It was a fall day recently, the kind of day when a crisp and clear morning precedes a pleasant afternoon of reading a book under the shade of a broad-leafed tree. She sauntered out from her house in the southeast corner of this sprawling city, a glass of tan liquid over rocks in hand and a cigarette dangling from what must have been parched lips. Following close behind, or attempting to stagger ahead, came an ancient black Labrador, pausing stiffly and frequently to examine the recent calling card of a canine friend. Age had reduced the lab’s temperament to congenial mixed with a side of senile. Fortunately, I was deemed worthy of a brief nose pressed to the hem of my jeans.
The cool drink and I exchanged pleasantries and doted on the topic of this aged lab that continued to seek out evidence of his furry friends in the block-by-block park. I continued on with the page of my book while the filtered smoke returned to the company of two companions, both of whom also had their hands full with drink and smoke. I don’t recall it much past two in the afternoon on a recent Sunday; a fact that had me smiling as, apparently, it is never too early for a sturdy liquid and a filtered puff. Thinking little of this encounter, I emerged from the peaceful, shaded park cove and carried on with the business of the day.
As I look back on moments like these since arriving in this West Coast city, I can’t help but wonder if the simple exchange of pleasantries is common among the city dwellers. Do we acknowledge the existence and presence of others as we live life side-by-side in the midst of this quaint metropolis? The city scene to which I am drawn is one of quality coffee, retro clothing and laid-back attitudes seemingly embracing the differences among us, yet I understand that this is just one facet of many in the confines of this diverse spread of people.
I’m new to city life. In fact, I have yet to physically move into a place within the city – a permanent place that is – but I hope to be relocated by the time this goes to print. This whole thing is new – moving to a big city where people are around every corner and there is little chance to find yourself without some evidence of fellow inhabitants around you. And it’s not that I really live in the midst of building projects and skyscrapers – no, this West Coast city in which I have come to live is one of sprawling neighborhoods extending as branches from a sturdy core.
Ask me five or ten years ago about city life and I would have shot you a stare that could have wiped that sarcastic grin off your face. It’s not that I detested the thought of cities. However, how appealing is it really to be constantly surrounded by people when I had grown up in small towns surrounded by the wide-open spaces of beautiful mountains? Is it not ridiculous on some level to exchange the solitude of the natural wilderness for the constant hum and activity of dwelling in a small geographic area with obviously too many people?
More people across this small world of ours are moving from rural and small towns into the confines of large cities, or rather the urban sprawl of cities. Such a theme is often referred to in more academic circles as urbanization. No doubt you know exactly what I write of – massive housing developments that appear to spread as quickly as the frenzied high tide rolls in to cover calm pools revealed at low tide. It seems the once closely held dream (perhaps overly-romantic) of maintaining a home with a bit of land in a quaint town or corner of the countryside has been exchanged for a shoebox-sized single family dwelling along an overcrowded street where neighbors hear one another through thin, cheaply constructed walls. We’ve become immigrants within our own borders as cornucopias of people seek to vacate the wide-open rural spaces for the urban and convenient spaces within and near the city.
We here in the States are not alone. Across the globe this trend of moving from rural and smaller communities into existing urban areas is increasing at nearly 2% per year. Of the estimated 6.79 billion people who live on this small planet, approximately 48% live in urban areas, either the massive cities or the sprawling suburbs. The drive of people to move themselves and their families into a throbbing population vary in origin: the greater availability or diversity of jobs, food, shelter, school, medical aid, and life opportunities are all reasons for this trend.
Historically, cities have been smaller in population and physical size. In fact, many countries that choose to define ‘city’ by population require only 5,000 inhabitants for use of the term. This loose definition of sorts most probably is so low because there were not so many of us humans in the world in years gone by – we continue to grow upon the face of the earth at a rate of about 1.2% each year. Notably, the lifestyles of early generations were much more focused on living off the land – the hunter and gatherer if you will. Ancient extended families might share the responsibilities of a large flock of sheep or cattle. Perhaps growing wheat and similar agricultural items was the family business. A city became a place for trade and commerce and was not visited as often by the rural lifestyle necessitated by using the land as a means of survival.
We’ve changed. There is a long and ancient history of cities across the globe such as those in Mesopotamia or the Andes. Such ancient populations were by no means as large as today’s idea of a city, but do point to the fact that there have been numerous urban traditions in our history. However, the innovations and advancements over centuries and centuries, and notably the introduction of modern industry, have drawn people into massive urbanization within the last 200 years.
Many of us don’t know what it means to live off the land any longer. Really, when was the last time you considered what went into making those crackers that you’re eating out of a box or just how many steps cotton has to be worked through in order to produce the retro t-shirt you’re now wearing? Cities of many sizes supply all of our needs – from food to shelter, clothing to entertainment – there seems to be little reason why a person would not live in a city. We’ve embraced our urbanization, our cities and our modern lifestyles and many of us have really come to love our cities (or we hate them and just put up with living within their confines).
Yet in my recent transition into life as a city dweller I’ve heard numerous stories of people leaving the city to return to the place from which they came, be it another large city or a small town. Stories of return give as reasons the inability to find a job or housing and seem also blended with a mention of loneliness. People are leaving large, dense populations because they are lonely. Do you not find that more than a bit ridiculous? Now, I don’t have hard, factual evidence of this trend as may be evidenced by an accurate polling of the people who choose to exit – I’m no anthropologist, economist, or statistician for that matter. However, I know exactly what this is – this loneliness in the midst of crowds.
We of our Western trappings have become an independent sort, surrounded by easily accessible conveniences where courteous ‘how are yous’ are exchanged for the expected ‘good’ or ‘okay’. We in America are great at exchanging shallow pleasantries. We operate in a state of glossy apathy as we exchange life with others. This seems to be the trend that I am all too much a part of in the experience of my Western culture. We’re losing our sense of humanity, our sense of community here. La familia or la comunidad has become todo sobre mi.
For all the indications that people in our country, or in this world for that matter, are moving from smaller communities into the urban areas of the city, I can’t help but feel there is this undercurrent of unhappiness, an unpleasantness of existence in the bustle of the city. It’s a statement based not on statistics or survey, but on feeling, discernment and trying to understand our humanity. In the midst or our advancements, our conveniences, our comforts, we’re losing what may matter most to our humanity – community.
How do we know who we are outside the context of community? How can we grow and change and develop and pursue dreams without allowing others to speak into our lives and guide us along the way, even challenge us ‘as iron sharpens iron’?
We are in danger of losing what shapes us as individuals – that imperfect community, that imperfect family. Our pursuit is no longer a common pursuit, but an individual pursuit. The hope within me says that maybe, just maybe, we will soon have a moment where we understand we need one another to do this thing, this thing called life.
Now I only wonder why we choose to stay alone in a crowd.