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Learning to Love Your Hometown. Even if it's Encino.
For as long as I can remember, I studiously answered the question, “Where are you from?” with an evasive, “Oh, near Chicago.” Or: “the Chicago area,” which sounds a bit like a medical term for something impolite. Or, even more misleadingly, just, “Chicago.” Invariably this would be the person to reply, “Oh really? Where? I know it well!” Which is when I would know I was caught, and have to admit,“Oh! Yes. Ah. Well, the suburbs actually." Inevitably, I'd end up reluctantly revealing my hometown to be a boring whitey-white suburb, known for producing “North Shore Girls” with teeny-bopper speech patterns who get SUVs as sweet 16 presents. (For the record, I drove my mother's Chevy.) Hardly a proper provenance for an aspiring writer!
So I know just how Katie J.M. Baker feels, when she writes in the New York Times Townies column that she has always been embarrassed of being from the LA “Valley Girl” suburb Encino. “’Encino is not L.A.,’ they’d snicker whenever I told someone I lived in Los Angeles..In retrospect,” she writes, “this was pathetic. I was like a balding man with a comb-over, or one of those women who wear bright prints to distract from their pear-shaped bottoms. Some things are impossible to disguise.” Oh! My! God! I, like, know!
On a college-break visit home, Baker was horrified anew by a sign rising above Encino’s main drag of strip malls and chain stores that read, “Encino Commons: The Valley’s Miracle Mile.” She thought, “Why couldn’t we just quietly acknowledge our inferiority, taking solace in our swimming pools and parking spots? Why did we have to pretend Encino was something it wasn’t?” Baker admits that she had never made any attempt to learn her neighborhood’s history -- "I just assumed it didn’t have one.” The new sign inspired her to do some research, uncovering a bit of Encino’s cultural history. Turns out, Encino had both culture and history, despite its reputation – read Baker’s thoughtful essay for her hilarious non-epiphany at Encino’s oldest tree stump. Soon Baker starts to feel a certain, dare I say, pride in her swimming pool-dotted hometown.
Like Baker, I had to leave my hometown to be able to see
what was good about it. Visiting for a bookstore reading after my first book
came out, someone asked me how the strong artistic community of Highland
Park had helped to make me a writer. I was shocked.
The questioner actually had a point. It had never occurred to me because I
didn’t know what it was like to grow up anywhere different, but it is a
place where, for example, there is an extensive arts program at the high
school, a local literary magazine, and a hopping local music scene. Dr.
Mark and the Sutures, anyone? Here, too, is a place distinguished with a history, made up of individuals. In the end, what place isn't?
Maybe every suburban kid have this moment, when she realizes her hometown isn’t quite as offensively bland as she'd previously imagined. For Baker, the Aha moment was realizing that a community of people was rallying against the dumb new sign. For me, in the end, there’s something relaxing about giving up my Boring Suburb Hometown Shame, about feeling free to remark, when I visit Highland Park, "Hey! This place is cute!" And man, is the parking easy.
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