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Social Distancing Journal 18: Cities

Posted in Uncategorized.

This post has evolved out of a number of different conver­sa­tions I’ve had in real life, and one in partic­ular with a person I other­wise respect and have known since I was six years old. He has become very entrenched in an almost liber­tarian view of the world, and I wanted to contex­tu­alize the reasons I held my own views in a way that de-esca­lated his sense that “all liberals just want to take my money”. It wasn’t an argu­ment; I cannot speak for him, and I cannot speak for other people, but I can explain my own thoughts and reasons for my choices. (He expected that I would hold his beliefs — and I get this a lot, for reasons that are entirely and completely unclear to me.)

In the end, he could under­stand my views clearly, and I think it surprised him that he could; they made sense to him even if he disagreed with them; they were moti­va­tions that weren’t part of the calculus of his assump­tions about people … like me.

***

I live in a city (Toronto). When I was growing up, I lived in a suburb (North York), which was folded into the city of Toronto some­time between then and now. When my family first moved into the house I lived in until I moved out of my parent’s home, side­walks hadn’t been fully constructed, and there was a farm two blocks away. I don’t know what kind of farm it was – I don’t remember that at all – but the impor­tant feature of that farm was ponies. We used to take carrots and head to the farm and feed the ponies on the other side of a fence which seemed, at a great remove, not to be much of a fence at all, it would have been so easy to crawl through the very large wire rectan­gles.

This did not last very long; I was still a child when the ponies and their fence and our carrot-feeding expec­ta­tions disap­peared. More houses sprang up, as if by magic; by the time I had finished elemen­tary school, we were smack in the middle of streets full of suburban houses – the smaller houses, not the large ones that often spring up now.

I still live in Toronto, five minutes from the nearest subway; I don’t have a driver’s license, so prox­imity to transit was impor­tant. There are two large grocery stores and a handful of the smaller fruit/vegetable places which are also five or ten minutes away, by foot.

I have always lived in a city.

I have friends who have not, or do not.

***

When I was younger, I was talking to someone who had moved to Toronto from the USian south. It was the first time in my life that I discov­ered that “Hey, guys, we need to leave” was not univer­sally the general “everyone”; I had to explain that “guys” in this context was neither a gendered word nor a denial of my friend’s actual gender.

This wasn’t diffi­cult. What was more diffi­cult was explaining city manners.

She found the city too large and too cold; people were too imper­sonal. No one asked general social ques­tions. As I was asking general social ques­tions, this struck me as odd, so I pointed this out.

This was not what she meant. She meant: no one in the stores, no one in the restau­rants, no librar­ians, no profes­sors, were social. As I had zero desire to be asked social/personal ques­tions by total strangers, this also struck me as odd.

It slowly became clear that living in a much smaller town meant that no one who lived there was a total stranger. There­fore, living in a place in which there were total strangers was an unex­pected shock to the system.

This got me to thinking, and I’ve been thinking about this, on and off, for years. My natural horror at having, oh, everyone around me in my busi­ness is a func­tion of living in a city.

There are millions of people living here, some on top of each other (liter­ally) in the apart­ment build­ings down the road. There are too many people to build a commu­nity in which everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows of everyone else.

But in a city you can more easily find your tribe: a commu­nity that exists that has things in common with you. Commu­ni­ties are often built on inter­ests, on activ­i­ties that people enjoy in common, on common­al­i­ties such as race, gender, sexual orien­ta­tion or career. Within those are sub-commu­ni­ties, and they continue in an almost fractal spread.

In a city, confor­mity is by neces­sity much less of a problem: There are far, far more commu­ni­ties, and even if each pres­sures its members to conform to their stan­dards, there are a lot of stan­dards.

It’s why the “do no harm” metric has evolved. It’s simply impos­sible to impose a single stan­dard across millions of people. If a commu­nity in which I play no part is doing no harm, I support the changes that will make their lives easier or better.

In a city, good manners is minding your own busi­ness. People often think cities are cold — and I’ve often found this confusing because I live in one.

When­ever I have seen acci­dents (or been in one) people come to help. Are they people I know? No. But when there is a visible and imme­diate need, people step up. If there isn’t, they step back because they are much more aware of social bound­aries, of remaining within their own social bound­aries, of minding their own busi­ness.

***

In cities, people are there­fore likely to be more liberal. The laws form guide­lines for accept­able and unac­cept­able behav­iour. Some of those laws seem dead obvious, and they’re shared across the country: don’t steal, don’t kill, etc. But city people been raised more or less to mind our own busi­ness and to do no harm.

We’ve been raised in a plethora of different over­lap­ping commu­ni­ties. When, for instance, gay marriage was being contested, almost everyone I knew (including parents) could see no reason why it wasn’t accept­able. It would not mate­ri­ally change our lives in any way, and it would mate­ri­ally make the lives of people who also live in our city better. Our personal commu­ni­ties would not be affected in a nega­tive way, and other people would be happier; they’d have legal protec­tion if their spouse passed away, among other things.

We learn not to judge the differ­ences, even if we don’t fully under­stand them; it’s not our busi­ness to fully under­stand the lives of total strangers. Our entire life is full of strangers as a matter of fact.

In a small commu­nity that is bound by the fact of geog­raphy, commu­nity means some­thing different than it does in a city. You can know everyone in your county; you can know their parents, their kids, etc. When there’s an emer­gency – like, say, when a giant tree falls across your only way of leaving your home in a bliz­zard – people who are in your commu­nity will come with trac­tors and saws and etc., and help get rid of that tree. Yes, you might be an oddball (writer!), but you’re still part of the respon­si­bility of the commu­nity at large regard­less. (This happened to a writer friend in the US.)

In a city, this func­tion is absorbed not by your neigh­bors — none of whom will have trac­tors or chain­saws — but by the govern­ment. In a city, with postage stamp size back­yards and front yards, the defi­n­i­tion of useful and neces­sary is different.

As I mentioned above, I don’t even have a driver’s license; I live five minutes away from public transit. (In covid times, however, I’ve been avoiding public transit). We have a tiny lawn; a push mower can cut it. We have manual snow shovels because our walk/drive couldn’t accom­mo­date a snow blower.

The garbage in a city is collected by ginor­mous garbage trucks on specific days of the week. The water is handled by the city. Sewage is handled by the city. The trees that get too old and drop branches on houses? The city handles those as well, if they’re not on your (tiny) prop­erty. There are city ordi­nances about what kind of weeds you are not allowed to have growing in your yard.

There are, again, common­al­i­ties. Schools. Policing. But the people I know who live in the coun­ties are respon­sible for their own wells, their own septic tanks; I think they can and do burn their own garbage (I have been corrected; not all garbage can be legally burned, but you have to take it to depots your­self). (This is off the top of my head; I’m sure there are many more of which I’m unaware.)

I think the reason people in cities tend to support more govern­ment initia­tives, and more taxes is, oddly enough, because of the city sense of commu­nity. There is simply no way to keep an eye on all of the people in a city, to bring your trac­tors, to help out where help is both permitted and not humil­i­ating, to everyone who might need it. We can’t phys­i­cally take care of everyone who is in need of help; we likely won’t even know they are.

Do city people help out? Yes, of course. When a falling 2x4 in a wind­storm fell off the roof of a three story building at great speed, bounced off the side­walk, narrowly missing a pedes­trian, and shat­tered the back window of our car, all of the passing pedes­trians stopped instantly, crowding around that shat­tered window and the person who was directly beside it, to make sure that he was okay. (He was.)

But… those people are people I’ve never met, and am likely never to meet again, not because I’ve offended them, but because the city is so large and so full of people. I don’t expect to meet them again; they don’t expect to be met.

The various taxes, the various improve­ments to life in the city are a form of commu­nity support; we accept up front that we’re never going to see all of the people in the city, or even a small frac­tion of it — but there persists a sense that we are still all in this together.

If I were living in the county, I’d prob­ably find taxes more frus­trating; I can under­stand how the increase in taxes won’t neces­sarily seem either helpful or useful for the county; that people there tend to take care of them­selves and their own. Our city lives are built around the idea that water, sewage, garbage are facts of life that we do not handle ourselves.

I think the divide in voting patterns — urban vs rural — stem from the city sense of commu­nity vs the rural sense of commu­nity. For people like me, the taxes are an expres­sion of commu­nity respon­si­bility for people I can’t see, don’t know, will never know, but still live in my city. And because that’s the base, it extends more readily to the rest of the country.

I was grateful for the CERB (the covid-19 relief payments to indi­vid­uals), and for the speed of its release and its payments; everyone I know who needed that money got it. Will my taxes increase? Oh yes. My husband’s as well. But it’s the form of outreach for tens of millions of people that I could not, ever, afford to do on my own. And it’s an outreach that I consid­ered neces­sary.

People who were, through no fault of their own, suddenly out of work could still eat and pay rent; they might be trapped in their homes, but they would still have homes.

***

There are many, many things I do not know how to do. I can’t fix elec­trical work. I can’t fix my own plumbing (it’s consid­ered the worst of the things to try if you have no expe­ri­ence, given the damage getting it wrong can do). I can’t fix a car, let alone drive one. I do not know the first thing about growing anything organic (chil­dren don’t count). I know that septic tanks exist, but have no expe­ri­ence with main­te­nance; I don’t know much about wells.

Could I learn these things? Yes. But they wouldn’t be prac­tical for me to learn. Not because they’re inher­ently useless or infe­rior, but because they serve no purpose to me, in the city. There are things in the city that serve no inherent purpose in rural commu­ni­ties, but I’m less aware of them because I’ve always lived in a city.

I say all of this not to tell people they should be voting differ­ently, but to explain some of the context about how I view voting and its outcomes.

In the county, you go help your neigh­bors person­ally. It’s a commu­nity respon­si­bility. In the city, you don’t; you extend that help through the taxes you are willing to pay. In both cases, there’s a sense of respon­si­bility, and it’s a driving force — but we don’t inher­ently see them the same way because of where, and how, we live.

***

*Also: there are a ton of people who live in cities who want to pay no tax. There are people in the coun­ties who are liberal. This is Michelle talking out loud about my obser­va­tions — and of neces­sity, I see only a frac­tion of, well, anything.

8 Responses to Social Distancing Journal 18: Cities

  1. Julie says:

    I get it! We all come from different back­grounds. Listen to me and I will listen to you. Don’t impose your will onto me.

  2. Dan Pierson says:

    Excel­lent expo­si­tion. I hadn’t thought of it that way but it fits.

  3. Thomas Wiegand says:

    Thank you.

  4. Joyce Ronquillo says:

    Well said. The sad thing about the USian south is that those lines have frac­tured and refrac­tured to the point where a line a discus­sion could held across is now a canyon that can’t be seen across and all that can be heard is your own echo.

  5. Diana says:

    This is a really inter­esting perspec­tive! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Elizabeth Putnam says:

    I live in NYC in the US, and I love the way that my behavior is not limited by fear of disap­proval but that I am full of a commu­nity of strangers. Someone being a mean bully on the bus? Turn and roll eyes with neigh­bors sitting nearby that I don’t know, so we comfort each other in the pres­ence of bad behavior. I had my wallet stolen on the back of the bus. I held open the bus doors as I exited and yelled that my wallet was gone. My wallet myste­ri­ously reap­peared on the bus stair in front of me. I let the bus doors close. As I turned around, the group of women who had exited the bus before me with baby carriages and carts had formed up into two lines and they escorted me away from the bus stop, in case the thieves should try to recover their lost wallet. That’s a city. I don’t know any of them, they don’t know me, but they all stepped up to help.

    Another thing that other people don’t under­stand, is the manners are different in a city. It took me a while to work it out, but it is rude in the city to slow down lines. So, chat­ting with a clerk while buying some­thing in a store or with a ticket booth clerk in the subway, would be rude to everyone else in line. Now, you will find people in line very helpful, as if they can give you the infor­ma­tion you are waiting in line to get, and get you out of line, that is also in their best inter­ests. When I see tourists in the subway line, I will often give them what ever infor­ma­tion, including going over subway maps with them, as it cuts down the line by one long conver­sa­tion. So out of town people will comment that everyone looks angry, it may be because the behavior that is good where you came from is rude for the city, and everyone is annoyed at what you are doing.

    And I loved the freedom I gained when I saw someone in an elab­o­rate and unusual outfit get a cab at 2 am with no prob­lems what­so­ever, and I real­ized I really could do almost anything I wanted to do here and no one would mind.

    City has larger respon­si­bil­i­ties, but also great freedom to just be who you are. Just don’t hold up the line.

  7. Martin Sinclair says:

    An inter­esting account that resonates with our expe­ri­ence in many ways.

    A couple of decades ago, we moved from inner-Sydney to the “semi-rural” north-west until about 6 months ago when we left the Sydney’s urban encroach­ment for rural Tasmania.

    After our first move, we expe­ri­enced a number of the same things — reduced munic­ipal services along with a more laissez-faire atti­tude to what you were allowed to do on your own prop­erty. But the sense of commu­nity close­ness didn’t actu­ally kick in until our latest move. We were over­whelmed by the readi­ness of complete strangers to help us through our COVID-quar­an­tine period which is a level of engage­ment we’d not had even in our previous loca­tion

    In Australia, we seem to have a lot of the “farmers are the salt of the earth” ideology that assumes that urban dwellers just don’t get it. COVID-19 has made it apparent that there is real value in preserving food secu­rity for the country and that we should all be prepared to play our part. To me, the flip­side is that, in return for support by urban taxpayers during diffi­cult times ( drought, bush­fires & flood being the most common ), the rural commu­nity should accept that they also benefit from things that they would never have if the cities didn’t exist and acknowl­edge that they do benefit from govern­ment programs.

    Your column shines a clear light into the back­ground and reasons for the behav­ioural differ­ences — all we need now is for people from all back­grounds to have the same under­standing before they’re tempted to pass judge­ment. Perhaps now, more than ever, we should remember the words over the Delphic Oracle’s cave: ’ ”know thyself”

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