The Promise of the City

I love the city. In The Perks of Being Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky captured exactly how I feel whenever I see a city skyline, whether driving down Interstate 75 and Atlanta slowly comes into view or crossing a bridge as New York poses for a picture or descending down a hill in what feels like the middle of nowhere and all the sudden majestic buildings rise out of the earth.

As the main character describes driving from the suburbs into Pittsburg, Chbosky writes, “As you enter the tunnel, the wind gets sucked away, and you squint from the lights overhead. When you adjust to the lights, you can see the other side in the distance just as the sound of the radio fades to nothing because the waves just can’t reach. Then, you’re in the middle of the tunnel, and everything becomes a calm dream. As you see the opening get closer, you just can’t get there fast enough. And finally, just when you think you’ll never get there, you see the opening right in front of you. And the radio comes back even louder than you remember it. And the wind is waiting. And you fly out of the tunnel onto the bridge. And there it is. The city. A million lights and buildings and everything seems as exciting as the first time you saw it.”

I cherish my small-town roots and those times when I’m surrounded by nature. Knowing all the shop owners by name. Enjoying a breeze while laying in the middle of field. Playing in the rain in a big backyard. Staring at the mountains. Visiting a remote beach. No city for miles. Magic happens during those moments. But there’s just something about the city. The shining skyscrapers. The lights. The activity. When picturing my future, I always knew I was a city girl at heart. I never understood why I had such faith in that thought, having never lived in a city, but I knew it.

For the longest time, I thought I wanted to live in a city for the aesthetics and activity. As a music fan obsessed with attending concerts as much as possible, a city meant I could see great acts. My favorite bands always stop in New York and Boston or San Francisco and Seattle, not so much my little town in Tennessee. In addition to music, I love all the arts, and cities offer a lot of artistic and cultural experiences, including museums, dance companies, cinema and galleries.

But I now see cities as more than just aesthetics and activity. I recently attended a talk by Edward Glaeser, a professor at Harvard University and author of Triumph of the City, and I started to realize what else I love about cities.

“At their heart cities are the absence of space between people.”

While some people might immediately find this assertion by Glaeser as a negative factor, I find such promise in this statement.

I love being social, meeting strangers and engaging in intellectual conversation. Of course there are times when people just annoy me, but I go home, lock myself away for a bit, listen to a good record, and recharge. Then I’m ready to venture out into the city –where great things happen.

“When cities form, miracles happen,” Glaeser said. He explained this “absence of space” spurs collaboration between citizens and in turn, genius. For instance, Glaeser described Chicago in the late 1890s—the setting for the first skyscraper. Many people argue over who invented the first skyscraper and the architects involved, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and William Le Baron Jenney, but Glaeser said it’s foolish to peg down the skyscraper to one particular person. In a piece for The Atlantic last year he wrote, “They were great architects deeply enmeshed in an urban chain of innovation. Wright riffed on Sullivan’s idea of form following function, Sullivan riffed on Jenney, and they all borrowed the wisdom of Peter B. Wight, who produced great innovations in fireproofing.” He calls the skyscraper their “collective creation.” It was the interaction between these city dwellers that created a “chain of genius.”

Cities have their problems, and I’m not knocking people who don’t want to live in cities. But I realize the potential city living has for me, and I can’t wait until I am finally able to secure a home in a city. It reminds me of college, especially when I attended graduate school. Sometimes I wish I could have stayed in school forever because it provided me the opportunity to constantly interact with people and ignite each other’s thoughts and creativity. And through this interaction, through spending time with other people, great things can be accomplished.

“The essence of any city is people. Humanity. People working together.”

That’s what city living is all about, and that’s why I always knew I was city girl.

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