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Living just enough for the city

05/13/2011

I never saw myself as an urban kind of guy.

I was born and raised in the suburbs, and Glastonbury, CT isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. In a town of fifty-two square miles but just forty thousand people, going over to a friend’s house might involve a twenty-minute drive. There’s no public transportation. The center of town has restaurants, shops, banks, the public library, and a Whole Foods, and that’s about it. My only experiences with “city living” up to this point have been vacationing or visiting friends.

On top of that, I’m the type of person who likes to be alone now and then to rest and recharge. That’s no problem when you have your own bedroom in a two-story house in a suburban neighborhood where the only time people go outside is to mow the lawn. Before this semester, I assumed it would be more difficult in a busy city, where you can never truly escape the crowds, the noise, and the smells of the street.

But what I’ve discovered in La Plata is that a city offers a different type of community and a different kind of loneliness.

Some days, when I’m walking to the Comisión or to class at the university, I’m struck by the constant movement, the sheer numbers of human beings living in the same space. La Plata isn’t a megacity like Buenos Aires, but six hundred thousand people is no suburb. I imagine all the different stories passing by in just a few short blocks: the blue-collar construction worker, the first-year university student, the mother pregnant with her second child, the old married couple, the rebellious high schooler. It’s impossible to escape the feeling that in such a concentrated mass of people, every kind of human activity is not only possible but is actually happening right now.

Then there are strange moments when my mind runs in another direction. I put in my earphones and press play, and time distorts. I’m encased in a bubble, or moving through a blurry tunnel, and the other people on the street, the stray dogs wandering past, the traffic noise, the streetlights, all seem part of some weird fever dream. The city itself is alive; it’s more than the sum of its inhabitants. You get the feeling that individuals are interchangeable, that you could swap any person for anyone else and it wouldn’t make a shred of difference to La Plata as an entity. It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

You can look at this one of two ways. City living can be dehumanizing, because you become little more than an ant in a colony, reduced to one insignificant speck among thousands and millions of others. Or you can choose to rejoice in the fact that you’re never far from human interaction if you want it. The bonds of community can be infinitely stronger in a city neighborhood than in a suburban neighborhood, just because everyone is relatively close. In La Plata, I don’t have to get in a car just to see a friend. All I have to do is give a yell to the family upstairs, or send a text to the other W&M students to meet up in the plaza to drink mate.

Granted, this is in the context of a mid-size Argentine city. La Plata is pretty tranquil when compared to Buenos Aires or an American metropolis like New York. The streets are relatively quiet after dark and there are plazas and green spaces every seven or eight blocks. Doubtless I’d feel differently in BsAs, and I’m not saying I’m going to move to Brooklyn straight out of college. But after three months in an urban environment, I can see myself living in a smaller city or the outskirts of a big one. Baby steps.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Zoe permalink
    05/13/2011 05:09

    and once you acknowledge that chicago is the best city ever, you’ll be set for life.

    but yes, i know what you mean about the lonliness. riding the train today was one of those times where it would have been nice if people actually talked to each other, rather than being alone together.

    on the other hand, cities are the best thing ever. and invented by cain. as i discovered recently. as in cain and able. yup. cities were invented by cain.

  2. 05/13/2011 13:06

    I’ve lived in various burbs my whole life (except for a short 3-year stint in downtown Hartford), but have a sort of proud subliminal life-long identity as being “from New York.”

    Cities can be so exciting…. lots of art, and outdoor spaces, and history, and people doing interesting things. Unlike in the burbs, you can be part of what other people are doing simply by virtue of the fact that you can see them, be in the same space, hear the same sounds. You don’t have to be invited in in quite the same way as when you live in the suburbs. Common space is just that–in common.

    And yet, cities can press in and feel stifling to me. Where are the mountains? the ocean? the silence in which I can hear a bird song, or the sound of the wind? Where is the privacy where (see above) no one uninvited shares my space? I love the tranquility of my own backyard, the restfulness where no one “needs” anything from me, a truly private space where I can sit alone in the sun and be recharged…

    And so, I can visit the one and live and be restored quietly in the other. Best of both worlds.

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