Home > Grand Forks Notes, North Dakotiana > Profoundly Local

Profoundly Local

For the past few years, my wife and I have taken to listening to Philadelphia Phillies’ baseball games on the radio.  First we did this over XM radio and now we do it over internet(s).  The mlb.com service allows us to almost always listen to the Phillies broadcast team where as XM always carried the home team broadcasts.  This year more than ever, I’ve felt a tremendous nostalgia for the various institutions and businesses advertised during the game.  Wawa dairies (a local convenience store chain), Amoroso rolls (a must for a Philly Cheesesteak), Turkey Hill ice cream and even local car dealers that, in truth, I’ve never visited but were a ubiquitous presence on the airwaves in the Philadelphia area.  This disjunction between the businesses being advertised on the radio and my current locale (Grand Forks, North Dakota) is jarring.  It is also an interesting reminder of how easy it is to invoke the local in an era where the internet allows us to access various local institutions from anywhere in the world.

At the same time that I was reveling in advertisements for Amoroso bread and Wawa sandwiches, I took a group of students for a somewhat impromptu “tour” of campus.  We talked about the frequent disconnect between institutional places of memory and the networks of meaning that students construct on a university campus.  They shared some of the silly nicknames that students assigned to campus monuments and some of the ways in which they map and associate experiences with places.  I made the observation that the current practice of listening to your iPod while walking across campus likely has changed the way in which this generation of students has shaped and mapped their campus experiences.  Last year, while I was living in Athens, I used to go out to eat on Saturday night with the same little group.  On the walk to a local taverna, I’d listen to my iPod.  Today when I hear some of the songs that I used to listen to on these Saturday evening walks, I immediately recall the experience of Athens in the winter.  These experiences and memories, however, are almost completely personal.  Since my playlists were idiosyncratic (to say the least) and piped directly to my earhole, the experience was perhaps more intensely personal than one conveyed through more public media (say, the noise of the streets).

The students talked around about this for a while and added that they often associated different places on campus with different scents.  I’ve never seen any effort to map smells, although there has certainly been some scholarship on the role of scents in religious experience for example.  In fact, it is difficult for me to separate Byzantine architecture from the smell of incense.

A final observation that contributed to my recent experiences of the local: all weekend we noticed a low flying helicopter twacking its way back and forth across town.  My wife and I puzzled about this until Sunday morning when we noticed that a local business was offering helicopter rides.  Judging by how often we saw the helicopter in the air, I suspect that these rides were quite popular.  Helicopter tours of big cities like New York are not unusual, but a helicopter ride over the small town of Grand Forks, North Dakota?  While a helicopter ride in New York are probably designed for tourists who struggle to grasp the enormity of the city, Grand Forks, aside from the constant flow of bargain-conscious Manitobans, is not a tourist destination.  So these helicopter rides are meant for local residents who are seeking a new perspective on their own community. 

Just as our listening to a Phillies broadcast allowed me a nostalgic escape from Grand Forks, ND, so a helicopter ride could introduce a similar feeling of displacement (an uncanny feeling) by presenting the familiar in a novel, exciting, and unfamiliar way.  The idea of localness and of place develops through the tension between physical space and surroundings, experiences, sensations, and memory. 

  1. Rangar Cline
    April 27, 2009 at 10:17 am

    On mapping and scent — I always think of Athens when I smell diesel fumes. This may sound like a slight against Athens. It is not. Rather, the smell of something that some regard as unpleasant (diesel fumes), I find oddly enjoyable because it reminds me a city that I really like.

  2. April 27, 2009 at 11:09 am

    bill…love this post. the scent memory mapping is def. interesting. i can easily remember the scent of my best friends home while i was growing, my musty flat in Brasil, the exhaust and cigarette smoke in NYC, the scent of the local wood grill restaurant that choked out my runs in sioux falls.
    what struck me as i was reading this is how place memory forms through both extraordinary events but also over time in an accumulation of experience (active and passive) that allows place to emerge out of space.

  3. April 27, 2009 at 11:32 am
  4. April 28, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Great post. Those moments that really stick with us throughout the years, comprising unique collections of sensory data, aren’t usually recognized for their significance until after the fact. Could we have seen it for it’s value at the time, might we have basked in the moment a little longer, given a little more effort to appreciate the experience? This line of thinking has challenged me in my photography to think forward to what my future self or others would find truly interesting of a particular place and time, much of which might be taken for granted in the present.
    Thank you for yet another reminder to be aware of my place in history.

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