I recently drove through the town of Laguna Beach in Florida and had vague flashbacks to being in Laguna Beach in California. These flashbacks and the weird feeling intensified as after Laguna Beach I ended up in a place called Santa Monica. Still in Florida. It's not like it looked exactly the same as the yuppie kingdom of Santa Monica on the shores of the Pacific. But it wasn't much different either. An outdoor strip mall, a sunset-bathed beach, the usual slices of Americana. And the California's Santa Monica has Venice as a neighbor. And there's a Venice in Florida as well. In fact, unable to shake the feeling that all this is somehow meaningful, I looked it up and found about half a dozen Venices in the U.S. And as research logic dictated, I found even more Parises, in states like Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. And of course, there are quite a number of Berlins and a wealth of Moscows from Maine to Idaho.
These facts aren't particularly surprising in a country of immigrants where naming places to remind you where you came from seems reasonable and even touching. But it reminded me of the uneasiness I've been having about my country, the suspicion that it could somehow disappear.
When I come back to a city where I haven't been in a while, what's usually noticeable is a new store or a gas station or a restaurant that sprang up in the place where something I knew used to be. It's like one franchise gobbles up another. I can't help but feel that almost unnoticeably (especially if you never leave that place) many cities in our country are becoming more generic, devoid of any real individuality except for the temporary identity imposed by corporate buildings and logos which change often, as is their nature. Often this creates a sense of being in an in-between space. A mall that kind of looks like another mall somewhere else in the country. It's like you are somewhere but not really anywhere.
The places that have grand historic namesakes abroad do not usually duplicate anything from the European cities, but still have a sense to me of being a copy. Maybe that's unfair but a Venice, Ill. is forever doomed to live in the giant cultural shadow of its Italian counterpart (at least till the older one sinks). But there's something very American about paying homage to vague memories. As much history has shown, long and specific memories tend to cause disagreement rather than the desired learning from mistakes. Maybe America is a place to forget and move on and that's the best thing about it.
The immigrants who founded and keep revitalizing this nation bring their cultures with them. But in this country, their cultures tend to become diluted and intermingle with others or transform into brands like Chinese food or German engineering. A copy of a copy merged into a megacopy, losing details and sharpness at every step. But through this process something new emerges, something called the United States. Our country is in a way an idea, an intellectual identity, an agreement by which people are united not necessarily in their individual beliefs but in a way they define their relationship to others. That's been the strength of its design -- America is a place where very diverse people are encouraged to cooperate. With a visual coherence and uniformity provided by corporatism. The ever-present McDonald's is like a portal into Americanhood, able to transport you to your true homeland wherever in the country or the world you might be.
My family came to the U.S. two decades ago. We came here because it was a fantasy come true, a place where people got along and lived well. I always saw being an American as having a certain sense of manifest destiny. As our movies remind us, this is the land where everyone can be a superhero. We believe that we have the right answer, but an important part of our identity has been moderation, of always being able to work together for the good of the business. That's the American way. More than the celebrated demand for individual expression or ties to land, Americanness is in the care for the middle, the care for the relative success of every average individual because by making content the middle, you create a stable country. It is this ability to create the middle that's been a defining characteristic of the nation and the inability of the country right now to find a consensus, the sharp division between the parties and neighbors are not this country's special strength and soul. Whenever I'm in one of its in-between spaces, I feel the fragility of the American ideal. The ideal, not the cynicism, is why we came here. The America of the middle is worth hanging on to with everything we've got.
Some snapshots of life in places with famous namesakes:
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