New York vs. Mayberry

November 30, 2008

Jennifer Senior has an interesting piece in New York Magazine on loneliness and city vs. country life. It confirms something I’ve long believed – that cities are less lonely, and community life is stronger there than in small towns. Of course (and as we’ve heard endlessly from Sarah Palin), the myth is that small towns have tight communities and family values while the cities are full of lonely, neurotic freaks. I visit to some of America’s big cities and small towns should utterly destroy those stereotypes. However, TV and movies apparently create more potent images than real life, and so we think of Mayberry and Taxi Driver when we think of small towns and big cities:

“In American lore, the small town is the archetypal community, a state of grace from which city dwellers have fallen (thus capitulating to all sorts of political ills like, say, socialism). Even among die-hard New Yorkers, those who could hardly imagine a life anywhere else, you’ll find people who secretly harbor nostalgia for the small village they’ve never known.
Yet the picture of cities—and New York in particular—that has been emerging from the work of social scientists is that the people living in them are actually less lonely. Rather than driving people apart, large population centers pull them together, and as a rule tend to possess greater community virtues than smaller ones. This, even though cities are consistently, overwhelmingly, places where people are more likely to live on their own.

Cities…are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them). And in their present American incarnations—safe, family-friendly, pulsing with life on the street—they’re working at their optimum peak. In Cacioppo’s data, today’s city dwellers consistently rate as less lonely than their country cousins. ‘There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, an increase in trust,’ he says. ‘It all leads to less alienation.'”

This reminds me of some Republican asshole (from the suburbs) smugly asking me if I knew any of my neighbors here in Somerville. The truth is, not only do I know my neighbors, but I run into friends and acquaintances on the street frequently, and I know a good many of the people with whom I do business. I think that would be true (to a stifling extent, I’d say) in small towns. But I DON’T think it’s necessarily true in the suburbs. Modern suburbs tend to be large and spread out. People travel large distances for work and play. People drive rather than walk, and shop at big-box stores. Unless you are befriending parents of your children’s school friends, there are few opportunities to make real community connections.

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