When home is short for heart­break

Nam­ing shoot­ings after lo­ca­tion takes its toll on na­tives

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - NATION / WORLD - By Ted An­thony Associated Press New York

As the neigh­bor­hood where she grew up be­came na­tional news, as the syn­a­gogue where her bat mitz­vah took place 37 years ago be­came the font of a thou­sand un­wel­come tears, Sarah Bloom watched TV — and lis­tened.

What she heard as she sat in her Florida home last week­end made her very sad: news an­chors dis­cussing what “Squir­rel Hill” means to the na­tional po­lit­i­cal de­bate. Talk­ing heads an­a­lyz­ing what im­pli­ca­tions “Pitts­burgh” will have on anti-semitic ac­tiv­ity in the United States. The names of her home­town and beloved neigh­bor­hood, sud­denly a na­tional short­hand for blood­shed and heart­break.

“If you hurt Pitts­burgh, you hurt me. If you hurt Squir­rel Hill, you kill me,” said a still dis­be­liev­ing Bloom, 49, who lives a few miles from the site of the Park­land shoot­ing eight months ago. “It doesn’t fit — Orlando, Sandy Hook, Las Ve­gas, Pitts­burgh. Not my city. Take that out of there.”

Shanksville and New­town. Waco and Char­lottesville and Aurora. Kent State and Columbine and Locker­bie and Ok­la­homa City. Pearl Har­bor and Hiroshima. And now: Pitts­burgh and Squir­rel Hill.

When the name of the place you hold dear sud­denly be­comes syn­ony­mous with tragedy, the emo­tional im­pact can be sear­ing and the af­ter­ef­fects can linger for months, years, even gen­er­a­tions.

“Char­lottesville is now known for the tiki-torch car­ri­ers,” says Waki

Wynn, 47, a pri­vate-school ath­letic di­rec­tor in the Vir­ginia town where a “Unite the Right” march last year drew white su­prem­a­cists and led to vi­o­lence. The events etched the name of his com­mu­nity in­deli­bly onto the na­tional psy­che.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, there’s a term for this: metonymy, or us­ing a word as a standin for what it rep­re­sents. We do it a lot in Amer­ica, and to some ex­tent it’s nat­u­ral. A busy so­ci­ety with com­pli­cated ideas to ex­press needs short­hand some­times.

Thus we say we have prob­lems with “Wash­ing­ton” (the Amer­i­can govern­ment). When base­ball play­ers talk of mak­ing it to Coop­er­stown, they’re talk­ing not just about the com­mu­nity but the larger no­tion of base­ball im­mor­tal­ity. And when as­tro­nauts out in space reach out to “Hous­ton,” it’s not the city where Mis­sion Con­trol is lo­cated but the in­sti­tu­tion where prob­lems can be solved.

“It’s a way of en­cap­su­lat­ing a whole se­ries of ideas that are com­plex, that we don’t have to ex­plain,” says lin­guist Alan Juffs, who heads the English Language In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh.

But it is tragedy that seems to re­pur­pose place names into monikers for trau­matic events most freely, and our mod­ern, quick-draw me­dia so­ci­ety has only ac­cel­er­ated this.

“Squir­rel Hill has be­come one point on a long con­tin­uum of in­creas­ingly com­mon mo­ments like this,” says Robert Hayashi, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can stud­ies at Amherst Col­lege who stud­ies how sto­ries about places shape lo­cal iden­tity.

“Those place names be­come a kind of sim­plis­tic kind of la­bel for this kind of event that doesn’t al­low us to delve into the his­tory and con­text be­hind it,” says Hayashi, a Pitts­burgh na­tive. “Peo­ple can talk about their com­mu­nity, but it gets over­writ­ten by this larger nar­ra­tive.”

Big­ger towns where bad things hap­pen don’t suf­fer this syn­drome the same way be­cause their iden­tity, to the rest of the coun­try and world, is much more mul­ti­fac­eted.

Say “New York” to­day and no one will think of 9/11 as they do with Shanksville, the crash site of United Flight 93. And “Las Ve­gas” doesn’t only mean “mass shoot­ing” a year after the worst one by a sin­gle as­sailant in the coun­try’s his­tory took place there. Same with Orlando, which still means “Dis­ney” more than it does “night­club mas­sacre.”

Even “Pitts­burgh” is a big enough, fa­mil­iar enough place that it will likely re­gain its sta­tus as a city, rather than an event, in rel­a­tively short or­der.

But with smaller towns and schools — or, in the uniquely named Squir­rel Hill’s case, a dis­tinct part of a larger town — it is harder to shake the rep­u­ta­tion. Kent State and Columbine, both names of schools, re­main stand-ins for larger so­cial is­sues. How do com­mu­ni­ties move on? Time helps, but not al­ways.

Charles Krupa / Associated Press

A car drives past the town line as the sun breaks the hori­zon, a day after the 2012 shoot­ing of chil­dren and adults at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary school in New­town, Conn. When the name of the place you hold dear sud­denly be­comes syn­ony­mous with tragedy, the emo­tional im­pact can be sear­ing and the af­ter­ef­fects can linger for months, years, even gen­er­a­tions.

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