How often do we think about where we grew up and the geography of our neighborhoods? Do we consider how much geography shaped our family history narrative? Recently, I took some time to think about those questions and to reflect upon my childhood geography map.
My Childhood Geography
I was looking at a picture of the main branch of the Chicago Public Library the other day ( now the Chicago Cultural Center) and it jogged a memory of sitting at the dining room table with my mother in our apartment on the South Side of Chicago. I was about 11 years old and desperately wanted to take the Illinois Central train downtown so I could go to the main branch and take out books that our local branch didn’t have. “If you’re going to go downtown,” she said to me, “ you’ll have to learn all of the stops on the train and all of the streets and cross streets around the library. I don’t want you getting lost.” I wrote a list of the east/west streets, which were all named after Presidents: Washington, Adams, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, and the north /south Streets: Michigan, Wabash, State, Dearborn, Clark. Once she was satisfied that I had the names and directions firmly committed to memory, she let me take the train downtown. In that first train ride, my orientation expanded from my immediate neighborhood of Hyde Park to the world of downtown Chicago.
Over 50 years later, I can still recite the street names.
Your Childhood Geography Map
How did you learn the geography of where you lived as a child? Did you walk around your neighborhood? Bike? Were you driven everywhere? How far did your geographic explorations extend? And how did you learn to connect the place(s) you lived within the larger context of your town or city? We often use the term “ the wrong side of the tracks.” Did you live on one side or the other of the “tracks,” or some other arbitrary designation that divided one neighborhood from another ? And did you learn about what was on the other side, or were you encouraged to stay within the limits of your neighborhood? Did you come from another country where moving around was dangerous? If so, how did that impact the degree of freedom you experienced? Your childhood geography map is an important aspect of your personal history and shapes how you understand the world around you.
Thinking about how you discovered and explored the geography of what surrounded you as a child can lead to some profound revelations about race and class in your life, as well as what was allowed versus forbidden. Try writing about this aspect of your childhood and see what new areas open up to you in your life narrative. Your childhood geography map may play a more important role in your life than you realized.