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6 January 2017

The Edge of Town

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The typical visit to typically anywhere follows, essentially, the same pattern: you leave a place on some mode of transit, switch between modes a while, and end up at a new airport, train station, or highway ramp. Unless you’re in Europe, odds are that big transit hub is far from the place you’re going, so there’s one more trip to take, from the station with the place’s name to the place itself, and the journey between the two illustrates an important difference not immediately evident on the maps or in the brochures. Places are big, diverse, and complicated. The parts you want to see are usually clustered in a specific area: the historic district, the downtown, the riverside. But that’s not all there is to a place, there’s the whole stretch of suburb, of slum, of highway-side strip mall that stretches between how you got here and actually here: the edge of town.

The Edge of Town

There’s a lot of a place along its edges, most notably the “normal people,” the ones who physically run the quaint economy of which you, the visitor, are such an integral part. It’s your money that pays for their rent here, that pays the tabs at these less-than-picturesque chain restaurant bars, that goes into buy all the things offered by all these normal stores. Of course, you, the tourist, want something you can’t get at home, which is why you’re in the historic district, the downtown, etc. Authenticity is all the rage these days: it’s what draws people to most places, the idea of something real, something unique, and I posit that the centers, the historic districts, etc., are, in fact, less authentic than the edges of town.

The Edge of Town

Think about it: you come to a place with expectations, ideas on the kind of place you’ll spend your money on what kinds of experiences. It’s in your destination’s best interest, economically speaking, to provide them. In this way, your expectations, your preconceptions of a place can actually shape that place away from its uniqueness. Because you’re a visitor. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Why should you get a say?

The Edge of Town

Guess where the visitor’s dollar doesn’t get a say? Yep, the edge of town. It’s on the edge of town that the residents’ dollar speaks loudest, and so it’s not that spectacular, because most people lead the kind of normal lives that require cheap clothes and laundry detergent, grocery stores and gas stations. But here, among the same chains you have at home, is where you’ll find the truly unique, because you’ll notice it: it’s just slightly different from what you’re familiar with. It can be the architecture, better suited to a different local environment, or different building codes. It can be the terrain, perhaps steep and prone to tight settlement. It can be the culture, how people gather in the stores or in the squares or the streets or if they stay inside, hiding from each other. Because the edge of town runs the center of town, the edge of town defines everything about your experience, but in the center, it’s hidden to meet your expectations—the edge of town doesn’t give a damn about what you expect. The edge of town is rough, it’s real, it’s not pretty, and it’s doesn’t work well. The people there have simple lives and chronic complaints, but they get by. Just like where you’re from, only a little different. That difference is why we travel.