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There is no there there

The quote “there is no there there” is often used to describe a place that lacks culture, soul, life, identity. I did a web search on it, which produced some interesting results. Gertrude Stein's famous little phrase refers to Oakland, California and is doubtlessly aimed at a supposed lack of culture or meaningful identity. Some do not agree with this assertion of the character of this city. Others think the statement is really about the sense of emptyness that results from returning to a place that was left behind.

This is the full sentence: "She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there." Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1937, p. 289).

In a forum on new urbanism some phrases following the quote are revealed: "...but not there, there is no there there. ... Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. ... Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use ..." The contributor to the forum concludes from this: “It seems clear to me that the quote has less to do with Oakland per se as it does with her neighborhood having changed.”

Even so, the contempt in the passage for Oakland as a place is hard to deny. In the same forum, this is tacitly affirmed by another contributor, who gives a hilarious example of the way that some of the locals struggle with it.

“Unfortunately, this quote has historically played on Oakland inferiority complex with San Francisco. Recently boosters of the city's downtown (even before Jerry Brown became mayor) have made flags and posters that have an oak tree (the symbol of the city) and the word "There" on them. It was a local newspaper, the Oakland Tribune, that did this with the "There" flags.” [source]

Gertrude Stein did grow up in Oakland. As she put it on p. 249 of the same autobiography: "I can call myself a Californian because I was there from six to seventeen." [source]

The interpretation of the statement as an expression of a personal 'loss of place' due to migration is thouroughly analysed in a lenthy but interesting web article on expatriate writers. [source]

The closing paragraphs of this section on 'there is no there there' are taken from this source.

"(...) Memory is certainly affected by this loss of place: for the foreigner, memory is no longer connected to the spatial, so rather than experiencing the gradual transformation of the same identity over time, there is a much more radical break with the spatial that reveals the multiple fragmentary threads of identity, or perhaps even its absence. What Americans are to Europeans in a wider sense--with their constant moving, migration, and perambulation, the foreigner is to the American, which may explain why voluntary expatriation has been so overwhelmingly an American theme. As Gertrude Stein wrote in her book Everybody's Autobiography, which recounted her return to the United States in 1934-35 after several decades abroad, "What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there."

This is precisely the point: "...there is no there there." Stein realized that there was something ungrounded about America, but although it was ungrounded it did not admit it to itself; consequently, for her it did not produce a propitious environment for creative growth. She went so far as to suggest the need for all writers to live in two countries, and is well-known for having said, "America is my country and Paris is my home town." This doubleness allowed her to see the fragmentary nature of identity, as is clear from the following passage from the same book, in response to a visit to her home town:

”It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.“

Her return to America confirmed her in her choice to remain abroad, partly due to its lack of culture (she complained that all of Paris is a painting but that it is very difficult to find paintings in America), but also due to the shock she experiences in her realization that it led an independent existence from her "other reality." Prior to her return she at least had confidence that her memory was adequate, but due to the vast transformations in the places that she knew, as well as her own ly a matter of a final choice(...)".

What the author of these paragraphs has to say is very interesting. Though it does not prevent the quote from being used for boring, empty places (and why shouldn't it? - what a way to describe exurbia), but it makes us aware of the loss of place experienced by an increasing number of people.

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