City People

We’re living in a city during a pandemic. 

You live in the city for the culture. The people, the arts, the food, the sights, the energy. 

So when those things all stop, what do you do? 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Hearing stories of folks leaving cities en masse, yet I still feel energized by being in the city, even when those things have all supposedly stopped.

The “good things” about the city were all closed–you don’t live in the city to stay alone in your small apartment, they say. The original live theater stopped–the comedy shows, the magic shows, the drag shows, the dance shows. The panels and events and concerts were no longer an option. The Dim Sum carts and sharing food in restaurants no longer seemed like a safe idea, and they were closed now anyway.

We were left with all the “bad things” about the city: smaller living spaces, less lawn, more noise. 

So the urbanites decamp to the suburbs or more rural towns. More space for your dollar. 

In the spring there was a sense that people in cities reacted to shut down by leaving. The idea that small urban apartments weren’t good for staying at home, that you can get more space elsewhere, that having a yard makes people feel better. 

In fact it seems that trend was overblown, as reported in this Bloomberg article on COVID migration. People moved less, not more, no real urban flight. Some regional trends of relocating to a new city, but not abandoning the urban entirely. And the (non)trend of people suddenly inspired by suburban life only captures folks who work from home and can afford to relocate. Lots of folks can’t because of their in-person job or otherwise.

These stories on cities seemed to rely on the idea that cities are a sacrifice you make for the amenities, a place that has nice things for the rootless who eventually go back to the nicer suburb. Cities: dangerous and cramped and unclean. 

These stories did not account for the people who live in them, love living in them, and are home in cities.

Perhaps this is a problem of our own making–When I describe the reasons I love the cities, I, too, talk about amenities. The Theaters, the Museums, the Music, the Comedy, the Restaurants, etc. etc. 

And yet those things are now limited or gone, and we’re still here. So what is it that makes us city people? If the things we say we love about it are apparently gone? 

To start, my question was always, why react to isolation in a city to go to … more isolation somewhere else? And that gets at the core of the issue. 

I’m an introvert, at least partially, and the urban experience is a counter to my impulse for self isolation. The low friction to see friends helps me get into community, helps me meet a level of socializing that is really good for my mental health. I don’t have to drive to see someone, I can step out on my balcony. I’m alone often, but I always know there’s community around me.

Early in the spring, our building, a dozen people living in a greystone 6-flat on a tree-lined street,  invested in our outdoor space. We got together and built up vegetable garden plots, grew tomatoes, peppers, and herbs over the summer. We put in a fire pit and maintained a space for outside seating. We watered each others’ plants while people went on camping trips or saw family, safely, out of town. We had locally-brewed beers, socially-distanced around a fire in the backyard, between our building and the garages, at times talking about the world around us and others talking about the garden or the weather.

We have coffee and breakfast on the deck and say good morning to the other neighbors taking their coffees outside with all our pets. We grill on the deck in the evening, hear someone else firing up their grill and catch up after our days at work, seeing others down the street sitting on patios too. 

The city gives roots to all of us strangers. 

Back garden space, at the beginning of summer.

And that community, roots among strangers, has more benefits. Even when everything is closed, we still have so much culture and art. 

Our neighborhood–Uptown–has invested in public art over the years. The Clifton Street Art Gallery has been expanded since we moved to the neighborhood years ago, and in August they put on a neighborhood-wide art festival with muralists installing and painting new murals all over the zip code. We walked through the neighborhood, seeing our old favorites and watching artists create new works.

They published a map of the installations, and we plotted out a route for ourselves and led some friends around the highlights. We went past highrises and community gardens with 3-story-high murals, 6×6 foot canvas being freshly painted by a cafe below an apartment building, a cart from Everybody’s Coffee selling cold brew in Clifton Street with 3 artists working on new murals, a team of artists painting “Black Lives Matter” under the train in front of a corner store. 

Uptown Art Walk Black Lives Matter installation under the tracks at Broadway.

Now we walk around the neighborhood, we pass the murals and the terrace garden shop with pumpkins, and neighbors walking dogs or running errands. We get home–to our right-sized apartment–and sit on our balcony, another neighbor comes out on her deck and we talk about the news, followed by immediately avoiding talking about the news because it’s too much. Some kids bike up the street, playing music. Someone honks at a delivery van. Someone says hello to their fellow dog walker they see every morning and evening. Acquaintances nod on the street, smiling through their masks. The train rumbles past a few blocks away. The fire station still plays music (Taylor Swift) with the doors open while they all take a break. The drag show is outside now, as is a show or two at the local jazz bar. Our cats go out on the balcony and sort of make friends with and sort of alarm the neighbor’s dog, but they’re making progress. The brewery delivers. The Ethiopian place does excellent take-out. 

And the real reasons we live in the city–the people, the culture, the energy–it’s still here. 

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