COMMITMENTS : Longing for Home : Few of us live in the same place we grew up. And even if we do, it doesn’t <i> seem</i> the same. Which leaves us yearning for a place to belong.
In Horton Foote’s classic movie “The Trip to Bountiful,” an elderly Geraldine Page living with quarrelsome relatives yearns to return home. Stealing back via a long, perilous bus ride, she discovers her old neighborhood is deserted, her house fallen apart.
Page’s quest may well mirror a search for home by many Americans, concur several experts contacted by The Times. Consider:
* Fully 40% of Los Angeles residents were born abroad, says Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the county Human Relations Commission. For them, home is not just another part of this country; it is often a land with a different language, culture and values.
* Only one of every three Angelenos was born and raised in California, according to the 1990 census, with the number of native Angelenos thought to be less than half that number.
Thus, the vast majority of those who call Los Angeles home are from somewhere else. Even natives who have never left often no longer recognize the community in which they grew up.
Says native Angeleno Kate Albert, 35: “I used to play with the kids on my block near Melrose Avenue. We all played with each other and went to school together. My mother still lives there, but the street has changed. The kids don’t go to the same school anymore. Now, it’s a bunch of strangers.”
The neighbors, she recalls, used to give dinner parties that were intimate and required planning and preparation.
“But who gives dinner parties anymore? Now, people meet at restaurants--and something ineffable has disappeared.”
Home has disappeared for many reasons, says fortysomething USC urban historian Greg Hise. Twenty years ago, “No one would have said, ‘Let’s move from Los Angeles to Austin, Tex.’ Jobs were clustered in the larger urban areas. But now, people are following their jobs to suburbs all over the country.”
As companies open branch offices and transfer personnel, even staying with one company guarantees little, he says. Economic dislocations have also forced individuals to switch not just jobs, but careers. Thus, the sense of professional identity that was once a hallmark of feeling at home is frequently lost.
Poor urban planning stressing individual privacy and suburban tract homes have rendered these socioeconomic disconnections even more acute. But even as planners failed until recently to “design in” public communal spaces, Americans have become “extraordinarily inventive” in creating them. Thus, Hise cites the recent coming together of “The Alley” Downtown, where multiethnic merchants sell clothing in a quasi-open-air market--creating amid otherwise barren warehouses a vibrant public space and, for many, a feeling of home.
Regaining that sense of home has become increasingly important to many of her clients, says Maria Hansen, president of Relocation L.A., a Westside-based service that helps out-of-towners move here. Trying to maintain a sense of rootedness, many clients search to duplicate the feel of their native areas. For example, she says, incoming New Yorkers often look for neighborhoods in which they can walk to a nearby deli.
Clients also invariably relocate to parts of the city in which they can easily continue their former activities, whether it’s jogging or taking adult education courses at a nearby campus. By holding onto their old habits, clients thus seek to preserve their sense of home amid change.
A lot of people keep their feeling of home by hanging on to their old furniture instead of renting new, even when it’s more economical, she said. And more than one client has refused to move into an otherwise perfect new home because it could not accommodate, say, his water bed with two night tables.
But the single most important focal point may be relocating near trusted friends. Thus, Hansen says, recent clients who were otherwise interested in the Malibu / Topanga area chose, instead, to relocate next to a friend in Long Beach.
Dennis Lowe, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, also sees Americans increasingly differentiating between “a place they call home, and another they merely call their house. " A lot of his clients “come in and say that this place where they live has all the functional capabilities of home, with a bathroom and kitchen. But it’s not really home.”
For them, he says, “Home is a place of the mind and heart. It’s a remembrance.” But those seeking to return to the remembered place “often experience a lot of disappointment” because that place no longer matches their memory.
At the same time, he said, some people can instantly feel at home in a place they’ve never been before, as John Denver put it in his song “Rocky Mountain High.” The ancestral home feels less like home than does the newly discovered place.
Home, Lowe says, is where “one feels comfortable, accepted, with a sense of belongingness. It’s where an individual feels he is able to understand and be understood.”
To accommodate these needs, the death of the traditional community has been paralleled by an explosion in 12-step programs and the increased, although quite different, popularity of cults. Both of these, he said, have helped define a new type of home. Schools, too, are increasingly taking on the role of home to children who have little contact with their families.
To remain comfortable, Lowe says, a healthy individual periodically re-examines his sense of home, which may well be ephemeral, a quality of being comfortable with oneself and one’s environment. Thus, he says, the healthy individual may slip in and out of a sense of home through various parts of the day, aware that always staying at home precludes growth while being away from home precludes stability. Optimally, he will strike a comfortable balance between the two--the balance itself shifting at various stages in his life.
“The sense of home differs greatly from person to person,” Lowe says. One individual may feel safer living in a house with bars on his windows; another may see those same bars as prison-like. Even adjoining houses on the same street may reflect differing concepts of home.
Lowe helps his clients find their sense of home by allowing them to identify “the sort of environment that makes them most comfortable. Around what kinds of people are they most at ease? What types of relationships have brought them the most satisfaction?” Lowe then helps them search out those qualities in their environment.
The challenge, he says, is assisting individuals who fail to see “any opportunities at all” to nevertheless find people who think as they do. To accomplish this, Lowe helps some of his clients face their “commitment to not accepting the new place.” Often, he has found, such individuals have moved here under duress--their spouse, for example, may have been transferred here, and they followed. Their desire for their old friends and values becomes an obstacle preventing them from accepting their new location--and growing their sense of home in the here and now.
The sense of home also differs from generation to generation, he says. Thus, Lowe tells of a minister with a primarily elderly congregation who received a better offer from another church. When he transferred, the minister’s older congregants felt betrayed. The boomer congregants accepted the transfer as a rightful part of the minister’s career course.
Interestingly, Regina Birdsell, executive director of the New Los Angeles Marketing Partnership, which is putting on the ad campaign promoting the city, has found the campaign taps into a deep need. The campaign was designed to promote the region economically, helping re-attract jobs and industry. But Birdsell discovered that many individuals “wanted to be proud of the city. They wanted to have a sense of home.
“I’ve been surprised at how deep that feeling is. People leave meetings telling us how much they love what we’re doing, and how much they want to contribute. They look for ways to support us.
“My gut feeling is that we’ve tapped into something which is much deeper than we anticipated. I’m no psychologist, but I think we’re tapping into a sense of home.”