Last week I was away (from Atlanta) in Massachusetts, presenting my yearly lecture at the Springfield Museums. Each year, for the past six years, I have gone back to Springfield, Massachusetts, to feature an excerpt from my oral history collection and to highlight what local blacks have done to shape “The Image of the City,” which is the name of a very popular book written by Kevin Lynch in 1960. According to Lynch, a city planner/professor who is now deceased, a city is known or perceived by five elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks.
Every year when I return to Springfield there are new people to meet and new ideas to discuss. And, there are old friends to see and old city problems to contemplate. This year, after a visit with a friend who was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital in Hartford, CT (just 20 minutes away), I invited my dear friend who drove me to the hospital and who is also from Puerto Rico to accompany me to a local neighborhood bar. This bar, which used to be very popular a generation before I arrived in Springfield, was one of the places where I would go to relax and “get my dance on.” Honestly, I went so much (between 2006-08) that it helped me to stay in pretty good shape. Anyways, my friend and I had a drink or two and we enjoyed the music and I even danced with a man who was born on the same day as I (I’m into astrology). In addition, there was a new flat-screen television on the wall and we watched many pictures as they flashed on the screen; I remembered a lot of people, even an old lover or manfriend (versus the term “boyfriend”) as the images rolled by. Remember him, I said to my friend. As we lingered there enjoying the flow of it all, she commented about the “good vibes” in that club. Que bueno, she said!
On the day that I returned to Atlanta, I arrived at the airport about three hours early, so I had some time to stop and enjoy some New England clam chowder. As I reflected there alone, I thought about my visit, about who I had seen, and how the city seemed to me this time around. Recalling “The Image of the City,” I wondered why Lynch didn’t include people as one of the “elements” of the city. Why didn’t he think that people, yes, human subjects, are one of the ways in which we know a place or a city? When I go to a city, I always want to learn about the people. I want to know where they’ve come from and how they’ve made it all those years in that place. More than likely, I am fascinated by the people of a city because I have moved around a lot. I suppose that will change soon, but being an itinerant preacher worked for me because I did not mind traveling and meeting new people. And still today, my willingness to go to new places has very little to do with the paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. Yeah, I love to look at the spatial or the physical elements of a city, but the thing or the element that always interests me most is the people. Does that make me a people person? Perhaps.
Well, this time around there were a few people who I did not see. At least one that I have interviewed over the years died this past year, and I’ve changed as well. This year I embraced atheism and the word “atheist,” though I’ve been gone from “the Church” for a decade. During this trip I had a few brief debates about atheism and what it actually means, but I’ve learned that that is to be expected. So, as I sat there alone in the airport savoring the taste of New England clam chowder, I thought about my relationship to Springfield as a place, but mostly I thought about my relationship to various people in Springfield. And, as I remembered their images, it was then that I realized that the city of Springfield is like “a home away from home” for me because I feel connected to the people. It is not the paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks that motivate me to come back every year, rather it is the people of Springfield who have endeavored to make it a worthwhile place that keep me coming back! Indeed, for me, they are what I think about when I imagine Springfield, Massachusetts.
© 2013 annalise fonza, Ph.D.