I’ve never liked big cities. I’ve lived on the outskirts of a couple, and the urban sprawl of another, but I’ve never lived in the heart of a major city like NYC or Chicago. They have just never had much draw for me. I don’t like people, so that’s one thing, I don’t like concrete, so that’s another. I like trees, I like serenity, and I like the feeling of being disconnected from society as much as possible. However, for most of my life, I’ve always at least felt the need to live in a midsize city so that I could have all the social trappings. We are, after all, a social creature and we need other creatures to socialize with. I visited two major cities this summer, the aforementioned NYC and Chicago. The latter I’m no stranger to; the former I’ve visited a handful of times. But between the two, and others I’ve passed through, I know well enough that I could never be happy living in a major metropolis. In both cities this summer I took the trains: the “L” in Chicago and the subway in NYC. Both are front-and-center reminders of what I don’t like about major cities. Yes, major cities allow the most people to come together, to sample diverse cultures – that is, if you make the effort to do so. But major cities also emphasize the separation of culture empirically on an average train ride. The inequity in the distribution of resources, the conflict, and the disparate nature of humans, all of this is never more evident than in a major city. This isn’t to say that a small or midsize city does any better in civil and social integration, probably far worse in most instances, but simply that in major cities it is amplified.
I stared out the window on the L, I changed trains to make my destination, and all the while I watched people – possibly the best part of being in any major city, the people watching. I saw beautiful women come and go, I saw bands performing on the holding docks for the trains, disgruntled people in their daily, tireless commutes, and early on a Saturday morning I saw a homeless man wake up on a too-short bench from his night’s rest. People rarely paid attention to one another, unless it was through a blank stare. We were all just extras, disposable ones, in the scenes of everyone else’s lives. Now, I’ve already said that I don’t like people, so you may be wondering why it sounds as if I’m crying for society to be more humane. I don’t know if I really care, actually. As individuals, I can find people interesting, endearing, and even lovable. But on the aggregate, I’m mostly frustrated or disappointed. We’re a mess as a species, and this is never more apparent than in a major city.
Some find major cities to be romantic, to be full of endless possibilities and endless social opportunities. Some think there is always another chance in a big city. The other way to look at that, of course, is that there is always another failure just ahead. I mean, another chance means that the one that preceded it likely didn’t work out. The majority of my friends that I still keep in touch with live, or have lived, in major cities, most for many years. It seemed like it was scripted for many of them, as if it were either the path of least resistance or the moral of the story – this is what you do, so go and do it. Looking at it from that angle, for those people, and many others, moving to the big city is not a risk, not something different, not a challenge, but simply the next logical step in lifetime full of them. They’re lemmings, following in line, one after another, until they all walk off the cliff’s edge. Which I guess would be into Lake Michigan…
When I get onto the train or subway in a major city, I know to look down before I sit down. You never know what might have happened there before. And maybe that is metaphorical to the city in general; you never know what happened there before. But, to me, that doesn’t make it exciting. There is no original thought in a city, not anymore. Everything that can be done has been done, and we just stumble into a script that fits, not one that is serendipitous or chosen. Cities are held up by people in their 20s and early 30s, and then once they’ve partnered up and bred, in large part they leave the city for the suburbs, the embodiment of metropolitan geographic and social vomit. Suburbs prove the failure of the major city, and suburbs are the holding pen, or purgatory, of the masses. Sure, some people go on to couple and breed and live out their lives in the cities, some stay in the big city alone, by choice or by chance. But major cities never really provide any true sustenance. They only provide bait-and-switch tactics and pipe dreams. Before heroin, “chasing the dragon” must’ve meant referring to finding happiness living in a major city.
The blight of the city is all around you. People forced to comingle, but never really get to know one another. Nature has been defeated intentionally in the big city. While Chicago holds onto its pocket parks and small green strip right-of-ways, NYC has sacrificed all of that, save one major green center no one can afford to live near, to concrete and rebar. Yes, subways and mass transit bring people of all walks together, but never meaningfully. It was just the other day where I saw one of the trains in NYC stopped for an hour with no electricity – and no air conditioning – where people were sitting still and silent or staring at their phones. What difference does it make if you’re all in the same space but no one interacts? It makes no difference. Just because you’re “neighbors” does not make you neighborly.
Politically, the major city centers are progressive, and this may be in large part because you’re forced to confront the realities of everyone else. This is a good thing. The rural areas where people are disconnected from differences and others’ life experiences certainly gives major clout to the implications of having major cities scattered throughout the country. But what if we acknowledged that all that accumulated “wisdom,” of how to be a good person and live like one, could be spread throughout the country, far and wide, that maybe those sentiments and outlooks would seep into our least progressive towns and villages; would that be a good use of the city, and of its inhabitants? We send our children to school to accrue the “wisdom” of their professors and learn the lessons that are key to a functioning society (the jury is still out if these lessons are getting learned or not). So why don’t we take these cultural centers and pepper their inhabitants and embodied social evolutions in to the darkest places in need of light?
Even on the sunniest day, with the coolest breeze, with every hour packed full of fun scenario after fun scenario, the blight exists. We have a large country with spaces in between that are dormant at best, withering away at worst. We have disconnected rural enclaves that function on a 1950s ethos and 8th grade mentality. There has never been bigger separation between the city and country than today, at least not in a century. The city was an ambitious and idealistic project that, while successful in some avenues, has failed in many others, and not just itself or its inhabitants, but those who choose to stay away from it, and more so, those who have never considered it in the first place. Economic bubbles pop often; but so do social ones, just less frequently, though with more force. We’ve reached that point where the social bubble will pop soon, and it will make a bang, and its nourishing elements will be strewn far and wide, leaving only the blight of the city.