City Folk

“The city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo”
Desmond Morris, The Human Zoo

Ever noticed how cities are full of people wearing black from head to toe? Stand in the CBD of any city from Auckland to Singapore, New York to Paris, and you’ll see thousands of people rushing around like funky Matrix cast members, complete with slick hair & sexy sunglasses. It’s the universal uniform of the inner city; so much so that a bird’s eye view of Central Station in any of these cities will leave you in no doubt that colour was outlawed by corporate fashionistas a long time ago. Inhabitants wear black like armour, a symbol of ‘I belong here’ and ‘I fit in’. It is just one form of behaviour humans adopt in order to survive city life.

Urban myth tells us that cities are full of unknown dangers, and that the best way to stay safe is to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves. Don’t make eye contact on the subway, don’t talk to strangers, and don’t wear loud clothing. So where does this leave human relationships and interaction within the city environment, when trains are full of people reading the paper, and buses full of passengers gazing out the window to avoid making pleasantries with the person sharing a seat less than a metre in width? Human contact in cities is made up of short, sharp exchanges between people – bus drivers, subway ticketing officers, newspaper sellers etc. Hollywood has romanticised the city, whereby strangers fall in love on trains or during their lunch hour in the park, yet the reality is that all this human contact makes people withdraw. It is not natural for us humans to be comfortable with strangers invading our space, and the tendency of the city to force us within arms reach of people we don’t know leads us to respond in ways that counteract this violation (Sennett 1994, p.17). Our initial reaction when confronted with someone we don’t know is to take a step back and evaluate, an action that is not necessarily appropriate when trapped in the confines of a seat on the bus or train. Our response, therefore, is to shut the intruder out. Visitors from out of town interpret this behaviour as sullen, rude and arrogant, when in fact it is merely a form of self preservation. Silence becomes a way of maintaining privacy (1994, p.343).

After 9/11, t-shirts stating “I LOVE NEW YORK” became a way of showing support and solidarity with the residents of New York City. City living people the world over suddenly became very aware that in today’s world, to be a resident of any big city means looking out not only for muggers, junkies and prostitutes, but also suspicious men, abandoned packages and low flying aircraft. Given that people’s compassion was directed towards the inhabitants, not the skyscrapers, shouldn’t the t-shirts have read “I love the people of New York”? Consciously or otherwise, we equate cities with the people who operate within them, making the city more than just cement, steel and glass. The movement of the people, acting like blood through the city’s veins and arteries, override its inanimate nature.

Cities bring together an amazing cross section of humankind that may otherwise not mix. Well paid executives pass unemployed people on their way to the welfare office, school children learn on streets where hookers and rent boys patrol, two men hold hands as they walk past St Mary’s Cathedral (perhaps consciously), people visit art galleries and museums situated in manicured botanical gardens used by sporting teams and fitness fanatics, students wait at bus stops and subway stations being used as shelter by the homeless, and Chinatown incorporates a traditionally hostile mix nationalities such as Korean, Malaysian, Japanese, Vietnamese and the odd Turkish pide shop. It is this convergence of cultures, beliefs, backgrounds and class that makes the city fascinating, and brings tourists back to previously visited destinations time and time again. While people undoubtedly travel to see for themselves famous structures such as the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House and the Golden Gate Bridge, they surely do not return to a city to see the same buildings and monuments repetitively. They return for the ambience, the vibe and the people.

Anyone who has lived and worked in the city will tell you city people are different. They’re intense, focused, career driven and social. Generally, they can also be lonely, stressed, dissatisfied and bordering on bankruptcy from too many nights out trying to fill these voids. Much of this is to do with the fact that people are initially attracted to the city at a time in their lives when opportunity and career advancement must be sought out and seized at every opportunity. Consequently, each year sees thousands of individuals flock to ‘the big smoke’, leaving behind families, friends and support networks. The result is cities full of virtual strangers affecting relationships with each other in order to face the isolation that being in a city can bring. Social networking becomes important as a means of filling the void left by displacement and the loss of ‘home’. Intense connections are made hastily, which is not to say that all relationships are false, only that they are borne out of necessity rather than evolving naturally. Inevitably, the pressures of finding a comfort zone in this foreign territory become a breeding ground for ironically anti-social behaviour such as recreational drug taking as a means for coping. Perhaps the party pills provide some relief in the crippling isolation, given their intention is to promote feelings of contentment and joyfulness.

A few years ago when I was living in Sydney, a funny email did the rounds titled “You know you live in Sydney when…” This email consisted of a series of tongue-in-cheek one liners regarding the peculiarities of Sydney life, such as “a truly car space moves you to tears”, or “you prefer Kenyan to Nigerian coffee beans and can tell when they’ve been mixed with South American coffee”. It also had one that struck me as particularly insightful. “You know you live in Sydney…when you know everyone’s mobile number and email address, but not their surname or where they live.” This one was really true! My social circle was full of people I hardly knew, and I wasn’t the only one. It took a joke email to bring home just how shallow and glib city life can be, yet researchers such as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber produced many works relating to the subordination of individuals in the city, and the way trying to maintain a sense of belonging and community spirit within such a vast area subjects people to impersonal relationships within a fragmented society (Davies & Herbert 1993, p. 15).

A study by Suttle in 1972 sought to have cities analysed along the lines of a social construct rather than in an ecological context, as urban places are not “given, concrete entities”, but rather a “product of the way individuals or social groups interpret, perceive and assign meanings to their cities” (Davies & Herbert 1993, p.85). Interestingly, when describing this most impenetrable of locales we have always used language that suggested an ‘aliveness’ and humanity. Cities hustle, pulsate, breathe and hum. New York is the ‘city that never sleeps’, Brisbane is a ‘young city maturing quickly’, Melbourne is ‘cultured’ and, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the media is showing us that New Orleans has ‘a heart’. Utilising such terms helps to soften the hard edges of the city, giving those who reside there a sense of ownership, and almost parental pride in their town. Community based festivals are held as a celebration of the residents and what they bring to the district, and public spaces are adorned with banners extolling the city’s virtues, giving those who use these areas the “warm fuzzies” about their city (Zukin 1995, p. 4-19).

Public spaces are an important part of the identity of the city, as the spaces designated ‘public’ gives an indication of the people within the metropolis, acting as a “window to the city’s soul” (Zukin 1995, p.259), and display a cross section of the ethnicities, lifestyles and cultures. These spaces may be parks, museums, pools or galleries, yet they all offer a place where strangers can intermingle freely (1995, p.260). Given the inclusive nature of the public space, people from wealthy suburbs, housing commission developments and tourists are all equally allowed the opportunity to participate and enjoy. This democratic ideology is tempered however, by the rules and restrictions imposed by councils and municipal bodies who dictate where citizens can picnic, walk, and swim, rollerblade, cycle and walk their dogs. When city parks are used in lieu of our own private backyard, any regulations restricting our use of this space become threatening. Our sense of freedom in this free space is challenged. Graffiti and a gang mentality emerge in direct retaliation to the authorities as a way of reclaiming ownership of the space by the people. Sadly however, these actions are often seen as elements of inner city crime and therefore push the everyday citizen further away from using public spaces. Inner city balconies can be seen crammed with pot plants, shrubs, mini herb gardens and the occasional water feature, as citizens attempt to create a private space out of reach of the city.

Life in the city is a life of compromise. You can choose to be near public transport or near the beach, live in the CBD right near work or live a little further out to save rent money, pay exorbitant car parking fees or do away with the car all together, and stay home to save money or go out to meet people. Yet despite all of the angst that can be caused by city life, we still celebrate our cities, envy those who have city glimpses, let alone city views, from their residences and are proud and defensive of our urban environments. Being within a city is like being in another world, one that is never really dark due to al the street lights, on where an open bar or pub can always e found, buses and trains always run, supermarkets open 24 hours and shift workers ensure there are always a few people milling about the streets. It is a hyperactive environment kept alive by the ebb and flow of its inhabitants. Cities market themselves according to their virtues, be they palaces, casinos, beaches or attractions. Souvenir outlets everywhere have postcards, t-shirts, beer coolers, pens and snow domes emblazoned with a place name and a few instantly recognisable landmarks. Yet seldom are the people of the city celebrated, despite being the vital organs that sustain the city’s existence.

Inevitably, this invisibility can be harmful to the human psyche. Given that our bodies are so closely linked to environmental conditions such as what we breathe, hear, drink and wear (Sennett 1994, p.261), it is no wonder that the sensory deprivation of modern cities leads to a mass exodus of people looking for relief from the “dullness, monotony and tactile sterility afflicting the urban environment” (1994, p.15). Each weekend sees outlying beaches and country areas of the city inundated with people escaping for a quick reprieve from the pressures. Despite the ideals of the city beautiful as a means of counteracting this need, how many people walk through Sydney’s Hyde Park on their way to work and take time to acknowledge its beauty? How many Sydney commuters on the Manly ferry look up from their books and newspapers to enjoy the sun glistening off the water and the glass of the buildings? How many more wish they could just jump in their car, turn on the stereo and the air conditioning, and pull up directly outside their work in a conveniently placed car space, thereby missing the whole city experience? Nevertheless, we return again and again to the city, and adolescents still dream of escaping their parental abode and losing themselves in the metropolis. Paradoxically, it is this feeling of having lost ourselves that inevitably makes us yearn for a life outside of the civic area, where walls are not built and people can live freely.

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