Does anyone know what "home" is anymore?

It seems like I, and everyone I know, is homesick...for...we’re not sure where.

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Looking back, I should have known it was over when Post Malone moved to my street.

I grew up on a small street at the mouth of a canyon, where my childhood friends and I would slip out the neighbor’s back fence, onto the mountainside, and play in scrub oak, make forts, climb rocks, and inevitably step in deer poop. My bedroom window was angled in such a way that the V of the canyon was framed for me when I woke up in the morning, and I fell asleep to the soft tinkle of the aspen trees outside my window. If it sounds idyllic, in many ways, it was.

Then, like many American kids from the middle of the country, I longed to get out of my small, seemingly low-rent hometown, and move to the coast. I have lived an itinerant life in New York City for fifteen years now—which sometimes feels like an accident of having gone to school there and just…never leaving.

But my city life was always balanced by the fact that I had a mountain life awaiting me at my family home in Salt Lake City. That was a place that felt like home deep in my bones: I knew the way the light fell, when the deer would come down the mountain looking for food, precisely which week the sunflowers would bloom on the mountainside, and when they would crisp into brown. It was a place indistinguishable from my family and my childhood—they were one and the same.

When Post Malone moved in a few years back, it was a real novelty, almost like a joke. When I was growing up, a wealthy developer/businessman/rumored criminal lived at the top of our street behind a big private gate—we would go up there as kids and make faces into the security camera. When I was a teen, I babysat for him and his wife a few times, and got to go past the security gate and into the sleek modern house that was unlike anything else on our street. It was the first time I saw an infinity pool. A few years ago, the property went up for sale and Post Malone bought it—reportedly because he loves snowboarding in Utah. He brought with him a parade of exotic cars that our quiet mountain street had never seen before—Maseratis, Lamborghinis, supercars of various stripes and garish colors.

It was amusing: a celebrity in our middle-of-nowhere midst. The neighbors say that aside from the car parades and the trucks supporting his various construction projects, Mr. Malone is a surprisingly polite neighbor.

My parents sold my childhood home about eight years ago when they divorced, and it was a pretty big loss for me and all my siblings, to be honest. We were all very attached to it, the mountain, our happy memories there. But there was an underlying promise that I could move back to this mountain city if I wished. Salt Lake City would always be a home to me, and it was always there as a Plan B: An affordable and beautiful alternative to my impractical city venture.

And then, in 2020, I did move back to Salt Lake City. Not because I made a decision, but because my home in New York City became the epicenter of a pandemic. We rented a car for spring break in March of 2020, and drove out of town. Within days the city was shut down, and I haven’t set foot in New York City or our apartment there since.

So I’ve been back in my hometown now for a year. But so has everyone else. Like many mid-sized cities with any desirability, especially in the mountain west, Salt Lake has seen a pandemic boom. Nothing like it has happened here since Brigham Young lured converts to his frontier city and displaced native peoples, and the city will never be the same again. Salt Lake has had a steady creep of 3% growth for the last several years, but that skyrocketed to at least 15% last year.

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People from California, the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere, newly untethered from their offices and seeking the outdoors, fleeing fires or taxes or whatever, have flooded in. The median home sales price has shot up over 60% from five years ago. The middle-class bungalows in the neighborhood next to my high school, where we have been renting a house, sell on the regular for 40K over asking. Bidding wars are the norm. A nice, but not fancy, rambler a couple streets over (with upscale landscaping to dress it up—boxwoods will get you far in this market!) just sold for a million, in less than a week.

Needless to say, the quiet canyon with the stunning views where I grew up is now for people like Post Malone, not people like me. In less than a decade, the street I grew up on went from “home sweet home,” to home of multi-million-dollar bidding wars. This has been an interesting lesson for me in gentrification, and at some future date, with a little research and reflection, I’d like to write an essay with the working title “When Gentrification Comes for the White People.” Which feels like what is happening in 2021 though most white people I know wouldn’t yet call the specific displacement and anxiety they are feeling by that name, because we are used to benefiting from that phenomenon in problematic ways, not being on the other end of it.

The current real-estate super boom can make you feel like if you don’t already own a home that you love, in the place that you love, maybe you never will. Of course, that was always the case for a lot of people, and now that number has rapidly expanded. I feel like this only exacerbates, or maybe cements, a feeling of homesickness that has been nagging at many late Gen X-ers and Millennials for a while now.

Dr. Natalie Brown studies the relationship between homesickness and economic instability, and her recent writing on this topic resonated with me:

My life before the pandemic feels indistinguishable sometimes from the quarantine that followed. The pandemic exposed more than it created the preexisting cracks in my support network. I was already lonely and inadequately supported as a mother of young children living in Colorado. Like many other families, we’d followed a job and found opportunity. That opportunity, however, came with the costs of living away from extended family and expensive housing that guaranteed my parents and siblings would not follow us.

My current situation feels different from the one in which I grew up…I find myself struggling with isolation. I’ve lost most of my local friends with young children in the last five years as families move in and out in search of cheaper housing and struggle to pay for things like preschool.

Research shows that younger generations feel homesickness and loneliness much more than older ones, and that makes sense when they actually can’t afford homes, or can’t afford homes in the places where they wish to live. But as Brown points out, that’s not the only thing: it’s the relatively new phenomenon of people scattering from their families and support networks to chase jobs that has created part of this isolation, and as a result individual communities struggle to establish continuity and thrive.

Homesickness is caused “by the brain’s desire for routines and attachment systems,” according to the Atlantic piece “Grownups Can Get Homesick, Too.” We don’t necessarily wish to literally return to a home (though sometimes I think I actually do??) so much as we miss and crave a sense of security and comfort—two things that are in shorter and shorter supply in modern American life.

“Rootlessness” is a cause of homesickness, and indeed, since the Boomers, younger generations have been more likely to move away from home due to wanderlust, or economic and work demands. 41 percent of Millennials qualify as so-called vacation movers according to a Mayflower Moving survey, meaning they live in a place they don’t intend to settle in permanently, and 40 percent of these did so for a new job.

I have news for people who make these surveys, and the Millennials and Gen Zer’s who are “vacation movers.” As an oldster, I can tell you that your so-called vacation move (inasmuch as moving to get or keep a job can be considered a “vacation”?) can very well become a not-vacation adult life in a place that you didn’t plan on. Many of my friends in their 30’s and 40’s, especially since the pandemic, are questioning the place where they live. Most of them landed in Seattle, NYC, Washington D.C., or Texas to take a job, and are now living out their adult lives there a decade or more later, wondering, “How did I end up here? Is this where I want to be?”

After moving back home, I’m still not sure where I want to be. I’m about to leave my childhood home for New York City again. It’s bittersweet, and I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s beautiful here in Utah. I will miss my family here so, so much. There’s nowhere in the world more familiar to me. The yellow, high-altitude sunlight feels right to me. The particular sweet smell of the spring mountain air, when the canyon streams are full with snow run-off and the canyon breezes rush into the valley, is a smell that I learned to recognize before I had a conscious memory. This should be the place where I feel the most security and comfort.

But this city is almost 90% white, and my husband and my daughter are not white. My husband, who is black, doesn’t feel particularly comfortable here, and we struggle to find appropriately diverse spaces for our young child. I don’t belong anymore to the LDS faith that I was raised with that still dominates this place. I guess this is to say that my home has changed, and I have changed, too.

I’m kind of mad and sad that the place that I’m from is changing into a resort town for wealthy people (cough cough Californians). But I’m not sorry that I have changed. Homesickness is something that is sometimes forced on us in modern life in ways that are painful. But I also wonder if maybe it’s the best name that we have for describing the strange ache of becoming a different person—one that our old selves, in our old places, wouldn’t recognize.


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