Identity


When countries take flight, dreams take wing. Interflug, more than serving as a tangible marker of East German culture, was interesting for what it said about statecraft: It suggested that a state airline is a necessary condition for modern statehood. Interflug is interesting because both it and the state it represented have disappeared; Air Nauru is interesting because it is an outlier, the state airline of the Republic of Nauru, population 13,770. (That’s an Air Nauru 727 in vintage livery.)

Nauru is a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. So what gives a country with maybe a quarter the population of my hometown (also an island, but there’s no Air Bainbridge) the right to have an airline? And airline, moreover, that at one point had a fleet with a seating capacity equivalent to 10% of Nauru’s population? Phosphate.

The vagaries of the global commodities market concentrate wealth in strange places, and cause people to do strange things with it: Air Nauru once flew one of the most comprehensive route networks in the South Pacific, even though most routes were unprofitable and the average load factor throughout the network hovered around 20%. On a 737, that’s about 26 people on a plane designed to carry around 130. To look at it another way, that means one person per row of seats.

But having an airline means you run with the big boys. Note the eponymous Emirates and Singapore planes in the above photo, and the United (US) and Qantas (Australia) planes beyond them. The United Arab Emirates, although a good deal larger in area and population than the Republic of Nauru, is, I think, a fair comparison, an example of how the Nauru model scales up. (Or, to put it another way, how the UAE model might scale down to suit Nauru.)

And although these countries’ airlines have larger planes, longer routes, and more passengers in a day than Air Nauru sees all year, I’d argue they’re not so different. Scale up, scale down. It’s like putting toddlers in suits for weddings: Let me just measure your state and we’ll be able to cut an airline to fit straight away.

Air Nauru is now known as Our Airline (slogan: Let Our Airline be Your Airline). This new name makes the connection between national identity and airline ownership explicit (and ironic, because Our Airline is privately owned and operated). The slogan, cheesy though it may be, speaks to the importance of an airline like this: Nauru gets something from it (a claim to statehood, a chance to be taken seriously, a demonstration of ability) and so does the world (another airline, another state, another voice).

On a larger scale, Our Airline speaks to how we chose to order our existence. It represents, as Interflug did, an alternate reality, another way of seeing and experiencing the world. How do we choose which airline to fly? is really just a proxy query for the deeper question: How do we choose how we want to live?

 

Related: Fly Interflug! and Regionalism in Flight

Interflug represented East Germany, and American regional airlines are freighted with cultural meaning much in the same way Interflug that was. Regional carriers abound: In Seattle and Anchorage, expect to see Alaska Airlines 737s and Horizon Air turboprops. In Minneapolis, check out those Sun Country planes. If you’re passing through Milwaukee—although why would you be?—take a gander at those Midwest Airlines 717s. Or look at the animals painted on the tails of Frontier Airlines’ Airbuses in Denver, CO.

What does it mean that our regional airlines have concentrated in these pockets? What is it about the north Midwest and the Pacific Northwest that have given each their own airlines? The only other region that has really had its own airline was the South, with Delta and Southwest, but both have since become national airlines. Are regional airlines indicative of a stronger regional culture? Of weak links to a national culture? Or a symptom of automobile dependence in a post-railroad age: Cities just too far away from each other to be linked by car?

The airlines named above are just the big players: There are also a smattering of tiny, truly regional carriers. The fascinating thing about these is that they, almost without exception, operate under the names and liveries of the big players. You’ve probably flown, without realizing it, with Air Wisconsin, Mesa Airlines, or Chautauqua Airlines, whose planes and crews wear the liveries and uniforms of US Airways Express, Delta Connection, United Express, American Connection, or Continental Express. Regionalism in disguise, wearing the mask of national authority.

We seek our identity in strange places, in strange reflections. We seek it in sports teams and local newspapers, on water towers and postcards. Regional airlines, too, play on ideas of hometown pride and local boys done good. (Alaska is “proudly all Boeing.”) We take these planes as confirmation of our self-worth, players as they are in an anonymous system larger than any of us. If these airlines can make it out there in the world, then so can we. We carry our homes with us, in our hearts and in our liveries.

I love trucking slogans. They represent this odd meeting of personality and corporate image, a vernacular literature.

New England Motor Freight truck, York St.

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A fan proclaiming allegiance to Apalachicola, FL. When I saw this fan over the summer, I thought its conflation of “fanatic” and “cooling device” was outrageously clever. (I still think so.) But given time to reflect, I’m struck by how catchy this word/image combination is, even though it is not at all specific to Apalachicola. Imagine, for example: I’m a fan of Paris. Of Cincinnati. Of Bellingham. And while the cadence of “I’m a fan of Apalachicola” makes the name stick more readily than other place names, the form of this advertisement is wholly independent of its content.

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The form of the memorial license plate is equally independent of content, but the designations we stick on geographic places are—by their very nature—specific. Only Apalachicola can be the Oyster Capital of the World; to replace ‘Apalachicola’ with Paris/Cincinnati/Gorst would be to lie. Content can be as powerful as form, but without form is more forgettable—I remember the fan, but not the oysters. I’d like to see Apalachicola’s destination branding combine the two by plopping down a giant oyster at the corner of 9th and Market Street.

This combination of the form and content of a local icon is, I gather, the driving force behind such projects as Pigs on Parade and the Baltimore Crabs. The inspiration for these projects, the Cow Parade of Chicago, is, oddly enough, diluting itself through offers of syndication and franchising. Want cows in your city? Sure, why not! Location branding should be the ultimate in location-aware content, not a stale repetition of something Chicago did better nearly 10 years ago.

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Modification, personalization: Yale’s light trucks, used by its Custodial, Facilities and Grounds Maintenance departments. Relationships made material in bumper-stickers and eye-shadow headlights, identities structured and affirmed.

Today’s Times has a piece about a Greek Revival-style house in upstate New York. The catch is that the house isn’t 150 years old, like its neighbors or like it looks: It was built in 1999. The other catch is that the house looks traditional because parts of it are actually old—antique wooden flooring, treated cabinet knobs, 19th century English furnishings.

This all compels the question: How do we determine authenticity? Is the house authentic because of its attention to detail, or inauthentic because of its youth? Would it be more authentic if it had been constructed using mid-19th-century methods? Do the plywood floors beneath its wall-to-wall carpeting diminish its inner truth?

Can theatricality and authenticity coexist?

[A Brand-New Very Old House via NYTimes. Phil Mansfield photo.]

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The economic landscape of Vacationland, captured in its businesses and industries, reveals both how its users make economic decisions and what economic decisions are possible. No surprise here: Vacationland businesses tilt heavily towards offering what you need for a vacation, both primary vacation gear (swim suits, goggles, pool toys, sunscreen, etc.) and secondary vacation gear (disposable cameras, souvenirs, etc.). The scaling-up of the tourism industry thus leaves an economic footprint. The seasonal nature of Vacationland also leaves its mark on the economic landscape: During the off-season, many businesses close down completely. Others are open only on weekends. The strength of a given business’s ties to the tourist economy is revealed by what times of day or year the business is closed

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Staple businesses, like grocery stores, banks, or pharmacies, are open year-round. This type of business may alter its hours, or change what merchandise it carries for the high and low seasons. The merchandise change-over is likely to be a more extreme restocking than the usual summer-winter sunscreen-versus-eggnog restocking that takes place elsewhere, because the businesses of Vacationland must cater to both Locals and Tourists, to different demographics in different seasons. Locals live in Vacationland year-round, and their material needs are no different than the average American citizen. Tourists visit Vacationland for short stretches. Depending on their hometown or socioeconomic standing, they may bring with them more cosmopolitan tastes (better wine, organic meat, whatever) but, more importantly, tourists bring the idea that they are on vacation. This idea itself introduces economic variations.

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Food becomes an element of self-identity, of the auto-mythmaking of a place, in the way that Vermont maple syrup is produced in vast industrial vats, but advertised as dripping slowly out of maple trees into quaint wooden buckets. Vacation food and real food are two different things, so different, in fact, that locals may never eat what tourists do. (I saw this in New Orleans, which doesn’t fit the definition of a Vacationland—not seasonal, too many people live there—but which has the same sort of deeply-rooted insider/outsider ideas that underpin Vacationland. The tourists ate gumbo or Zatarain’s red beans and rice. The locals ate Roly Poly wraps and went to Starbucks.) Vacation-foods may be further informed by place instead of availability—we expect to eat seafood at the seashore, but why is the New Jersey seafood stand shown above selling lobster from Maine? The idea of the place can overwhelm its reality; tourist expectations guide and form a tourist world, a world balanced between reality and the myth of vacation. Tourists are in this world, but not of it; locals are of this world, but not in it.

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Certain foods become more acceptable in Vacationland; vacation becomes a social excuse for indulgence. And not just when it comes to eating: Luxury purchases themselves become a type of souvenir, a way to internalize the vacation experience. Purchase a part of the place, and carry it with you—hence the jewelry stores, art galleries, and antique shops that proliferate in certain segments of Vacationland. Tourists are paying a premium for these luxury goods, paying for the privilege of purchasing it while they are on vacation. Vacation is something you buy over and over again

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Real estate in Vacationland is huge. The tourist industry is built on medium-to-long term vacation rentals, and real estate agencies typically handle the cleaning and maintenance of rental units for absentee owners (which is to say, most owners in Vacationland). Brokers show properties to potential renters, filtered by number of bedrooms, beach proximity, and price range, much as they would to potential buyers. Vacationeers may rent the same property year after year and know that two-week period of Vacationland and only that two-week period. But they know it and know it intimately. Vacationland builds unintentional spatial products that are materially ephemeral but codified in dates and travel times, rental agreements and damage-deposit checks.

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Another set of businesses unique to Vacationland is the off-season industry, an entire group of services and products meant to help you turn things on and off. These are the guys who will shrink-wrap your boat, drain your pool, flush your pipes. In early June, they’ll paint your trim; in late September, they’ll install your storm windows. The real estate industry is a big client: If absentee owners don’t want to vacuum their rugs between renters, you can bet they’d also rather have someone else handle opening and closing their home for the season. Quoth the New York Times, on the high/low season divide in the Hamptons:

The summer infestation is greeted with ambivalence (great for the bottom line, bad for the blood pressure) endured with fortitude and a fixed smile, and forgotten with haste. “It’s a little bit of a clash of cultures,” observed Mary Croghan, an owner of East Hampton Business Services. “In the summer I have 18 people double-parked, some with their motors running, and standing in front of me punching their BlackBerrys. A lot of their urgency, let’s face it, is artificial. These people haven’t drawn a breath to the bottom of their diaphragm in a decade.” Some of those businesses have to adjust their offerings (more lobster salad), their supplies (more refrigerators), their staff (more bodies) and their hours (start earlier, end later) to prepare for the summer population. All of them have to adjust their attitudes and coping strategies.

The article from which this excerpt is taken is the best study of local attitudes towards seasonal residents I have ever found. It perfectly captures the high/low, tourist/local divide. Another Times article (from 1995!) makes many of the same points, and notes that the 50-day summer influx of seasonal residents “generates between 60 and 70 percent of the year’s economic activity.

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Vacationland is not an idle or frivolous place, and the leisure it packages is sold at a price. This is an economy that leaves homes and businesses empty for most of the year. This is an economy that remodels its host, and the goods and services it offers, twice every year. This is an economy as serious as any other: Lopsided and funny-looking though it may be, this is what makes money. The strength of these economic forces varies up and down Vacationland, with affluence and climate, and a summer in the Hamptons will be different from one at the Jersey Shore which will be different still from one in the Florida panhandle. But regardless of where you happen to be vacationing, you are still on vacation.

These economic forces are easy to see in the high season, but they come into starker relief during the low season, when the streets and parking lots are empty, the traffic lights blink yellow, and almost every store and house is dark. 

Up next: The governmental buildings of Vacationland.

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