Last winter, I took a dialect test that was posted by the New York Times. Despite the fact that I have lived in Greensboro, North Carolina for nearly a quarter-century, the test still correctly identified me as being from Richmond, Virginia. It got me wondering about the wider influences of place on tastes and temperament.
This summer, I passed a milestone of sorts when the total number of years that I’ve lived in Greensboro equaled the amount of time I lived in Richmond. I’ve lived in other places, too. But none of those cities come anywhere close to matching the time I’ve spent in my hometown and where I live now. Does that mean that I am now equal parts Richmonder and Greensboroian? Yes and no.
In terms of influence, nothing can match the places you spend your childhood and your young adult years. Even now, when I visit Richmond, memories from those days bombard me in a constant stream. Even the most incidental, everyday experiences seem to have left their indelible mark.
Then again, I am equally struck by the the changes in my hometown. (How could the West End commercial sprawl of Broad Street extend all the way out to Short Pump, a former two gas-station wayside in the country, for instance?) Like Joyce’s Dublin, the Richmond of an earlier time is lodged in my brain.
Richmond, by far the larger of the two cities, is a city of old brick buildings with a tragic history deeply intertwined with the Civil War. But it has also blossomed with a music and arts scene that attracts performers and artists from across the East Coast and beyond. And, of course, there is the James River, with its islands and rapids going right through the heart of the urban landscape. While for years, the city had an ambivalent relationship to the river, it seems to have at last embraced it. Belle Isle, for example, once home to a POW camp during the Civil War, has become a favorite destination for day-trippers to swim along its edges, kayak its rapids, explore its industrial ruins or learn the rudiments of rock climbing along its cliffs.
Greensboro, by contrast, has little historic architecture beyond a few neighborhoods of wooden Victorian houses. It’s history centers around the Revolutionary War (the Battle of Guilford Courthouse) and the Civil Rights movement (site of the first sit-ins and home to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.) Originally settled by Quakers, the city was also an important destination on the Underground Railroad. While the art scene doesn’t compare to Richmond’s, the city has a long literary tradition, thanks to the writing program at UNC-Greensboro, one of the first such programs in the Southeast. While there is no river, the city is much closer to the mountains and is known for its many parks and extensive watershed trail system.
I am, of course, talking about these locations in very personal terms. I know that either of these places for someone else might be the greatest or the worst place on Earth. Class, generation, historical currents and chance all play a role in forming who we are. But, even in these days of mass media, place still plays a role in forming personal identity.