Thursday, August 13, 2009

city[be]longing II: City Freedom gives City Loneliness?

Part of my speech yesterday at Pecha Kucha Night GBG #15 was built on what I have written this summer on the city loneliness myth. I provide you a sample. My New York experiences, loneliness facts, gender aspects, and Sex and the City in a mix:

“Welcome to the city of loneliness.” My first conversation with a New Yorker at my arrival on the 13th of January is with the super shuttle mini van driver. His name is Francisco and he had left Colombia for New York some 15 years ago. He is clearly disappointed with NYC. He is a man of family values finding the city loveless and lonely. My immediate silent response to his description is: I will love New York. What he explains sounds, to me, like a city for personal development and good career opportunities as well as a city where you are given the right to focus on just that. By the way, for me ‘being by myself’ has never equaled ‘being alone’. Defining loneliness is far more complicated than just referring to your family situation. The fact is, I have never felt lonely in a big city. There are always more things to explore, more people to meet… A few other people in the super shuttle engage in our conversation. They all agree that life in New York is hard, but their perceptions of individuality versus collectivity differ… I’m thinking that if you can conquer New York, you could probably conquer any city…

The city and the loneliness myth… A myth suggesting that finding yourself in the city has its price; the reluctance of breeding a family. Whether this is a problem or not ought to be up to the individual. The independent city woman is however challenging (at least) two historically deep-rooted perceptions: Firstly, there is the idea about the city as male in its nature, while the countryside is female (Domosh & Seager, 2001). The city woman is hence conquering a men’s world. Secondly, she is challenging the traditional division of tasks between production and reproduction, where the woman has been bound to the latter where the home based reproduction and care of the family has been her main focus (Forsberg, 2003).

As I finally reach my upper west Manhattan destination, I sit down and enjoy the company of my New York friends. None of them are born there; they have moved there. I ask them about their possible personal experience of city loneliness. “You substitute family with friends”, was Adam’s answer, “I don’t feel lonely.” He then hands me the December issue of the magazine ‘New York’ and an article written by Jennifer Senior who challenges the urban alienation myth by calling cities “the ultimate expression of our humanity” and “the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves”. The fact is that half of the world’s population lives in cities. Adam’s response to my question of city loneliness reminds me about the words of Carrie in Sex and the City:

”The most important thing in life is your family. There are days you love them, and others you don't. But, in the end, they're the people you always come home to. Sometimes it's the family you're born into and sometimes it's the one you make for yourself. ”

I cannot help but wonder if the choice to never reveal anything about Carrie’s family or upbringing was a conscious choice by the Sex and the City producers. In any case, it is a strong statement. The ‘New York’ magazine article refers to Cacioppo & Patrick (2008) who from an evolutionary psychologist and biologist perspective have researched the social capital of cities. Social instinct is connection. The interaction in cities shows that we can work collaboratively together and trust each other. A simple example would be how we follow traffic rules and trust other people to do that as well. Their data suggests that city dwellers are less lonely than their country cousins. The reason is the many and strong relational friendship based networks in the city. They prove that loneliness is relative. Singles are likely to feel better in a town with more singles, like New York; the US leader in single-individual households at its 50.6 percent. Furthermore one might add the finding of the Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer stating that married people, especially women, have smaller friendship-based social networks than they did as single people. Maybe, then, it is about time that we listen to the stories of the New Yorkers and amend ‘city loneliness’ to ‘city togetherness’.

See my former posts on city[be]longing. And why not, once again, post the video suggested to me by Joakim. It’s a “must see" that reminds us that 'city togetherness' is built on personal responsibility...

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