Monday, August 27, 2007

My inner nut

Robyn had an interesting post yesterday about the city providing anonymity for those who like to let out their inner nut. It got me thinking. I'm an introvert, too, but I absolutely love city life. The busier the better. We live in an urban neighborhood, but it's not super-dense. Compared to New York, it's like a quaint little town (without the quaint). I love taking the kids to Chinatown here in DC. It's not very "China" but it is a lively, bustling neighborhood. People crowd the streets at all hours of the day because there are lots of apartments, lots of businesses, a Metro stop, and some of the city's best restaurants. Plus, it has the library and the noodle man for the kids and a Starbucks for me.

DC is small enough that, unlike Robyn, it is somewhat possible for me to run into someone I know in our Chinatown. But, usually I don't, and Robyn helped me realize that the reason I love Chinatown is that, surrounded by all those people, I am reasonably alone there. In my neighborhood I feel compelled to be a bit social when I encounter people. In Chinatown there are so many people that no one feels like being social--and it's okay.

Robyn's post also made me wonder something else about urban neighborhood dynamics. When she got caught in a rainstorm twenty blocks from home the streets emptied out except for her. She threw a raincover on her stroller and ran. I wondered--where did everyone else go? Why weren't they all twenty blocks from home? I have no idea what Robyn was doing (maybe she'll tell us) but I would bet that all those other people were on the same block as home, or work, or their friend's work, or a shop they knew well and could take refuge in, or a cafe they liked. I know Robyn's neighborhood well and it is a dense, mixed-use area where many of the residents have lived for generations. I wonder how anonymous it actually is once you've lived there a long time. City neighborhoods can seem big and scary when you are the stranger, but it's amazing how quickly you get to know the other faces out on the street.

That's the way to do cities--find a small area you like and get to really know it. Suburbs are anonymous--everyone hides in their cars and their houses (gross generalization, I know, but I can't link back to the post I wrote on this topic a couple weeks ago). When residents of a city try to make it like a suburb by driving everywhere, demanding space for parking, hiking to the suburbs for convenient one-stop shopping, then city neighborhoods remain anonymous, too. Unfortunately, there are very few cities where this kind of urban ideal exists. I hope that changes.

But, even then, I don't have an inner nut waiting to get out.


Robyn said...

Sure you do. You don't rap nursery rhymes nearly enough. Or dance to Billy.

Interesting points, yo. This could be a great discussion.

I know what you mean and I was thinking that as I wrote it. Since I was 20 blocks from home (picking up mail from our last apartment building) I knew I didn't know anyone. I also knew I didn't know anyone because I used to live there and never really got to know anyone over there, except our super who was safe and dry in her apartment. You know what I mean? I was far from where I live now (where I actually know more people already) and never really got to know the folks where I used to live. Therefore I was anonymous. And I knew I was anonymous.

I am very aware that as soon as I leave my building I am probably being watched. This part of the hood is less dense. It is more likely that they will remember the young mom with the toddler that comes in and out of the building that only two families live in. And there is more of a 'stoop culture'. The people across the street sit on their stoops at night. One of them works in the store by my front door. Sophie. She has been here for 30 years and I know she watches us. Not in a wierdo way. In a neighborly way. And I am sure that when I was running in the rain, I slowed by her work place window to try to appear normal again.

I think that the anonymity only works outside your hood.


I don't think that the suburbs are anonymous. Just from the likelyhood of bumping into the same people more often. You might not know their names, but you would recognize them. When I lived in the suburbs I was scanning crowds in mall and stores and on the streets looking for people I knew. Because I could find some. Here I don't bother. Do you think of Beverly and Salem as suburbs?

I think rural areas are the least anonymous. Ben Wolfe knows everyone in his small Vermont town. Everyone. He noticed walking around with us that he knows more people than we do merely because of the rural setting where he lives.

That seems neat.

I think Eric woud be very good friends with Sophie.

Susan said...

Rural areas are a completely different discussion. So are small towns. Beverly and Salem are not suburbs, they are cities-smaller-than Boston which means that some people commute from them to Boston, but they are small cities--not suburbs. Suburbs are an artificial creation. The federal government created little non-city enclaves in what was formerly the country and developed major financial incentives for people to move to them. When I say that suburbs are anonymous, I don't mean that you won't run into people you know at the mall or even that you don't know any of your neighbors. Suburbs are anonymous because people expect and demand privacy: their own yard, a car for every driver, a driveway, a method for driving to work in your own car. In suburbia, people don't want to hear their neighbor's party. Shrubs and fences are put up so that yards can be private. This happens to varying degrees, of course, and there has been some backlash. Also, plenty of people live in the burbs because they feel they have to--and this is probably mostly true because the government makes it true and the cities have been so decimated that most don't work for families.

Would you be as likely to know Sophie if you had to walk up her driveway and cross her front lawn to say hello?

Also, of course in the burbs you scan malls for people you know. There aren't that many other gathering spaces. Did you scan your city street for people you knew? I bet you didn't. Either you knew the people on your street or you didn't, but people who didn't live on your street wouldnt' have much reason to be there, so you wouldn't think to look for them. But, if the neighborhood laundromat and coffee shop are on your block than you might look for Amy because, who knows, maybe she's doing laundry today, too, or getting coffee, or whatever.

Keep it coming, Robyn! I could talk about this all day. But I shouldn't . . .