What Makes a Place 'Real'?



"It is the siren call of a magnificent, broken city: 'This, here, is the real New Orleans,'" a recent New York Times review of New Orleans eating establishments began. As readers, we are attuned enough to references to "real" cities, cultures, and cuisines to know both what the writer meant, as well as what the restaurateurs are implying when they invoke that description.

But at the same time, that doesn't mean those claims are correct. After all, what is the "real" New Orleans? Or, for that matter, the "real" America? HBO's highly touted series Treme, which aired its fifth episode Sunday night, is a fictional show that markets itself as a lens through which we might glimpse the "real" New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina. Aside from the tricky contradiction inherent in that premise (how can a fictional show portray something real?), it does raise an interesting question about what we view as the real, quintessential, authentic...anywhere.

On one level, we use the word "real" to differentiate between manufactured fantasylands and the unsanitized versions of the real world they purport to represent. The ultra-clean, smiley streets of Epcot Center or Disneyland bear only the most surface resemblance to the "real" places that inspired them. But then, nobody walks into Disneyland thinking they're going to see anything "real." Or at least, I hope they don't.

Colonial Williamsburg, where I worked for a summer back in college, was also a sanitized version of an 18th century town, but the link to reality was a lot closer. Many of the buildings were original, and care was taken to maintain many of the 18th century techniques and tools in its craft shops and restoration efforts. Was it real? Not as a town, even if some of its individual elements were. But again, Colonial Williamsburg doesn't claim to be "real." It markets itself as a "living history museum."

We also tend to use the word "real" to differentiate what tourists see in a modern-day city or place, versus what the locals, who have a much deeper and intimate familiarity with its nuanced culture and details, know or experience. Few New Yorkers flock to Times Square for dinner on a Saturday night, just as few native New Orleans residents spend their time hanging out on Bourbon Street. They pride themselves, in fact, on knowing the little hole-in-the-wall neighborhood eateries, bars, stores, and music venues that appeal less to the masses and retain more of a particular group's or neighborhood's personality and character.

The trouble arises when we try to clarify what constitutes the "real" character of a place beyond those basic distinctions. A number of years ago, I was covering the Reno National Air Races—a noisy event that consists of souped-up World War II fighter planes flying around 50-foot-tall pylons arranged in a nine-mile oval. The planes scream around the corners with their wingtips less than 30 feet off the ground, at speeds approaching 500 miles an hour. Spectators are kept a significant distance from the race course, but journalists are given passes to stand at the base of those pylons so they can get photos of the racers as they flash past, loud, low, and close. One year, a reporter standing next to me, clearly experiencing his very first race, began gushing with excitement after the first pack of racers came screaming past.

"Wow!" he said. "This is the real Reno Air Races, isn't it?!!"

I shook my head. "Only if you're a journalist," I replied. He looked confused. "Well, for the race crews, the real Reno Air Races is in the pits," I explained. "They never come out here. And the spectators in the stands have another whole experience that's just as 'real" as this that we never get to see."

The same is true for any event or place. On some level, it's impossible to capture or define the "real" anywhere, because places are not just fixed buildings you can point to. They're a melding of culture, viewpoint, character, detail and experience. And every person's experience of a place, group, event or culture is unique.

My sister and I grew up in the same house, with the same parents, only two years apart. And yet, we would describe the "reality" of that experience very differently. By the same token, the New York known to wealthy Upper East Side socialites is every bit as "real" as the city known to struggling, funky artists down in Chelsea. Both are "real," as far as that goes. It's just that neither one represents the whole. In point of fact, if there are 8 million people in New York, there are probably 8 million slightly different versions of what "New York" is or means—all of which are "real," and none of which describe anything more than one piece of an 8-million-piece puzzle.

Some of those pieces might reflect more sheltered "bubbles" of carefully manicured existence than others, but even the grittiest pieces would not represent the whole. What's more, even that complex and colorful conglomeration of 8 million viewpoints might not reflect the "reality" of New York. Because even when we look back on events, eras, or places we have known well, we don't always view them the way an unedited and all-seeing camera might. Even my own personal view of the "real" city in Metropolitan New York I grew up in probably has some romanticized fuzz on the lens.

So given all that, why do we attempt to shove the identity of a place into a definable box at all? Why do we argue so heatedly about what the "real" ... fill in the blank ... is?

I don't pretend to have all the answers to that question, although a piece of it is undoubtedly status. Knowledge is power, and a lot of smug comments about knowing the "real" character of a place have the air of an exclusionary secret handshake differentiating the cooler set who "know" from those who don't. But they can also be articulating a sense of pride in having earned that membership; in having weathered storms tourists never experience, and having learned to love a place not despite its imperfections, but because of them.

But even that doesn't account for the fervor with which people argue, particularly these days, for their own particular version of a place, whether that's New Orleans, Virginia, or America itself. It's easy enough to differentiate between groups of angry white people claiming that they represent the "real" America and a group of gentle, New Orleans jazz musicians winking as they whisper that they represent the "real" N'awlins. But on some level, the origins of the two assertions may not be all that different. Because what we view as the "real" version of places we know, or have known, is almost always one in which we belong.

It makes sense. Part of our identity comes from a sense of place; the context that gives us status and a sense of belonging in the world. So if the "real" nature of a place is, or becomes, something different than the narrative we've used to build our identities, what does that mean? At the very least, it means we lose the power of insider knowledge and status. At worst, it means we run the risk of being exiled. A sudden outsider who no longer fits. Whose narrative no longer has a reference point in the real world. And that's very scary.

In a perfect world, there should be room for an ever-expanding definition of what the "real" character of a place is. And I suspect that kind of shift is easier for people whose narratives have always reflected a kind of semi-outsider status in a place. The musicians in New Orleans were never at the center of power or security, so they have less at risk in a shifting world. All they need to hold onto is a legitimate place, somewhere in the circle. But for people whose place was once in the center, accepting a narrative that places them somewhere else is a tough adjustment.

But in the end, when we argue about what the "real" New Orleans (or anywhere else) is—beyond a general definition of a place that's far more complex and far less sanitized than the mass-market sights most tourists see—we aren't arguing about reality at all. We're arguing about narratives. The irony, of course, is that a narrative is just a story we've created in our minds. So while we can enjoy exploring all the rich and varied stories and perspectives that exist within a community, city, or country, and they can give us a far greater understanding of its many faces and truths, perhaps the reality is ... there is no "real" New Orleans. Or America. Or, at least, not one we can ever objectively describe or define, outside of our own minds.