Developing a City-View

Well-educated people who move to cities are expected to become rather cosmopolitan. Literally rubbing shoulders with dozens of cultures while simultaneously participating in our global economy, these people quickly surpass the limitations of their youth. They learn to interact and live peacefully with people who are quite different from them. They eat stuff that their mothers can’t pronounce, which contain ingredients not sold in suburban grocery stores. Their worldviews are stretched, shattered, and reformed to fit the big world in which they are now a part.    5TAMgojTx

It’s been a little over a year since I started living, working, shopping, socializing, relaxing, and church-going almost exclusively in Philly, and in some ways I’ve become or am becoming one of these cosmopolitan people. However, more than this, I’ve noticed my worldview not expanding as much as it is contracting. What might have once been a worldview has gradually developed into a city-view. Places shape us deeply and affect our paradigms – Philly is affecting mine.

Anyway, given this realization and my recent Philly-versary, I thought it would be fun to reflect on the various ways that this place has warped my logic. In no particular order:

1. I sometimes forget what it’s like to be in a building that is less than 10 years old…

2. …or on a street that was built after cars were invented.

3. I’ve developed a deep mistrust for strip malls and chain restaurants.

4. I’ve gotten pretty good at the transportation logic puzzle (“Should I drive?” “Where will I park?” “Should I bike?” “Will it rain?” “How will I carry my stuff?” “Should I take the subway?” “Do I have enough tokens?” “Is walking an option?” “What about a cab?”), but sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to play it every time I leave my house.

5. I’ve grown accustomed to all of the smells, and all the trash everywhere.

6. My physical comfort zone has expanded, as my standards for what constitutes as a “bad neighborhood” have shifted dramatically (and for the better!).

7. Recently I was outside of the city and hungry. I drove around for a while looking for “something that I couldn’t find in Philly,” until I realized that that’s nearly impossible.

8. When I go more than a day or two surrounded only by white people speaking English, I feel mildly uncomfortable.

9. I think “ugh, tourists” on a regular basis (usually after almost hitting them with my car or bike).

10. It’s become normal for me to regard neighborhoods other than my own as distant or novel, even if they’re literally blocks away.

11. Likewise, my default small talk is to ask people about their neighborhoods.

12. I’ve come to expect and prepare for petty theft. And mice.

13. I can’t remember the last time I saw a squirrel, though I did encounter a raccoon the other night. It made me more nervous than it would have if it was a person rooting through my neighbor’s trash. Wildlife is fascinating, and terrifying.

14. I’m so used to one-way streets that I become extremely confused/apprehensive when cars in the next lane are driving toward me.

15. “Getting away from it all” usually just means going to the suburbs for a few hours.

The Bubble

A few days after graduating college, some friends and I sat down with some guys from the American Bible Society and had an extended conversation about Christianity and culture. The conversation kept coming back to one central theme – “the bubble” – or, the idea that we were living and working in a particular realm of society, namely, Christian academia (in the Main Line suburbs, specifically), and that this particularity gives us a unique but limited relationship with our culture. There was a general sense that while this bubble itself was fine and good, the somewhat alienating nature of being a part of a sheltered subculture was problematic. (If anyone who participated in that conversation is reading this and would like to elaborate, disagree, etc., please do). It was a helpful and meaningful thing to reflect on, because most of us were preparing to leave this bubble, or at least shift our placement within it.

About a week later, I did just that – I left this bubble that had cared for me so well for four years. I moved to South Philly and started working at a growing church in Center City. For a little while, I stumbled around in this new life. During those first few months, things would regularly happen to me that heightened my awareness of how out of place I was. Mostly humorous stuff. But alas, that’s what life is like outside of the bubble.

Except it’s not. I never actually left a bubble, but simply transitioned into a new bubble, or perhaps, set of bubbles. I realized this after chatting with neighbors and becoming acclimated to my new neighborhood – South Philly is vibrant, nuanced, culturally robust, and, a surprisingly insular city-within-a-city, a subculture of its own. Church world (which I consider quite distinct from Christian academia) is also its own strange and unique subculture, one that’s trying very hard to engage with the society around it, which is just another interesting aspect of this bubble. So, I left one bubble for another, and it’s tempting to think of this as a failure of sorts.

But I’m going to suggest otherwise, and not just for the sake of my own pride given my life decisions. People in our generation and culture are really compelled by the concept of leaving one’s “bubble” or “comfort zone.” Intolerance and ignorance are considered deeply offensive, but even innocent sheltered-ness is widely frowned upon. The respectable, cosmopolitan person has experienced and is knowledgeable about communities other than their own, and is uncomfortable with the idea of settling into one particular niche. To me, this is an ironically limited understanding of the good life.

On one hand, I think the desire for a cosmopolitan and bubble-free life is futile. If we settle anywhere, even just temporarily, we’re settling into a particular niche. It could even be argued that unsettled cosmopolitanism – whatever that looks like – is its own bubble, a community with shared practices, ideals, and ends.

More importantly, I’m not convinced that it is possible to flourish outside of a bubble. Political theorist Mark Mitchell argues this as well. In his recently published essay, “Making Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation,” Mitchell argues that psychologically, we simply aren’t capable of growing or loving outside of a particular realm of society:

A particular language, a particular cuisine, a particular geography, climate, manners, stories, songs, metaphors – these all serve to make me who and how I am. While I can imagine my abstracted self as a global citizen or as a brother to all humanity, such an extension requires significant effort and is as unlivable as it is unnatural. The limits of my belonging are determined by the limit of my love – and love, not an abstracted feeling of goodwill, has limits.

He goes on to claim that we need these limits and long-term commitments in order to flourish, and that “a life given to assiduously keeping one’s options open will, in the process of avoiding commitments, miss out on the very best kinds of human goods that are found in the wake of commitment.”

This isn’t an argument in favor of ignorance or intolerance, but simply a call to recognize that it’s okay to be comfortable in a particular place and/or subculture, and to prefer one’s own bubble to all others. This doesn’t mean hating all other (sub)cultures or anything, but simply loving one’s own more thoroughly.

There’s a sense that it’s good and challenging to leave one’s comfort zone, and we admire people who do this – who go abroad, spend time with people who look or speak different. This notion of leaving one’s comfort zone has always struck me as compelling, but not particularly challenging. It’s easy to leave, but it’s much harder to stay, to accept limits, make deep commitments, and invest selflessly in a particular people and place. I’m not always good at this, but I’m definitely trying to get better.

And I’ll start by admitting that I am in a bubble, a comfort zone. I’m proud of this, and I’m here to stay.