. Southern Maine."
It's a social practice as common as air: using a major city as a proxy when telling a stranger where you're from. At simplest, it's a matter of convenience; it can indeed be easier, and faster, to tell someone whom you assume does not know the intricacies of New England that you're from Boston, when in fact you're from Cumberland, Maine, 109 miles northeast of the city. Or, more often, an adjoining suburb or exurb.
But upon discovering that someone is not in fact from exactly where they claim, those of us on the receiving end may very well enjoy calling them out on it. We might laugh at the Mainer in the London bar, or remind the New Jersey resident who says she's from New York City that she's not from New York City at all. We're especially ready to reject these kinds of claim if we're from the city in question, in which case we might feel the need to protect our turf, and the values we associate with it.
"Growing up in the actual city of Boston gives you a sense of pride and you feel as though your experiences with the city differ from those in the suburbs," says Robyn Casper, 23. Casper is a product of Dorchester, a predominantly black, historically Irish working-class neighborhood in southeast Boston.
"The diversity of people you encounter each day, the school settings you experience, us who grew up in the city face stereotypes of our neighborhood and the issues of city life that those on the outskirts don’t have to deal with," Casper says. "So they shouldn't be able to say they live here when their lives were probably very different from ours."
Casper would no doubt seethe at the thought of someone from a different state entirely saying they were from Boston. And she'd be a little bit right about that. But even in extreme cases like this one, we need to allow for more wiggle room.
Why? First, it no longer makes sense to generalize the experience of the "actual city" as radically more heterogeneous than, or separate from, life in a suburb or exurb. In a study in The Journal of Urban History, urban historians and sociologists Matthew D. Lassiter* and Christopher Niedt write of suburbs' countless modes of diversity:
The 2008 U.S. Census update revealed that racial and ethnic minorities now make up one-third of the total suburban population in the nation’s one hundred largest metropolitan regions… [There are] residential patterns that include affluent single-family neighborhoods, high-poverty inner-ring suburbs… and exurban developments hit hard by predatory subprime lending and the ongoing foreclosure crisis. The U.S. suburban population now includes a majority of both first-generation immigrants and poor residents of metropolitan areas, and nearly half of all renters. Despite the persistence of the traditional nuclear family ideal, only about one-fourth of today's suburban households consist of heterosexual married couples with children under the age of eighteen.
A large and growing percentage of the national population live in extraordinarily diverse outer city rings, whose growth has been anchored by a metropolitan core. The stereotypes of the suburban/urban dichotomy in most cases no longer hold true. So why insist on cordoning off a city name from a sub/exurbanite who wants to use it? Very possibly, they've chosen to use that city name in order to avoid the outdated assumptions that may fuel our rejection of it.
Indeed, many city leaders say it no longer makes sense to think of cities and their suburbs as detached economic units. They argue it's logical—and fair—to think of these places as a network of villages, unified by a larger metropolitan area. That way, property taxes and city services could be more equitably shared and distributed. Excluding those who live outside a city center from identifying with its name only serves to reinforce divisions that just aren't socially or economically helpful.
And there are different kinds of stigmas that might be attached to places just outside the city—places with high crime rates, or unglamorous forms of industry. What if you're from Camden, New Jersey? Or Gary, Indiana? Or Compton, California? You might have good reasons to choose to identify with a city-name that carries more positive associations, so that the person you're conversing with doesn't jump to conclusions about what your life might be like.
If someone opts to use a proxy for their hometown, it's very possible she has a rationale that goes beyond mere convenience. So let's not tell her she's wrong. Researchers who study place and identity agree. "When you try to force things to be transparent and simple, you simplify the other person's experiences," says Diana Negrin, a professor of geography at UC Berkeley.
The nuances of where, inside or outside a city, we’re from should enrich, not stifle, a conversation. "There's an opportunity for dialogue about what being from somewhere means," says geographer John Stehlin, also of UC Berkeley. So rather than jump at the chance to tease the Mainer in the bar, we could ask instead what it's like to be from Maine, or what it is about Boston he connects to most (could be it's baseball), or how it is that being in London makes all those places seem less important, or maybe more.
If this all sounds a little overly P.C., consider what it's like for someone to express their racial identity, and then be told that they're wrong. "It's a pretty common experience for someone who has mixed ethnicity to be told, 'oh, but you don’t look blank," says Negrin. "And then that person has to break things down and educate their audience."
Which can be an exhausting, frustrating task. And while the stress of having to explain where one is "really" from may seem benign compared to that of ethnicity, the comparison at least gets us thinking twice about mockery being a first response when things don't immediately align.
Also helpful to remember is that the way a person describes where she's from can be a reflection of what she assumes about us: our geographic knowledge, our biases, our curiosity, our motives. What's the best way to be seen as open-minded and intellectually curious? Be open-minded and intellectually curious.
So even if Boston pride is your defining feature, and the idea of giving an inch of your city to someone from the suburbs—let alone Maine—hurts, hold off one second. Take a breath. Consider the many possible reasons that may have led your companion to identify with your town instead of theirs. Maybe ask them why, and even hear them out. Only then, if your biological makeup just can't help it, may you tear them a very small new Mass-hole.
*CORRECTION: The original version of this story omitted Matthew D. Lassiter's name among the authors of the study, "Suburban Diversity in Postwar America."
Top image courtesy Flickr user Boston Public Library.