Does A Place Shape Us?


It’s an old adage, an over-used cliché that fluctuates between telling a real story of growing up and coming of age, and a cop out that addresses no real, tangible, solid foundation of what makes us who we are.  But, in order to address our own constructs, the impact that our upbringing has on our adult life and the importance of recognising that impact, it’s a good place to start. How true is it, how much stock should we put on the phrase:  You can take the (wo)man out of the place, but you can’t take the place out of the (wo)man?

As recently as January 2016, according to a small internet poll of approximately 700 respondents, Easterhouse was identified as one of the worst places in the UK to live, with life expectancy much lower than the national average (according to the Glasgow Indicator Project).  Easterhouse, six miles east of Glasgow city centre, was originally built as an alternative to tightly packed tenement buildings that many people moved from in the 1960s, the new tenements having luxuries like double bedrooms and indoor bathrooms.  Although it was initially developed to house over 50,000, and did so throughout that decade, the population has steadily decreased and current statistics say that around 9,000 people still live there.  Although initially one of the biggest, with ‘more’ of most things, whether it’s Brixton or Toxteth, Hysel Green, Shelthorpe or St Annes, Easterhouses exist everywhere.

As with other estates of a similar structure all over the UK, the media often mis-represents the area, glosses over the facts for a good story, the word Easterhouse itself having become synonymous with terms like poverty, inequality, disadvantage and social exclusion.  And yet, such areas foster real communities, and in Easterhouse particularly, communities within communities.  To be attached to a geographical place can cultivate a basic human need of belonging which shapes a sense of ourselves and our identities.  But the relationship between a locality and culture refers to more than simply a geographical place, it inspires and infers shared thoughts, understanding and feelings.  It nurtures intricate complexities of networks and relationships.  Shared histories and shared experiences become common links that bind individuals together.  Simply put, people identify with each other.  A true community is bonded by those senses of significance, security and solidarity with others.

The impact of that sense of belonging can’t be underestimated if we’re looking at the extent to which coming from a certain place impacts on us as individuals.  The most prevalent issue in Easterhouse it seems, is a gang culture that’s widely reported on.  That gang mentality epitomises the two ends of a spectrum, the positives and negatives of the same issue, the black and white, truth and lie, good and bad.  You don’t have to be from a ‘bad’ place to experience ‘bad’ things, in exactly the same way as being from somewhere good doesn’t make you a good person.  What estate based culture, social housing estates and housing schemes do, is bring together many of those difficult issues into the one geographical space.  Put together issues of addiction, domestic abuse, family breakdown, unemployment, poverty, low educational attainment, mental health, crime and criminality, low aspirations, many of which are compounded because they are generational and cyclical, and it can be argued that we put together a blueprint for social exclusion and dysfunction.

What’s vital to recognise is that as individuals, we are the sum of our experiences, which shape our thoughts, responses and values.  We can’t hide from our past, it absolutely has to impact and influence our views and the decisions we make in later life.  But, it doesn’t shape everyone equally.  In fact, it impacts on us so very differently, even siblings within the same family.  What is it that builds resilience in some, but fosters doubt, insecurity, bad choices and helplessness in others?  How can two siblings who share the same upbringing, have such different takes on their situations and the possible outcomes? Where we’re from is intrinsically and fundamentally linked with who we become, but in a very personal and individual way. Some people exposed to domestic abuse will steer clear of anything remotely related to violence, whilst for others it becomes learnt behaviour.  That’s equally true of even those brought up in the same families.  Some, brought up in abject poverty will use it as their impetus and strive for financial independence and well being, for others it’s not a key motivator.  Some will use their experience of growing up in a particular place as their instigator to get out, for others it’s their home, their sense of community and belonging far stronger than their desire to leave.

Perception, it seems, is key.  To see the challenges that life throws at us as an opportunity to learn, grow and develop, as something that may affect us, may hurt us, but that ultimately won’t destroy us means that we move forwards with resilience.  On the other hand, if we view a challenge as threat, have a “glass half empty” mentality, it can fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity, inertia and the inability to cope. And that perception is developed partly through experience, through our disposition and nature, and largely through luck, that we have learned that we are resilient and that we are able to manage situations.

But it’s not one way.  Add to the mix the way individuals shape their community.  Every person who’s ever been involved in a social enterprise, a community project, a working or management group, everyone who’s ever visited the elderly gentleman down the street, or baby sat for the single mum next door, everyone who’s ever kicked a ball with the local scallies or joined the neighbourhood watch has had an influence on the society that in turn influences them.

Never has the contradiction been more stark and real than it is today. Never has it been both easier and harder to move through societal norms and constructs.  Depending on our characteristics and predispositions, our access to help and our luck, if we want to change, to move, to grow and develop, to understand and change those constraints, there are avenues that were never there before.  There may still be glass ceilings to what we can achieve, depending on who we are and where we’re from, but there is scope for movement at least in a way there wasn’t in previous decades.  But if we’re stuck, it seems that we might be more stuck than ever.  The gap between rich and poor is widening. Austerity is, at best, having a huge impact and, at worst, crippling local communities and individuals.

Those political and economic restraints have always been important, but what has changed beyond recognition is the growth of our expectations, of our exposure to other worlds, through the media, social media and the internet.  Where once we used to know what went on in our street, our estate or our town, we now see the rest of the world at the touch of a button.  Our insular lifestyles, the ones where we didn’t even socialise with people on the other side of a particular boundary have suddenly gone worldwide, our influences gone global.  For some, our aspirations have grown to match that.  For others they’ve remained stunted.

It impacts on us.  The geographical place and the experiences we are exposed to, are forged on our psyche, the ‘what and where’ imprinted on our being.  Our experiences of the place where and the people with whom we grew up shapes us beyond everything else.  But those experiences don’t define us, not if we don’t let them.  We do that ourselves.  We are from a place, and a place has its own life, culture and truth.  We can use it as a crutch, we can blame it, we can take inspiration from it and we can learn about ourselves from it.  One way or another, it intrinsically shapes who we become.  But we see far wider than that these days.  With learning, understanding, the acquisition of knowledge, free will and a massive dose of good luck, we become who we deserve to be.  Knowledge is power.  When we learn about something it increases our capacity, but when we learn about ourselves it liberates us. Yes, of course we can take ourselves out of a place.  If we want to, we can take the place out of ourselves, but the impact of what we’ve experienced, individual as it is, that doesn’t go away whether we want it to or not.