Problems of Place: Finding Somewhere That Lets Me Belong

I. Out of Place

I spent a summer in college working at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The first time I drove through the park, I was floored: the wooded backdunes gave way to fields of wires reaching to the horizon, connecting steel mills and power plants, before returning to verdant forests and marshes. How was this all the same place?

Views from U.S. 12 in Indiana, south of Burns Harbor, a public port surrounded by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Rather than despair, my heart filled with gratitude: people had cared so much about this place that they saved every piece they could, even though its neighbors served as unsightly reminders of the heavy industry that underpinned their modern life. Who had convinced the federal government to steward a place that could so easily be written off as unlovable?

I went back to school that fall and wrote my senior thesis on how people protected the ecological treasures of the dunes thanks to the smokestacks—how they used the disorienting contrast of industry with picturesque scenery and ecological riches to compromise, and protect a place that some had written off as too far gone.

II. Backstory

I was born and raised in Lawrenceville, Georgia. I don’t have a southern accent, which people like to point out to me when I reveal my roots. My husband, who is from Colorado, has never had anyone comment on whether his vocal intonations fit their assumptions. What commenters don’t realize when they say this to me is that they’re playing into a notion of southernness that I’ve never fully belonged to.

I loved growing up in Georgia, but there, I often felt like the steel mills in the dunes: I wasn’t what people expected or wanted to see in that landscape, so it was easier to explain me away than reconcile how I might actually belong there. My parents are both from Pittsburgh, PA, grandchildren of Italian and Irish immigrants. Both moved down south as adults in the late 1970s, when Pittsburgh’s steel mills moved overseas. I may have been born in Georgia, but my parents were northern, so people decided that I sort of was, too, despite my not having ever lived up there.  

We went to the local Catholic Church, where we made a Georgia family of other transplants—some from up north, like us, while others hailed from Central and South America, Rwanda, Vietnam, Croatia, Haiti—the minority at our church was anyone with a long southern heritage. There, I felt at home, with other southerners who weren’t really southern. We belonged to each other, if not the place we lived in.  

Two Italian-American kids from Georgia, posing in front of the azaleas after Easter mass. I’m on the left.

Last year, Stacey Abrams said in a speech, “We are Georgia.” It made me cry. It was one of the first times I’d heard someone in a position of power say, yes, Georgia is also home to people without southern accents, with heritage as diverse as the world, and you can also belong.

III. Albany

In 2010, I moved from Indiana to Albany, NY, for graduate school. Grad school because of the recession, Albany because my boyfriend lived there—both things I spent years trying not to say out loud.

Looking southeast from Lark and State, Albany, NY

Albany spoke to me. For the first time, I could rely on my feet and bike to navigate a city. Its architecture littered daily commutes with surprises—how had I missed the dragons on that façade? Its smell, rife with mushrooms, brought me to my grandmother’s lawn in Pennsylvania. Its neighborhoods, full of stoops and corner stores, were the first places I ever felt enveloped by Jane Jacobs’s eyes on the street. I didn’t know the name of the gentleman two doors down who sat on the stoop on summer mornings, but we always exchanged smiles and good news about the weather.

Most of all, I loved Albany because it somehow was open to my love. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I think it’s the first place that loved me back. In Albany, I was still like the steel mills, discordant and out of place (somehow too Georgia this time, saying hi to everyone I passed, southern-style), but no one cared. They still let me belong. The city and the people who comprised it embraced me back. In Albany, a place that needed people, that had struggled with declining populations and vacant housing, no one told me that I didn’t deserve to call it home.

Albany, looking good on a clear winter day.

Since I never wanted to be a professor, I overcommitted myself in grad school to keep from getting stuck as a humanities PhD with no job prospects. In the spring and fall, I mixed standard grad school fare with internships at environmental policy organizations, and in summers, I worked as an interpreter for the National Park Service (NPS). At these parks, I loved my jobs, but I somehow still didn’t belong in the places: in rural Georgia, I was too city, still too northern, and in coastal Massachusetts, I wasn’t southern (“where’s your accent?”) but my lack of New England heritage kept me from belonging there, either.

Every September, my NPS season would end and I would return to Albany to soak up the greens, yellows, and reds ballooning into the river valley. I came home, where my communities of friends and neighborly acquaintances welcomed me back, happy to have another person happy to be in Albany.  

Meanwhile, I wrote my dissertation. It was about other coasts, but these were picture-perfect, lacking something as out of place as Indiana’s steel mills. The more I wrote about them, the more I felt like the thing that was out of place was me: who was I to write about other peoples’ homes, places where I wasn’t from? But, if I didn’t even belong to the place I am legitimately from, how could I ever write about anything?

The beach on outer Cape Cod: a picture-perfect day in Wellfleet.

IV. Reciprocation

A few years ago, I finally found a non-seasonal, non-academic job, at a historic research consulting firm in Seattle. I love Seattle and I love the work, but I still feel like I’m intruding in other peoples’ places in my writing and in my living. In this new city, we’re part of a surge of newcomers that have disrupted stability for so many people. I often feel a part of the problem here; they have too many people, they don’t need me to be another new one.

Although I have felt love for Seattle, just like I have for Georgia, Indiana, and the many places I’ve written about, Albany remains the only place where I felt loved back. That feeling was special in part because Albany never required anything of me to allow me to belong; I didn’t have to be from there, to have parents from there, or to write about it for people to accept me.

Tulips celebrating springtime on State Street in Albany, NY.

In a stroke of luck (fate?) my company sometimes has business in Albany. Every time I go back, my heart fills and I feel embraced by its vibrancy, its needs, its faults. My husband and I still don’t know if we’ll one day move back there, and for now, I’m trying to focus on the place where I am. Still, I’ll never forget how Albany welcomed this steel mill with open arms. I hope someday, somehow, to return the love it has given me.

This piece is part of an ongoing series on #problemsofplace.