That's Why I Came

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by Michael Chabon

For the past couple of years I've been working on a novel about--my hometown, I was about to say, meaning Berkeley, California, where I've lived since the spring of 1997, where three of my four kids were born, where I wrote most of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and every book after that. But the new book--it's called Telegraph Avenue--is actually set as fully in Oakland as in Berkeley. Each of those cities (Watson and Mycroft respectively to the showboating Holmes of San Francisco) has its own distinct character, or set of characteristics, its unique inheritance of grace and problems. Yet the line between them, a block and a half from my house, ambles. It blurs. At times it all but vanishes--or maybe, generalizing wildly, Oakland with its history of tough-mindedness and Berkeley with its mania for insight, together conspire to expose the arbitrariness of all such hand-drawn borderlines.

The real Telegraph Avenue runs straight as a steel cable, changing its nature more or less completely every ten blocks or so, from the medical-marijuana souks of Oaksterdam, past the former Lamp Post bar where Bobby Seale used to hang out (now called Interplay Center, where you can "unlock the wisdom of your body"), past Section 8 housing and the site of a founding settlement of the native Ohlone people at the corner of 51st Street, past the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library and Akwaba Braiding and a buttload of Ethiopian restaurants, ending in an august jangle at the gates of the Cal campus, and I guess that for a guy who likes hanging around the borderlands--between genres, cultures, musics, legacies, styles--the appeal of Telegraph lies in the way it reflects a local determination to find your path irrespective of boundary lines, picking up what you can, shaking off what you can, along the way. But can you claim a home in a nameless place, at the edge of a wandering border?

Or is your "hometown" only, ever, the place where you grew up? For me that would be Columbia, MD, from shortly after the late-'60s opening of that "planned community," in a vast stretch of former tobacco country south of Baltimore, through its idealistic heyday of the 1970s. I haven't been back in years, and at any rate could never hope to return to the Columbia where I grew up, still exuberantly dedicated to becoming the hometown envisioned by its founder, James Rouse--multiracial, multiethnic, ecumenical, economically diverse, green and heavily playgrounded and bicycle-friendly, fulfilling the promises of the American experiment one neocolonial tract house at a time. That Columbia, to the extent that it ever existed anywhere but (at least) in the imagination of one little white boy, has long since faded away.

Maybe your hometown is always an imaginary place: the home of your imagination. If so, then mine--at its best, at its most vivid--whether the vanishing rainbow of Columbia, or the shifting restless polycultural territory manifesting in the joint between Oakland and Berkeley, is a place a lot like this place right here, a place to which people come most of all, I think, because they want to live around people who are not like them, because that is the very thing they have most in common, because they are dedicated to the self-evident truth articulated in one of the founding documents of my hometown, that it ain't where you're from, it's where you're at.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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