Problems of Place: COVID-19 and the Shrinking of Place

This facility is closed.

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN two-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring pieces by both old and new friends. Today, Anastasia Day is back with a new take on Problems of Place. It was her piece during our launch week that inspired the whole series.

If nothing else, the incredible diversity and breadth of contributions to EHN’s Problems of Place series demonstrates that place is a flexible concept. While grounded in geography, place also encompasses ideas of community, emotion, embodiment, home, ethics, family, belonging, or any number of other things, in combination or otherwise.[1] (As someone nearing the end of her doctoral program, I am contractually obligated to note that history is almost invariably the glue binding these various ideas together into a coherent concept.) Place can be expansive, metaphoric, and figurative. But what happens when place is constrained, contained, and limited? What happens when place shrinks?

For the past half-year the majority of U.S. residents have felt place shrink around them. COVID-19 has created a public health imperative to confine oneself as much as possible. Home-bound is no longer a euphemism for being severely ill, but a factual description of any U.S. resident lucky enough to be able to telecommute (sidebar: it is crucial to remember that even the worst case of cabin-fever is a privilege when so many essential workers—disproportionately those who are already socio-economically disadvantaged—risk their lives everyday just by showing up to work). “Shelter-in-place” orders literally confirm how in the age of COVID-19, place has come to mean only the smallest unit of space one inhabits. 

As someone with multiple risk factors rendering me vulnerable to the ravages of COVID, I have been the delegated homebody of my household. My husband goes on all the grocery, gas, and pharmacy runs that I am not required for. Sometimes, for a thrill, I will accompany him just to sit in the car, all for the sake of leaving the house. Still, there is no denying that I carry a certain bit of place with me wherever I may go. This is a privilege not always afforded to people who aren’t white, cis-het, and able-bodied. 

Indeed, for many U.S. residents, the concept of place has shrunk even more in the last six months. I ‘belong’ enough to not get shot by police when I grab a few winks on campus, when I doze off in my car, even when I nap on the bare ground in a public park as I did after attending a wedding in Detroit last year. Wherever I go and whatever I do, I always seem to ‘stay in my place.’ My identity affords more flexibility within the place I’m supposed to be staying in. 

For indigenous and minoritized peoples of the U.S., on the other hand, place is shrinking so that there is no way for them to stay safely ‘in their place’ according to the logic of the rising tide of white ethno-nationalism. #BlackLivesMatter protests, 93% of which have been found to be peaceful according to a recent report, are treated as violent incursions into spaces and rights that are the presumed exclusive domain of whiteness. Black people aren’t even safe sleeping in their own home, as in the case of Breonna Taylor (#SayHerName).

Because I live in a small conservative town in a rural area, I passed multiple Trump 2020 flags and banners on my way to vote in the Massachusetts primary on September 1st. When I entered the town offices, the older white male cop apparently on duty at my local polling station tipped his hat to me and wished me a nice day. At no point did I fear for my life or feel intimidated by his presence. No one questioned that it was my place to be voting. The same cannot be said for the millions of other U.S. citizens affected by widespread voter suppression and intimidation tactics. The message being sent by these many laws and policies is that the polls are only a place for certain people.

Despite the MAGA paraphernalia along roadsides, I am lucky to have moved to a rural area. What I lack in human community, I am more than compensated for in access to an un-peopled natural environment. My husband and I go on long hikes without seeing or hearing a single person. This is even more incredible given that COVID-19 does have more people looking to the outdoors. There has not only been a gardening boom during the pandemic but also a camping booma biking boom, and an outdoor hiking boom. Even in cities, I hear stories from friends trapped in tiny apartments about learning to recognize individual squirrels outside their windows. 

When physical and social human community is denied us, it seems like many in the U.S. are turning to a community of place, an ecological sense of belonging. But the question of racially ‘staying in place’ is sadly all too relevant to some people’s pandemic-era search for ecological place as well. 

One craze pervading the urban and rural U.S. alike since the start of the pandemic is bird watching. On May 25, 2020, Christian Cooper, a Black man out bird watching in Central Park in New York City, discovered that his place had shrunk around him when a white woman, Amy Cooper (no relation), called the police on him after he requested she leash her dog in compliance with park rules. In this instance, the powers of a racist police state were leveraged to confirm Mr. Cooper’s dual expulsion from ecological place and social place.

Painted portrait of Corina Newsome.
Corina with Birds, art work by Aliisa Lee. This is a portrait of Corina Newsome, a conservationist who co-organized #BlackBirdersWeek in response to Christian Cooper’s experience in Central Park. Prints available for sale here with proceeds going to Outdoor Afro, a leading network that celebrates and inspires Black connections in nature. 
[Image description: Painting of a Black woman wearing a pink t-shirt and purple backpack, and holding binoculars. She’s looking into the distance as twelve different bird species surround her in front of a sunrise with orange, purple, and pink hues.]

Since then, many prominent outdoor organizations have followed the lead of Black women scholars including Carolyn Finney and Lauret Savoy by issuing statements grappling with histories of racism in historical access to outdoor spaces, in the environmentalist movement writ large, and even within their own organizations (see especially the statements of the Audubon Society from June onward and the statement of the Sierra Club from July.)

I am not trying to imply that the two phenomena of COVID-19 and ‘police brutality’ (a.k.a. disproportionate and immoral use of force against of people of color) are equivalent in any way. COVID-19 (or perhaps more precisely, the many federal and institutional failures to adequately respond to the virus in the U.S.) represents a historically unique set of events. On the other hand, the police state and the so-called justice system in the U.S. represent an ongoing problem of place merely brought to a crisis point here and now. [It is important to note here that I am not speaking purely metaphorically about racist policies of ‘staying in place.’ A long history of redlining and other forms of spatial segregation in the U.S. attest to the fact that staying in one’s geographic place can be as important as, and sometime interchangeable with, staying in one’s social place.] 

What I am suggesting is that it is not a coincidence that these two problems of place are coinciding in time and space. Thinking through the idea of place helps us see how these crises are deeply connected through the concepts of belonging, security, and community entailed in place. Residents across the U.S. are grappling with questions as basic as how large or how small a place can I, should I, or am I even allowed to occupy? How expansive is my place?

If there is any lesson to be learned from the prevalence and urgency of these questions, the overlapping crises of place, the overwhelming feeling that place is shrinking far too much around far too many of us, it is perhaps this: 

Place should not be a product of privilege, and cannot be one in any society aspiring to justice.

Place should be considered a right in every sense—we all deserve to find an ecological sense of belonging and to inhabit an expansive, equitable social space. Place must be afforded to each and every one of us, no matter how physically delimited even by the extremis of a pandemic. We must work to create opportunities for everyone to experience as expansive a sense of place as possible, in every sense. We must all have a place connecting with our natural environment, and we must all have an equal place in the social, economic, and political ecosystem of our country. 

[1] For superb exploration of the many meanings of place within a science-fiction multiverse, read N.K. Jemisin’s superb latest novel The City We Became. What it may lack in environmental emphasis, it more than compensates for in precise articulation of the human ecosystems that constitute a modern city. 

*Cover image: A sign declaring theses facilities closed due to COVID-19 is displayed on locked tennis courts in Branch Brook Park in Newark, N.J., Thursday, March 26, 2020 (Seth Wenig/AP Photo).

[Cover image description: A sign posted on a chain link fence, red text on a white background that reads “This facility is closed until further notice due to COVID-19.”