Monday, August 27, 2007

Anonymous places

y wife and a very dear friend have been having a wonderful blog exchange about anonymity in the cities. I'm going to throw in my two cents and try a very rough draft of an article I've been thinking about writing, entitled "anonymous places." At the start though, let me say that I heartily endorse everything said in those other two blogs. I'm not sure if I can make my thing come out in obvious agreement with Robyn's, but it's intended to be complementary, not contradictory.

So, recently I had a business lunch with a professor from a small town in Iowa. We were talking about the program where I work in a big East Coast city, and I started going on about how much I love city life. (I grew up in the suburbs, not far from Iowa.)

The professor, thinking that he understood, said, "ah, you like the anonymity, huh?" I don't know what I said then, but I've thought about it a lot since and . . . I think he's got it all backwards.

Cities seem anonymous to tourists, because obviously when you're somewhere new, no one knows you. (Of course, that's as true for a visitor in small town Iowa as for one in Manhattan.) But in the city, you see all those people, and of course they don't all know one another, and you just feel lost in the crowd, as if people don't matter anymore.

ut living in the city . . . I think cities are anonymous only in the most literal sense: you don't know people's names. My wife and I walk to church with the kids every morning. We see the same people every day -- lots of them! -- and we know a fair amount about them: how they carry themselves, how they dress for work, what time they leave in the morning, whether they talk on the phone, or listen to iPods, or space out, or watch people; whether they say hi; whether they put on their socks before or after arriving at work. They know that we walk to church every morning, and have little kids. They see my little boy's wheel chair, my funny hat, my wife's skirts. Now and then we stop to chat with one of these people, and we usually find we've each made a lot of correct assumptions. I think of one guy we finally talked to at a stoplight; I think the first thing he said was, "so you're a professor, huh?" (almost -- just finishing my Ph.D.)

In the suburbs (I'll leave small towns aside, because they're a different thing) it's the opposite. In my experience, in the suburbs you know people's names . . . and nothing else. We used to wave at a lot of people in our subdevelopment -- as we drove by in our cars. And what do you learn in that 1.5 second encounter? You see what they drive and whether they wave, but that's about it. We knew the names of almost everybody on our cul de sac, but mostly we saw them drive into their garages and disappear.

(I should define "suburb." I don't mean "anywhere but in the middle of a big city." Suburb, to me, means subdevelopments--including, most importantly, total separation of home from work, recreation, and shopping--, usually cul de sacs, cars for absolutely everything, and privacy privacy privacy. Our subdevelopment had no sidewalks -- why would it? There was nowhere to walk. Such suburbs are a big deal these days. But a lot of places are in between. Robyn brought up Salem and Beverly, Mass., where she and Susan used to live. They lived, basically, in row houses. That's not really the suburbs. There were some actual "main street" shopping sections, where you could walk to the little market, or church, or whatever. At the least, you had to walk down the block to your car, so there was some requirement of crossing paths with your neighbors. But most things were in strip malls. That's sort of half suburban. Susan's mom lives in "small town" Connecticut -- but the downtown is almost gone. Most of the shopping is in the big strip mall outside of town. Is that really "small town"? Well, sort of. And sort of suburban. A real, traditional small town, I think, is much more like "city" living: work and home close together, walkable shopping, etc. Although a big city, of course, has lots more people.)

Back to the suburbs: At the risk of being salacious, I'd like to talk about teenagers in driveways. For years I have been walking around my big city neighborhood and I have never seen anyone ever making out in their car. (I've seen prostitutes in the park late at night, but that's different.) Why not? Because there are people everywhere! Because, in a word, the city just isn't "anonymous" enough for that kind of behavior. On our cul de sac in the suburban Midwest though . . . oh my. Well, coming home late at night I once saw the girl next door rolling around with somebody--I never found out whom--in some sheets in the grass. Hmm. But of course, only other teenagers were out at night, and I think all of the teenagers on the cul de sac made full use of their driveways for similar--if not quite so lubricious--conduct. Why? Because there is nothing as hidden as a cul de sac. No one goes by. No one sees what you're doing. "Anonymous"? Well, not exaclty. But the point is, you can be totally alone.

Interesting counterpoint: when I see the thug teenagers in our urban neighborhood hanging around outside late at night, the first thing I think is, "at least they're not inside having sex." Whereas in the suburbs, outside the house is the best place, because not even your parents can see what you're up to.

f course, people can be really weird in the city -- much weirder than in the suburbs. But again, I think this is the opposite of anonymity. Visiting our friends in Brooklyn recently, I had to run out to the car late at night in my pajamas (flannel pants and an undershirt), as many fathers do. In the suburbs, it would have been down to the garage. In Brooklyn, it was down a busy city street, a block and a half. People saw me, and they knew just what I was doing. It occurred to me that city life is a little like dorm life. (Though you hope city people are a trifle more mature than college students. By senior year I guess things have usually calmed down a little!) People see you. They know what you're doing. They say, "oh, there's the guy from 1038 grabbing diapers for the kid in the wheelchair." They might not know your name, but they know you, and they know what you're up to. Because a lot less of your space is private. Much more of your life is out in public

I think city weirdness is just about this public-ness. Suburbs are about keeping private. And maybe that expresses itself in how people dress and behave in public: everything is hidden. In the city . . . well, maybe you wear your hair crazy, maybe you put on a red clown nose, maybe you do yoga out on the street. This could be about anonymity: people act weird because they know they'll never be seen again. But it might be the opposite of anonymity: you're used to people seeing you, so you're okay being open, "out there." You behave in public a little more like how you behave in private, because the city is your family. Most people don't make out where they can be seen, because they wouldn't want their family to see them making out. Some people do make out in public, and I think that's not about anonymity at all, but about proclaiming their identity. I am quite sure that many of the young lesbians in our neighborhood are so public about their displays of affection because they *want* to be seen, want to be known. Not because they think they're anonymous and will be forgotten, but because they want to be remembered. They are, I think, treating the city like their family.

This has been kind of a hodge podge. I'll end with a metaphor. We recently moved into a new apartment, our first one with wood floors, which we've always wanted. We've been amazed at how dirty they get. Always dirty. And we wonder, where was that dirt in our carpeted apartment? The answer: it was hidden. I think that might be a good metaphor for city vs. suburb. In the city, all the dirt is out in the open, begging to be dealt with. In the suburbs, the dirt hides, but it is still there -- plenty of it! There are advantages to both. I think you could make an argument that carpets are better, because you don't have to wash them until you feel like it. And maybe the suburbs are better, because if you keep all the weirdness and brokenness of people hidden away, at least it won't hurt their neighbors. But . . . well, I don't know if it's bias or truth, but I sure prefer having the dirt out in the open, where it can get cleaned up, and where it's clear that it needs to be cleaned.