I’m someone who thrives on her own. I like being independent and by myself half the time, because it’s rejuvenating. But the other half of the time, I crave people. I’ve always said that the perfect place for me to live would be in a big city, because it’s the only place you can truly be alone in a huge, stifling crowd of people. It’s the perfect balance, so to speak.
And then I stopped to truly think about that phrase: why is it that it’s so easy to be alone in a crowd when you live in a big city? It’s not the same as crowds in the suburbs, or anywhere else. Outside of a city, there’s a different sense of community, and in any case, people notice you more. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, I never feel more powerfully anonymous than when I’m in Midtown Manhattan.
At home, it’s the opposite. People are neighbors, not just other bodies who occupy space. They see you, sometimes judge you, sometimes evaluate you. There is no judgment in a big city. City folk have seen it all, perhaps. You’re just another body to them, and it’s both powerful and yet indescribably isolating.
We’ve all had fantasies of being invisible, and we’ve all read childhood stories of the downsides of it all. Being invisible is powerful — you can do quite literally anything you want, whether it’s stealing candy from the store or poking your bully in the back of his head. (Harry Potter comes immediately to my mind, apparently.) But at the end of the tale, the little boy (it’s usually a little boy) finds that being invisible means that no one can see him to shower him with love, and that the consequences of his actions are eating away at him. He reverses his wish to be invisible because it’s painfully isolating.
It’s similar in a big city. You almost feel as if you’re invisible, because no one is paying attention to you. No one cares that you’re there. Isn’t that sort of insane?
1. You don’t know your neighbors
In New York, the stereotype is that people are mean. We’re not — we just like our space. So it’s common practice to virtually ignore your neighbors unless they’re annoying you. No neighbors will knock on your door asking for sugar or to water their plants, not unless you want to scare them into double-locking their doors and turning off all the lights. We’re scared of strangers, leading to huge roadblocks to you know, getting to know the strangers who share an apartment wall with you.
2. Independence is thrust upon you
In a city, you’ve got to learn how to take care of yourself ten times better than you would anywhere else. Dealing with landlords, bosses, roommates, personalities, responsibilities, schedules, and the stress of being in a city means you’ve got to grow up and take control, and learn never to rely on anyone else for help and support. Independence fosters a sense of isolation, and it’s both powerful — because you know you’re capable — and isolating, because asking others for help and/or offering help creates intimacy.
3. Self-interest is the norm
If you’ve moved to a big city, you have a reason, and that reason is usually to jump-start a career that’s important to you, not to make friends. I cite every other episode of early America’s Next Top Model, “I’m not here to make friends! I’m here to win!”
Everyone in a city puts themselves first, with good reason. This creates a cutthroat world where your needs, wants and desires are never in the forefront with anyone else except for close friends. And they probably can’t help with your career in any case.
4. There are few “communities”
In immigrant areas, people create communities filled with people who speak the same language, have the same customs and crave each other’s company, but it’s the exception, not the norm. And these communities sometimes descend into poverty and crime.
5. Friend groups are scattered or amorphous
Friends in a city are constantly changing, and friends are often of the fair-weather variety with whom you share tables at a bar, not the ones you can count on to be there in times of need. Often, people who live in cities forge great relationships with the people they work with, simply because they’re always there. But if they live far away — like, uptown to downtown kind of far — you may never see them outside work. And forget it entirely if they live in a different borough. Friend groups are difficult to maintain in a big city.
So living in a city isn’t all light and dreams and rainbows — I know that. But when you see that skyline, you know it’s all worth it.