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New Book Explores What Home Really Means to Some Americans - 2003-08-28


Mobility has become an integral part of modern life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American will move 12 times in his or her lifetime, about once every six years. Yet, some have a real sense of connection to one place. Before writing his book Braving Home , author Jake Halpern was curious to know why certain people get so attached to their surroundings. Mr. Halpern discovered what home really means to some people.

While moving from city to city might seem like a recent trend or lifestyle, author Jake Halpern says that historically, America has always been a nation on the move: immigrants would arrive in the 'land of opportunity,' then set out in different directions. Mr. Halpern himself comes from a family with a long tradition of moving around.

The 28-year-old journalist has, in the last several years, lived in three different American cities, as well as in Israel, India, and the Czech Republic. "I grew up in Buffalo, New York, a town that is depopulated. My brother and I used to walk through these old neighborhoods where no one is still living there. But there were always a few people who were still there," he says. "We were always intrigued by them. And after graduation from college, I spent a year in the Middle East where people's connection to land is so intense. When I started to come across some stories, I was struck by how some people really do have that kind of connection to a place even in the United States, even in a very tough situation."

To research and write his book, Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales, Jake Halpern visited five communities in five states: in the southern region of the country, the west coast, Alaska and Hawaii.

"In each place that I arrived, I set out to find one person whose own story, kind of, told the story of the place," he says. "And when I arrived in each place, I spent a few days looking for that person, interviewing a lot of people, then picking my person as best as I could. Either pitching a tent in their backyard or moving into their house and trying to get into their shoes and understand as best as I could what their reasons for staying were."

His first stop was Princeville, North Carolina. Founded after the Civil War of the 1860s by freed slaves, it's considered the oldest all-black town in America. In 1999, it vanished beneath a sea of floodwater. When the water receded, there was little left of Princeville and the town was almost abandoned. But not completely.

Wrapped in a blanket, reading his bible, Thad Night remained. Mr. Halpern says he actually inspired others to move back and rebuild their town. "Thad has worked all his life for that house. He grew up as a sharecropper, which meant he essentially rented a small shack and worked for another man on another man's land. And he worked double shift in a mill and as a farmer so he can own a home. When he owned a home this was like a crowning achievement in his life, and he was the first person in his family to own a home," he says.

Jake Halpern's next visit was to Wittier, Alaska, a curious place in the Alaskan wilderness that consists of one high-rise building. "When I first heard about it, I almost did not believe it," he says. "Nestled along glaciers and mountains of snow is a single 14 story high rise. It is an old cold war Military base. The only way in is through a 2 and a half mile [around four kilometers] long entrance tunnel buried beneath the mountains. But it was decommissioned and abandoned. Though it once held 10,000 men, nowadays, it has a hundred civilians that still live there."

Wittier has the reputation of being a refuge for people who are on the run from one thing or another. Jake Halpern says one example is Babs Reynolds, who fled her abusive husband and moved to Wittier 25 years ago. "The man who worked in the train, the ticket taker was also the mayor of the town. [Babs gave a picture of her husband to this guy and said, 'if you let him in, he is going to kill me.' And the mayor or the ticket taker said, 'do not worry.' So there is a kind of frontier justice, and once she is in this building, she is safe. The only challenge was that then she had to spend all of her time in a very claustrophobic environment inside one building," he says.

Eighty-one-year old Millie Decker of Malibu, California, is another loyal resident who would never consider leaving her home. Author Halpern says Ms. Decker confronted many dangers in her life as a cowgirl, but nothing tests her endurance like the wildfires that often strike the area. "When these fires come, the Fire Department tells everyone that they have to leave," he says. "And while most of the Malibu residents flee, the Deckers always stay and fight the fire, which is something that they have always done since the 1880's."

Millie Decker says they fight the fires with water sacks and shovels, and miraculously they've never lost their home. "My home is an old home that my husband built it in the late 1930's. I'd never sell this, It is my home and I love it," she says.

One hundred and forty-five kilometers south of New Orleans, a narrow stretch of land called Grand Isle juts out into the Gulf of Mexico, inviting the fiercest of storms the sea can deliver. Author Halpern says Grand Isle is Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island, and Ambrose Besson is one of the few residents who never leaves.

Mr. Halpern also visited Royal Gardens on Hawaii's Kilauea volcano and met Jack Thompson, who would never leave his home, even though it's now the only one in the area. "In 1993, Kilauea erupted and a massive wall of lava rolled down the side of the mountain taking out everything in its path except for a small island of greenery. Jack's house was spared. So all the streets that once led to his house were paved over by smoldering lava. On your way there, when you get to the edge of the lava field there is a sign that says absolutely do not go beyond this point. Jack would just walk past this point and start across the smoldering land that separates him from his house. When we were walking across that, I was a little bit nervous. But when we get to the house, it truly was spectacular," he says.

Mr. Thompson's house is more to him than just a place to live. When the woman he loved for many years wanted them to move, he refused. When she insisted that he choose between her and his house, he made his priorities clear. "I chose to stay. It was kind of sad at first, but relationships come and go," he says. "Home is something else. It is some place you'd rather be than anywhere else. It was my home long ago before the lava came. When the lava came, I thought it is O.K. to stay and I do not regret it."

Author Jake Halpern says that despite volcanoes, floods, wildfires and hurricanes, the people he profiles in his book have a fierce devotion to their homes. "The moment they decided to stay is a defining point for them. And I think it becomes a point of pride, it is what differentiates them. I think it takes them back to a different era, pioneer America where Americans were proud of battling elements and they were not afraid if they'd be the only ones left this kind of distant from frontier landscape," he says. "And I feel that people that I visited in the book have very much seen themselves in that fashion of the American pioneers, resourceful and tough."

And through such personal stories, Jake Halpern came to realize that home is not a place that one discovers, as much as it is a place where one experiences a deep sense of belonging.

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