A thorny question has arisen at Discontinuous Permafrost: what does it mean for a place to have local character, or for people to have local character?
I want to live in a place with a distinctive character, not someplace that looks like everywhere else. (On this theme, I heartily recommend James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.) But one thing I can’t stand, in the public discussions that have gone on of the Vision Fairbanks plan for revitalizing downtown, is the comment (with variations) “We don’t want to be just like Portland!”
Of course, I don’t want to be just like Portland, either. But underlying the comment seems to be a refusal to entertain ideas that have worked well elsewhere. To some, the very idea that we could learn from others’ successes is anathema.
I want local character and preservation of our history — but keep in mind that Fairbanks was founded only 105 years ago, and that there’s not that much history here yet. We are still pioneers, and we have the chance to decide what that history will be.
It gets a little limiting to talk about who looks like a Fairbanksan and who doesn’t. I appreciate people who dress practically. But we are a city of 90,000 people, and any urban area both attracts and breeds variety. To say that impractically dressed women are out of place in Fairbanks is like saying that homosexuals are out of place in Salt Lake City: perhaps they’re in the minority, but the city is large enough to make a place for them.
I really like going to stores, performances, and public meetings, and seeing my fellow Fairbanksans not dressed to the nines (as conceived elsewhere), but dressed in bunny boots, parkas, and Carhartts makes me happy. It could be for show, but it says to me that my fellows are more concerned with practicality than with appearance — and I like that attitude. It says to me that Fairbanksans have the real business of living to get on with. But how can we acknowledge that a place and its people have a distinct character, without letting the character become too exclusive or oppressive?