A Space to Call Our Own

Introducing the new column You Are Here, by members of the Writers Grotto.

writers grotto, lee kravetz reading
Susan Ito

You Are Here. On a map posted at a trailhead, on a schematic for an airport terminal or the floor plan of a hospital or ballpark, on the legend of a shopping mall or college campus directory—the words ring with certainty. With their direct address and declarative authority, those three syllables offer a way to locate your place in the world, a chance to understand, at least until you set off again, where you are: Here.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our relationship to the places in our lives, and our very sense of place itself. Think of it: for much of 2020, most people in California, and many other states, were asked not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. The place that had been a largely metaphorical refuge from the outside world became a very literal one.

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Even now, as we start to look for a “new normal,” we are thinking of place in different ways. The world, which had become so small that we could girdle it in little more than a day, seems to have expanded again, if our ability to get around in it is any measure. Quarantines, travel embargoes, vaccination and masking requirements—they are new kinds of barriers, but their effect calls to mind an earlier age, one in which it was not so trivial to cross a continent or ocean. We think more carefully now about whom we want to be in the same place with (unless we are part of the same “pandemic pod”). And the supply-chain issues that are now commonplace have increased our awareness of where things come from (beyond just “Amazon”) and reminded us of the reality of getting things from place to place around the globe.

It’s possible the world will return to the “old normal” in short order. But even in the unlikely event it does, other things have shifted. Climate change is robbing us of some of the most important places on Earth. And places that once felt inviolable—our nation’s Capitol, other nations’ borders—have been subject to the worst kinds of violence imaginable. It might all go back tomorrow, but even if it does, we’d be remiss not to consider what the places in our lives mean to us, how we plan to nurture and care for them, and the role they play in our communities—and that our communities play in how we relate to those places.

For the Writers Grotto, the notion of place has always played an important role.

An examination of these ideas of place—especially of places in the West—will be at the heart of a new column for Alta Journal. In You Are Here, members of the Writers Grotto (a creative community and coworking space in San Francisco) will explore place and places, in all their ramifications. We will look at the forces that are shaping the places in our lives, for better or for worse; the people who occupy those places; what it means to be from a place or of a place; and how a place and the people who live or have lived there shape the communities that develop there now and in the future.

For the Writers Grotto, the notion of place has always played an important role. The Grotto was founded in 1994 by three guys who needed a place to write; they rented an apartment in the Castro district of San Francisco, and in doing so unwittingly established what would become one of the premier literary institutions of the Bay Area. In the nearly three decades since, the Grotto has expanded into larger and larger locations—including a former dog and cat hospital and a 7,500-square-foot space near South Park in San Francisco’s SoMa district. There, the Grotto grew to number nearly 150 members whose achievements include dozens of books; thousands of articles, short stories, and poems; and scores of awards, including Pulitzers, Guggenheims, Pushcarts, Golden Globes, and more.

Despite those accomplishments, COVID took its toll on the Grotto. In 2020, we closed our doors—not on our community but on the warren of offices it had occupied. We were forced to break our lease, and for the first time in more than 25 years, we had no space to call our own. To survive, we had to learn how to sustain our community through a period when being together—the very reason the Grotto existed—could have been lethal.

Late last year, we landed in a new space—an airy suite of offices on Mission Street near San Francisco’s Civic Center. If you believe that people leave their mark on places no less than places do on people, then the signs are good. Former occupants include the American Civil Liberties Union, a manufacturer of aloha shirts, a corset company, and Mother Jones magazine. Before the seven-story building was constructed, nearly a century ago, a tent factory and a straw-hat maker occupied the site. (It is hard to tell whether any of San Francisco’s Native peoples lived here, though they maintained a number of shell mound burial sites in the area.) Craftsmanship, community, and social conscience are part of this new place, and it seems a perfect legacy for the Writers Grotto to bring forward.

We haven’t forgotten how to gather, but we are out of the habit.

As with the rest of the world, the Grotto’s current challenge is to reconstitute our community in physical space. Our capacity for working (and learning) in solitude has only grown over the past two years. We haven’t forgotten how to gather, but we are out of the habit. As a community, we’ve fragmented—and it isn’t always easy to put the pieces back together. Email, texts, and Zoom are no substitute for being in the same physical place with another person. Going to an office—or to a restaurant, or theater, or school—can feel strange. Even when we’re confronted with those confident words, “You Are Here,” our place in the world may feel less certain than it has for a long time.

As Grotto members begin to gather again after two years, we are reminded of the importance of place in creating community. Being able to walk down the hall and seek someone’s advice, comparing notes over lunch, reading from a work in progress and seeing friends’ faces react a few paces away—these small connections knit our community together and help us foster each other’s success.

As places change, for better or for worse, we can’t ignore how they affect our communities and our lives. All these changes demand investigation, and all these places demand exploration. With this new column, we want to ask what places mean to us, to better understand the roles they play in our lives. We want to know what it means to be in or of or from a place, and what it means to say, “You Are Here.”•

You Are Here is a monthly column that examines ideas about place and places in the West, written by members of the Writers Grotto.

Mark Wallace is the founding executive director of the Writers Grotto and a contributing editor at Alta Journal, where he manages the You Are Here column.
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