New Homes, Old Homes (Or, What Happens When You Leave?)

Radioguy and I had just left the Crossroads Theater that night, and were headed to pick up our daughter from the babysitter. The Power and Light District sparkled as we drove through traffic lights. At one red light close to the Convention Center, I broke the silence in the car (my radio dead as it usually is) and said something like “it’s nice that we can call this city home.” Here we were, two migrants who had been brought to Kansas City because of work, debating whether we could truly call it home. We had a long conversation about whether Kansas City could ever be our home or not. It boiled down to this: Kansas City could be our home, but it would never be his home. As a member of the New York City Diaspora, NYC for him would always be home first. This stung a little, for reasons unclear until now.

This whole conversation came back to me after I read Chris Suellentrop’s Grantland article, “Hard Times in the Paris of the Plains,” which went live Thursday. Suellentrop is a Kansas City native who works as an editor for the New York Times Magazine (he was an editor for the Jose Vargas article that caused quite a stir a few weeks ago). I didn’t read Suellentrop’s post on Thursday; it didn’t catch my eye outside of the fact that Radioguy tweeted about it and I clicked on it to see what he was talking about. I left the article there in my browser to read later. Friday morning, my radio alive and well, I happened upon an interview with Suellentrop on Afentra’s Big Fat Morning Buzz show, on 96.5 The Buzz. (You can find the interview at this link, in case you’re interested.) After hearing about the “ess storm” that his essay stirred—as Afentra called it—and after hearing Suellentrop describe his piece as a “personal essay” about Kansas City from the point of view of someone who grew up here but then left, I was moved to read it ASAP.

Suellentrop’s essay is meant to be an analysis of why Kansas City does not have an NBA team, even though it has an NBA-ready arena called The Sprint Center. However, the essay becomes a rumination on what he believes afflicts Kansas City: a desire to be a big-time city, one that doesn’t fade away in the public eye. He calls it an “inferiority complex.” Suellentrop says Kansas City (and Kansas Citians) should be proud of this city. Some of his words are harsh:

Other cities are proud of what they are, and if Kansas City were a typical city, it would revel in its status as a cow town with a distinctive local character and a pair of once-great sports franchises. But Kansas City wants to be more than that.

But Suellentrop is also honest. This is what hit a nerve among Kansas Citians.

What caught my eye was not his explanation of why Kansas City doesn’t have an NBA team; rather, it was the human element of the essay reached out to me—it reached out to the researcher in me and the migrant in me. The frustration and anger his piece stirred are real (just take a look at the comments under this piece posted on Thursday), but so are Suellentrop’s feelings about Kansas City. The piece is heavy with nostalgia and a certain sense of resignation: we HAD to leave. (All migrants leave one day.)

However, in a broader sense Suellentrop’s essay and the reactions that ensued reveal the tense relationship we have with our hometowns and with those who leave, and how authenticity and identity are tied up with home. When people say Suellentrop shouldn’t be talking about Kansas City like that because he left, what they are really saying is that he is no longer a real Kansas Citian. That’s what hit home for me. And that’s what made me think of my conversation with Radioguy.

It wasn’t until I started working on my dissertation that I realized how complicated my relationship to home is. I was born in New York City, but my parents moved back to Puerto Rico when I was six years old. I have a vague recollection of our years in NYC; a lot of my memories are tied to the senses: the way things taste, smell, sound, feel, look like. Every time I travel back I have flashbacks of my childhood. New York City (and my parent’s memories of New York City, passed down to my younger sister and me) left a deep imprint in my life, and it is something I carry with me to this day.

I have always considered myself a New Yorker, even though I didn’t grow up in New York City. However, any lifelong New Yorker will tell you I am not a real New Yorker.

On the other hand, I grew up in a tiny little town in the Southwestern part of Puerto Rico. I lived most of my childhood years listening to people tell me I wasn’t Puerto Rican because I ate different things, because I spoke to my parents in a different language, because I watched different shows. (I have a very distinct memory of watching Nirvana’s “Smell Like Teen Spirit” when I was eleven. My cousins were not impressed by my love of music videos.) My relationship to my hometown (because it IS, after all, my hometown) is complicated because I feel detached from it, in a way. But now that I live far from home—my parents still live there—I realize that home town is a big part of who I am. No one can take that away from me.

San Juan was once my home. So was Binghamton. These were places where I lived, loved, slept, shopped, and laughed. These are places I felt a deep connection to. I claim them all, unsure of whether I should…and the one I can claim, my tiny hometown in the Puerto Rican plains, doesn’t fit exactly right. Maybe It’s because it is so far away right now.

And that brings me to today. When I read Suellentrop’s article, I felt part of a community of Kansas Citians who were moved, for better or for worse, by that article. Scratch that: I felt like this was a way of becoming part of this community of Kansas City. This is part of making a place your home. The fact that I was moved, that I did care, told me I was a part of this community. I am keenly aware of what home means, not because I think about it all the time for my dissertation but because I live here with my boyfriend and our daughter. (She lives surrounded by the New York City nostalgia that I lived with as a kid. I will never know how it will affect her to see The New Yorker on my desk or her dad’s Mets memorabilia…traces of a city far away.) I want to make Kansas City our home because I like Kansas City a whole lot and can see us living here for a while. But I also want to make Kansas City a home because I want her to have this city as her home. I want her to have her own city, not my cities or her dad’s cities.

So behind the angst and frustration that arose in response to Suellentrop’s Grantland article I hear also the strict rules of whose opinions matter and whose opinions don’t. If Suellentrop were still living in Kansas City, would the response have been as “vitriolic,” as one blogger defined it? (Would he have been able to write that piece?) Behind the commentary what I heard was the cry of a city against someone who “abandoned” it. But people move, find new jobs, eat in new neighborhoods, and learn short cuts to work. They make new homes. That doesn’t mean they leave their old homes behind.

Chris Suellentrop, you can always come back home.

–Dedicated to my first home, Nueva York.

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  1. There is an increasingly obvious tension between mobile and immobile populations. Used to be that only Jews were “rootless cosmopolitans” but there’s a growing population — primarily educated professionals — who constantly face the problem of not living anywhere long enough, or fully engaged enough, to be considered “locals” by the locals, no matter what they themselves might think. This kind of geographic parochialism seems increasingly weird to me, but I’m an OG Rootless Cosmopolitan, being Jewish, educated and mobile. All three members of my family — myself, wife and son — were all born places from which our families moved less than a year later: where are we “from”?

  2. Yes, you’re right: migration is definitely part and parcel of our lives. How many times did I hear in grad school “you just have to go where the jobs are”? it’s so common nowadays, and that’s one of the things I am grappling with in my own research: to what extent are these questions of home still relevant? But Suellentrop’s essay made me realize these questions are still valid.

    As for your question about where you’re from: I feel that’s what you make of it. That might be a cop-out, hehe, but I think that we have a right to claim the spaces and places we feel are ours. Where do you feel you are from?

  3. Usually I say Maryland, or near Baltimore, which is where we lived most of my life. But I’m the child of New Yorkers (one Bronx, one Long Island, which some people consider a mixed marriage!) and Jewish, so while I grew up in Maryland, I was not quite of Maryland. I grew up expecting to go to college and, while it was never really spoken of, I think I knew I wasn’t staying.

    I lived in Cambridge, MA, for almost as long as I lived in Maryland (dissertation, writer’s block, etc.) but I don’t feel like I’m from Boston. Love the town, but that’s not the same.


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