About three years ago, I set out to research and write my undergraduate thesis, a lengthy piece that I called, “The City and the Soul: American Architecture and the Good Life.” In it, I wanted to discern how good architecture and urban planning make us better people. It was cute, what I was trying to do, in the way that a college student talking about the very real world is always a little adorable. That’s not to suggest that I find this prior writing misguided – actually, I continue to stand behind much of what I said back then. But I had no idea what I was talking about. Or, maybe that’s all I had – ideas – and a decent set of books and theories to back them.
So obviously most of what I wrote was hyper-idealized and romantic. Fast forward to now, as I approach my three year anniversary as a resident of Philadelphia – a city with the population, amenities, and logistical nightmares of any metropolis, but without the sexy reputation of L.A. or New York (plus a major underdog complex). I still have my books, theories, and ideas, but I have a little more than that as well. And I’m pleased to report that I do still believe that living in a city will make you a better person. Really – everyone should try it at least once. But, as it turns out, my reasoning for this stance is quite different, or at least, much more developed than it used to be.
Cities can give you bigger, broader standards.
Our paradigms and worldviews are deeply influenced by the places we root ourselves. Even as the world shrinks and flattens, I’m constantly surprised by all the ways that I and the people I encounter are shaped, in ways both big and small, by where we come from and the experiences unique to those places. As it turns out, I suspect that bigger places lead to broader paradigms, and diverse places cultivate more nuanced worldviews.
Now I’ll be blunt: for too long, in the United States, our standards for things like clean, and safe, and normal have been set by white suburbia. When prosperity looks like a four bedroom house with a big driveway and a manicured lawn, how do we approach the rest of the world? How do we think of the people who will never have – and may never want – those things? When our versions of safe and normal are exclusive and small, we open the door even wider to the kind of fear that is almost literally crippling our world right now.
Cities can make you hyper-aware of this world’s deep brokenness.
My apartment overlooks what is often a pretty noisy street. Usually this noise is just traffic or construction, but every once in a while this rhythm is interrupted by a person or people having a loud, explicit, and sometimes very personal argument. To this day, I am baffled by the candor of these folks, and their willingness to display their issues for the dozens of others within earshot. It continues to make me really uncomfortable, and for a while I assumed that it was because these people are rude, and I just don’t like being around rude people. But now I think something more is going on: I, like probably many others, like to believe that this world is more peaceful and free of conflict than it really is. And I support this delusion by simply hiding away from that conflict. So it’s quite unnerving when humanity’s deep brokenness rears its head literally right on my doorstep.
Statistically, cities tend to be more dangerous (i.e., have a higher crime rate) than other places, and we spend a lot of time and resources trying to pinpoint why that is. Of course, there are big, complicated, institutional problems at play here. But also, I often wonder if part of it is just that when you put a lot of people in a small area, the darkness that inhabits all people in all places is simply more concentrated and harder to hide. The shortsighted selfishness that leads to petty theft, the incontinence that leads to drug use, the mistrust and betrayal that cause couples to argue loudly on the street – all of these problems exist everywhere. The difference is that in a city you see it more clearly and more often. What I’m slowly learning is that yes, I want to combat this darkness, but to do that I need to first realize that I am not above it.
Cities can cultivate empathy for the oppressed…and their oppressors.
By coincidence, I moved into a fairly diverse city and neighborhood around the time that the national conversation on race was gaining momentum. It took me a while to realize how important this has been for me, and how grateful I am for that. I can remember the day that I really, really started to care about this in a personal way: it was shortly after Michael Brown was killed, and I was lying in bed reading an article about it, with my window open. As I was reading, I noticed the sound of one of my neighbors whistling. I had seen him doing this before – he’s an older man, possibly home-bound, who occasionally stands in his doorway and just whistles. It’s extremely charming, and adds a whimsical element to an otherwise dingy block. In that moment, as protests were escalating in Ferguson, I felt such a deep sadness, about that, but also for this neighbor of mine, who, charming and gentle as he may be, has likely experienced a very different version of America than I have simply because he’s black.
Of course, I can’t tell you how I would feel about this if I had continued living in the suburbs, because that’s simply not how my life turned out. I’m sure that I would care, but in a tolerant, intellectual, and more distant way. There would be little emotion and urgency involved. Living, working, shopping, and commuting alongside some of the people who are directly affected by the policies in Washington, the protests in Baltimore, the policing in Cleveland, and the many other things that have played out across America in recent years is an invaluable experience. I will never know these issues the way that the people of color around me do, but by simply being present in this space, I can care about them in a way that is hopefully more compassionate and productive.
But, there’s another, harder side to this, which I wouldn’t be writing about now if I hadn’t gone for a walk the other day. A few weeks ago, a parade in Philly gained national attention (in a bad/very embarrassing way) after participants used it as an opportunity to mock and offend the transgender community. And the Black Lives Matter movement. And Hispanic immigrants. Philly is not known for being classy.
Anyway, the other day was unseasonably warm and there was a lot going on in the neighborhood, and as I walked down a nearby block, I was pleased to see a lot of people were out enjoying the afternoon, having drinks, and chatting with neighbors. Then I noticed a lot of the houses had flags identifying the residents as members of one of the offending groups. Which led to the following inner dialogue: “You people are bigots. You pick on people who are marginalized, who are regularly victims of hate crimes. But here you are, being nice people and good parents and kind friends. And you are also literally my neighbor, which means that I am called to literally love you. Shit.” The annoying thing about being physically with people is that it makes it a lot harder to just write them off, even if it’s to write them off as hateful bigots.
So, how has this city shaped my soul? It has stretched it. It has reformed my values. It has made me learn to care for more kinds of people. It has forced me to start to understand the world as a complex, nuanced, layered, broken, and beautiful place.