Letting Go of Nostalgia Urbanism


Everyone has a natural habitat. For some people it’s a big house in the suburbs. For others it’s a cabin in the woods. Some people thrive in a high rise tower in the central business district. Mine is a Main Street town of the kind that peaked about a century ago. But there’s another more obscure environment that’s harder to define because it’s more about cultural imperatives rather than physical structures or location.

A reader reached out to me with a query. He and his wife and three daughters are in search of “a slower, more nature and community bound life, but without leaving behind people who read books, et cetera. I'm forever looking for where Henry Miller's Big Sur is today, or Provincetown, or even the Upper West Side of 1960, or the San Francisco of the early 90s. We have some money, but we don't want to be around people who are money driven.”

First, note that the desired location isn’t specifically urban or rural. There’s a huge spread between Manhattan and the rugged California coast at Big Sur. Provincetown and San Francisco are in-between versions of Main Street towns at different scales. And I don’t detect an inherent exclusion of a quality suburb in the statement either. The quest is about the intangibles that a place might provide.

I have to acknowledge the tension inherent in the quote. There’s a yearning for high culture, meaningful engagement with neighbors, and an attractive landscape. These things tend to cost extra and can be scarce. But there’s also a rejection of crass materialism.

Wouldn’t it be great to live in exactly the right place at the right time when everything was still super authentic and affordable, but simultaneously unique and undiscovered? The whole thing is problematic and, let’s be honest, a bit tone deaf in terms of class and such. I understand the impulse. I will admit to sharing this same desire myself. So how to square these romantic notions with external reality without being a complete ass about it? I’ll start by poking holes in the nostalgia.

Read the rest of this piece at Granola Shotgun.

Johnny Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape, from small rural towns to skyscrapers and everything in between. He travels often, conducts interviews with people of interest, and gathers photos and video of places worth talking about (which he often shares on Strong Towns). Johnny writes for Strong Towns, and his blog, Granola Shotgun.

Photos: by the author.