New York City subway diagram. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Location, location, location? How coronavirus is reshaping our sense of place

(RNS) — There are few times stranger to start cohabiting with one’s partner than the week before a citywide lockdown.

Less than two weeks after I moved the majority of my things across New York City, I found myself occupying a new, though by now not unfamiliar, apartment. Thanks to the restrictions of the lockdown, the geography of the place soon doubled as the contours of my entire physical world. My idea of home — already, as someone who grew up a “third culture kid” and spent most of her 20s in transit as a travel writer, an ambiguous one — was transformed.

On the one hand, life has narrowed drastically. As bars and restaurants and businesses shuttered around us, as our streets emptied, as the decision to go for a walk or pick up a prescription or stop into a bodega for milk took on outsized weight, we have developed a routine characterized, in part, by seeming placelessness: a life that, but for our occasional grocery runs, could very well not be taking place in New York, a city that once for me was synonymous with being outside.

We cook. We bake. We work from home, writing side by side at the dining table. We drink wine — rather too much of it in recent days. We try to exercise with a set of sliders and a pair of weights. Except for the constant fear of what the future might hold and the uncanny habits we’ve developed — wearing plastic gloves outside, using our sleeves to touch the elevator buttons — our day-to-day life feels strangely ordinary.

That placelessness, though, has fostered a different, though less instinctive, kind of rootedness. We organize online classes, cocktail hours, play readings or “dinner dates.” We coordinate barre video workouts with friends and invite those who live in Paris or New Haven or California to drink a cocktail with us. We watch our parish church’s recorded prayers and services. We video-chat with our parents: one set across the country, the other across the world.

The New York City apartment of Tara Isabella Burton and her partner. Photo by Tara Isabella Burton

As millennials, we as a generation are often accused of a certain moral and aesthetic rootlessness. We order our household supplies from Amazon. We read books on e-readers instead of physical copies bought from local bookshops. But the fostering so many of us have done of online communities — through video-chatting platforms like Zoom, through cash apps like Venmo that allow us to tip our favorite bartenders or buy a video-chat session with a personal trainer — has revealed a different kind of rootedness: one based not in place, exactly, but in groups of people.

The more seemingly disembodied we become, the fewer links we have to our own geography, the more we become aware of the social bonds — of friendship, of chosen family, of affinity and care — that have come to define a different, but no less interdependent, notion of home.

I am a lifelong, proud New Yorker whose sense of being home has always been intertwined with place — in lieu of a gravesite, my grandmother has a memorial bench in Central Park and a plaque at her favorite restaurant; I take pride in the fact that the employees at my old bagel place know my breakfast order before I ask. But I am more conscious now than ever that the digital revolution has divorced place and people.

Our sense of home is no less real for being diffuse. The native lands that shape us are not necessarily those into which we are born — our hometowns, our birth parishes or synagogues or mosques, the communities we take as a given. Increasingly, aided by the speed with which the internet makes disembodied connection possible, our “tribes” are chosen — people we meet through our hobbies, perhaps, or partners we find through dating apps (as 40%, annually, of couples who get together now do).

This is, of course, in part a disembodiment borne of privilege — our ability to stay indoors and to function with a degree of independence is predicated, in part, on the fact that my cohabitor and I have the kinds of jobs that allow for remote work.

But it also illustrates a broader truth about the boundaries between the “online” and the “offline” world, especially for millennials. The rise of the “social distancing social life” makes it clearer than ever that a sense of place need not be physical. Home can be — and for now, must be — something you can experience through a webcam, darkly, if not always face to face.