Authentic travel includes getting to know the people living in your destination. Talking to locals is a start. But with only a few days or weeks in a place, building understanding can be a challenge. That said, other telling details that can help. Among the most fascinating: how people mark out (in an attempt to claim or conquer) their territory.
What territory says
Architectural details, public art, fencing, murals, landscaping details, signs, hedgerows separating out farmers’ fields – these items say many things. They speak of what people value; what they fear; their sense of humour and/ or curiosity. Marked territory can tell you about how locals lead their lives, and who benefits (or fails to benefit) from flows of power. The photos below are all examples of local territory marking. They speak to me of who (at least some of) the locals are and how they relate to each other.
The above photo shows how a bank operating in a multi-cultural city like Honolulu celebrates the locals who descended from Chinese settlers roughly a century ago. In my part of the world, which has attracted more contemporary Chinese migration, the features shown above tend to speak less about current migrants and what appeals to them.
I love how, in the photos below, the business operator is surreptitiously and temporarily claiming territory, without making the same type of investment as someone in a conventional store. Perhaps rents are far too prohibitive- or maybe the owner just prefers this transient approach. You see her/him trying to legitimize the mobile business as it takes up a parking space for just hours at a time. Judging from the quality of the sign, it seems to have been working.
Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Author photos, February 2016
Claiming space doesn’t just happen with businesses. Parking is a big focus of space-claiming. While on-street parking is typically public, North American city dwellers often view the space in front of their homes as their personal (private) property- particularly when parking becomes a more scarce resource. Unknown cars parked in those locations may be told about their transgressions through windshield notes- or even more aggressive acts. But driveways are less clear, and are sometimes used or blocked by others, resulting in conflict and a need for the homeowner to mark that territory as his or her own. The example below is also from Los Angeles:
And, of course walls and gates are obvious territory markers. They can be beautiful or whimsical. Sometimes the beauty is offered as an apology for space claiming. It may also be an indicator of some shared neighbourhood territoriality- a contribution to the larger public realm even as the individual space is claimed.
Some of my own neighbours in Vic West achieve this by offering of floral bursts beside or through their fences:
And here are some other examples of fence appeal, one by a business, and another by an art gallery/ centre:
So here is my challenge to you: on your next trip, try to find and photograph as many interesting or appealing territory markers as you can. I guarantee that it will get you thinking about your destination, and the relationships between inhabitants, in new ways. Territory markers are a rich topic for exploring further. Watch for another posting on this topic, and please suggest your own in the comments section of this blog.