an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
In our everyday lives we move through spaces and use material objects that, in various ways, shape our sense of who we are.
I am in the final months of a PhD in History at University College London that explores this theme within the context of mid-twentieth century Britain. My research specifically examines men’s experiences of housing in the decades after the Second World and the impacts of well-planned accommodation on men’s willingness to help with domestic chores, play with their children and generally take a greater interest in family life.
After having spent almost four years thinking about the relationship between space and identity, it should not come as a surprise that I regularly find myself reflexively questioning how environments effect my own identity.
I embarked on my own spatial dislocation in November 2015 when I relocated from my current residence in Dublin, Ireland to Austin to join the Institute of Historical Studies, University of Texas at Austin as a Visiting Research Associate for one month.
Questions about space and identity came into focus in the early hours of 16 November 2015 as I lay awake in my hotel bedroom, a few minutes’ walk from the UT campus. The combination of jet lag and a sugar rush, brought about by my over-indulgence in the hotel’s complimentary biscotti, meant that my mind could not rest.
I lay there considering whether my identity would change in any way during my time in Texas. Austin and Dublin share many commonalities (cosmopolitan capital cities with around one million residents) but an equal amount of differences: with the hotter climate, would I arrange my day any differently? How would the city’s grid system shape my experience of walking to and from work? Would the greater amount of space in my accommodation (compared to my Dublin flat) mean that I leave most of the room underused?
These changes certainly unsettled my routine but did they alter my identity? My research proposes the thesis that everyday spaces and material objects possessed the power to shape, constrain and define masculine practices. I examine what changed in men’s lives as they moved from overcrowded, inner-city accommodation to their own family homes on new, often suburban, estates. In their new homes many men discovered new hobbies, such as growing flowers in their back garden, and spent more time with wives and children. Although I adopt a historical focus, nothing suggests that these developments only relate to the middle decades of twentieth-century Britain.
I awoke on the 16 November ready to make the most of my new environment.
Each morning at breakfast I sat among other guests as a total unknown. A blank slate for whomever I encountered over eggs, bacon and dark coffee. Yet, unlike the men discussed in my historical research, I had no desire to seize this newfound anonymity to change anything about my identity.
If anything, I found myself presenting an exaggerated version of my Scottish self. Even though I found the November weather uncomfortably hot, I paraded around the campus in my tartan ‘trews’, rolled the letter ‘r’ theatrically and remained poised to offer incisive analysis of Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum to anyone who wanted to listen. I worked to accentuate my incongruity with this new environment.
I spent several evenings at a great eatery on the Drag working through every combination of taco and beer on the menu. As I did at breakfast, I sat totally anonymous and often thought about how my experience differed from the men in my research.
Any analogy between how I experience space and identity with the men in my research is, of course, far-fetched. Perhaps naively, I do not feel that the everyday spaces I use and experience in Dublin inhibit who I wish to be. I live in a nice flat, which is neither too small nor too public. Outside my home is safe, I can walk down the street day or night and not feel at risk. Nor do I feel that my neighbours take a judgemental interest in my life. Space does not seem to restrict who I am.
My spatial situation therefore differed from the lives of many men in 1940s Britain whom, even after marriage, shared overcrowded housing with their in-laws or felt judged by overly nosey neighbours. Men’s movement in the mid-twentieth century from high-density, inner-city housing to new estates also provided many with their first experience of inside toilets, electricity and private bedrooms. Access to new spaces and material objects enabled many men to enact in reality ideals that they had long imagined.
In comparison to the men who form the subject of my study, my temporary relocation across the Atlantic from one English-speaking city to another was far less monumental. As with most historians of the recent past, the process of researching and writing can slip into personal experience. Using the correct medium, such as a blog post rather than a journal article, this slippage between the historical and the personal can help you think creatively about the connections between past and present. I therefore raise these themes within a contemporary context to highlight that for many men (and, of course, women) everyday spaces still limit their potentials. Poor quality housing, overcrowding and homelessness are not historical issues but continue to negatively shape the lives of residents in both Dublin and Austin.
Kevin Guyan is a final year PhD student in History at University College London and currently lives in Dublin. His research explores the relationship between masculinities, planning knowledge and domestic space in Britain in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Follow him on Twitter @kevin_guyan