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June 27, 2012 / Leo Hollis

Why it’s so hard to be lonely in the city

More and more people are living on their own in the city these days. In New York almost 1/3 of the city – both at the beginning and end of their lives – live by themselves. Is this an indication that the city is increasingly  atomised space where we lose the traditional connections with family and community and yet these are not replaced by a meal for one, sat in front of facebook in a studio flat. Wrong!

Despite what many people might think, it is in fact hard to be lonely in the city. It is often assumed that coming into the city from outside one expects a cold shoulder and a resentful shrug: the city excludes outsiders. The urban myth of the person who was found dead in their apartment long after their passing because no one was a neighbour is an oft repeated mantra for the inhospitable nature of the city. In addition, the city is a place of such churn and movement it is almost impossible to make meaningful relationships with those around you.

However, the complexity of the city offers more chances of making connections than anywhere else. Poets from Wordsworth to Baudelaire have written of the sensation of being adrift within the city, the anomnity of being in the crowd. In 1938, the Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth published his classic essay, Urbanism as a Way of Life, as a result of a study of recent Jewish immigrants into the city. He discovered that city life was a threat to culture, that it undermined traditional ties and replaced them with ‘impersonal, superficial, transitory and segmental [relationships]. The reserve, the indifference, and the blase outlook which urbanists manifest in their relationships may thus be regarded as devices for immunizing themselves against the personal claims and expectations of others’.

This now seems wrong. It is these ‘impersonal, superficial, transitory’ relationships that make the city so unique and important. It is the abundance of these weak ties that we find in the city that bring people to the city, for it is the intensity of these informal relationship that make the city so special., and it is these weak ties that will hold the mega city together. In his book, Loneliness, evolutionary psychologist, John Cacioppo proposes that we are hard wired to be together and than a sense of loneliness is a warning sign, telling us to make more connections for improved chances of survival rather than an existential condition. In addition, loneliness is a relative issue: just because more people live on their own in the city does not mean that they are alone; being married does not mean one can not be lonely.

As the megacity grows around us we are going to have to adapt our connections and relationships according. Yes, it is not the same as strong family ties but the city offers a panoply of connections that enrich our lives. It is these connections that according to sociologist Mark Granovetter, are the weak ties that will get us a new job and create the kind of network of friends and associates that keep the city ticking over.

Going to a city where you know no one is always a nerve wracking experience but there is not better place to meet people.


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