I think it started when I was 22. Her name was Kun Ming, a city in south-west China. The Spring City. I was there with a group of students helping out at a local language school for a couple months. It was my first time as an adult living in a city that size and I was immediately enthralled. I’d walk the streets just for the experience, just to explore and absorb the sights and sounds. Not the smells though. Never the smells.
We walked and took buses everywhere. When we weren’t at McDonald’s (I know, I know), we’d try out different restaurants in different districts at varying degrees of affordability and adventurousness.
We’d check out the pirated dvd and cd stalls, walk around the souvenir malls, hang out in the tea shops trying the never-ending varieties of green, black and jasmine, look through bookstores admiring the unique way that the Chinese softcovers were bound, hoping for something good in an English translation (there never was).
That experience got me hooked on cities.
And I’m not the only one. Like it or not, we humans love cities, especially the great ones. The world-class, legendary ones. We’ve got a romantic infatuation with them and many of us might say it’s mutual, that the city loves us back in its way. It would have to be to evoke the kinds of sentiment that these cities do.
I think we are drawn to places that have lasted so long and will probably continue to last long after we are gone. I think it has to do with the strong sense of place that each of them possesses. And the shared stake in each one by so many individuals, all wanting their city to be better and not lose whatever essence it is the inhabitants have come to love about it. Even a tourist feels it.
If you want a text-book case of city love, there’s no better example than New York. This is the city. The city of cities. If aliens tried to figure us out based on tv signals, they’d probably think half the planet’s population lives in New York. They’d also have witnessed that same city time and time again be blown up, frozen, invaded, layed waste by viruses, zombified and inhabited and saved by nearly every famous superhero, vigilante, mutant and super-cop who’s ever graced the silver screen.
For all that, New York feels just as lonely as all the others. So many people, so little interaction. People walk or ride around on buses and subways and trains and practice a kind of intentional isolation. Why bother starting a conversation? Everyone’s moving all the time, getting on the bus, getting off the subway, now taking a just-vacated seat one car down. And chances are you’ll never see the same person twice. You just get numb to it, I guess.
All this was brought on by visiting some friends deep in the heart of New York a while back. I realized that beyond all that intentional isolation, there’s something I hadn’t seen before. A kind of automatic unintentional community.
Because living in the city is usually so much more expensive, people are forced to cut down to bare basics. And they’re forced to share. They live in small apartments which are more like bedrooms than homes. So they don’t spend as much time there. Instead, they go to the library, bookstores, cafes, gyms or the park to relax, work and play. Or they just wander.
Parks and playgrounds are like shared backyards. Restaurants are like dining rooms. Buses and trains are like cars. And free activities are like the glue that holds it all together. In fact, a city is like a giant-sized university. I think that’s why we in our twenties and thirties are especially drawn to city life. Give us city or give us death, just don’t give us suburbs.
A wise man I know of likes to quote Jeremiah 29:7 in the Bible, ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’