Is there a universal definition for what it means to be a local?
I'm not entirely sure, but to help me find a possible answer, I thought about my own journey in defining local for myself.
You see, I wasn't privileged to be born in New York City or San Francisco or Austin or Miami or one of those destination cities in America. I was born in a small Army town in Texas but don't remember much of my time there because I spent my formative years in Upstate South Carolina. I didn't learn how much passion I have for cities until later in life.
From ages 8 through 16, Greenville, South Carolina, was my hometown. I was born in Texas as was my oldest brother and my mom grew up in the state too, so even while I lived most of my childhood in South Carolina, I felt a kinship to Texas. But did that mean I was "local" to Texas? Or was I "local" to South Carolina?
What I'll say is that sometime during my early teen years, after joining the communities within the high school marching band and track team in Berea, I started to feel at home. I started to feel like a local. I knew all the main roads and restaurants and the quickest way to walk to a friend's house and the best place to get cheap candy. All my friends had been born and raised here, and although I hadn't been, I'd felt every bit as local to this small town as them.
Greenville, South Carolina, became my city and Berea, a small town outside the city center, became my home. I was a local here, it seemed.
But two weeks before my junior year of high school, my mom picked us up and moved us back to that small town in Texas. Everything that felt like home to me was left back in Greenville and now Killeen, Texas, a town best known for Fort Hood - the largest Army base in the U.S. - was my new home. But I didn't feel like a local here. It was so foreign to me. The big oak trees weren't anywhere to be found. The freshly mowed lawns I'd grown accustomed to in Berea weren't there either. The popular places to eat and hangout were different, unless you count the Metroplex movie theatre teenagers all over America frequent.
I was lost because I was not a local. But it was strange because I was born here. I spent my early life here. Should that not make me more comfortable in these new/old surroundings? Not exactly.
Later in life, I came to learn that being born somewhere doesn't automatically and authentically make you a "local". No, being a local isn't like being Black or being a woman or being tall; something you're genetically wired for. Being local is a choice.
So when I graduated from Killeen High School, I made a choice that I was going to become a local in Austin, Texas. I didn't just assign myself to the Forty Acres on the campus of the University of Texas. No, I ventured out. I tried new restaurants regularly. I found different watering holes like Barton Springs, which meant going south of the river, something few college kids ever do. I found a barber shop in one of Austin's roughest areas on the corner of East 12th Street and Chicon years before my favorite dive bar King Bee Lounge was there. I knew as much about 78704 as I did about Westlake.
Fast-forward and after traveling to dozens of cities, meeting thousands of "locals" around the world, and spending time getting to know the nature of social media and the Internet, I've realized that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of local.
Local is a choice. You can take a year to consider yourself a local in a new city or a decade or you can be one of those people who thinks you must be born there to call yourself a local. In that case, you won't be a local if you weren't born there, but maybe your children will be. In which case, maybe your kids move away for years once they go out on their own only to return as transplants who have done what so many of us have done as young adults moving for college or adults moving for family, loved ones or work. They'll be choosing what local means for themselves and choosing where that means the most to them. That's the route I took.