Solitude in the City of Lights

One of my friends recently had an internship over the summer in New York City. I recall talking to her one night and she said she felt very isolated: her job was demanding, her roommate was a crazy cat lady with very few social outlets, and she had nowhere she felt comfortable to go and meet other people her age. I found this a little concerning because out of all my friends, she was the most social and could make friends the easiest. She ended up joining a dating site so she could meet other New Yorkers her age around her.

What I find interesting is that in one of the largest and most populated cities in the world, it was necessary she join a virtual place—a place outside of space, so to speak—in order to truly find contact with someone else.

Anthropologist Erin B. Taylor tries to explain this phenomenon in her article “Alone in the city: How we create personal space in the maddening crowd” by asserting that “talking with strangers increases our urban workloads, giving us more obstacles to navigate, and distracts us from what we are trying to achieve. We expect others to respect us by leaving us alone.” She also describes the impossibility of making friends with strangers in the city because the amount of information around us is simply too much to comprehend when at the same time trying to focus on a specific task—such as catching the subway.

I am reminded of the first time I ever visited New York City. I was about 9 or 10 years old. I remember a lot of sounds, a lot of lights, and a lot of people’s backs. I lost my mother’s hand in a crowd at one point on the sidewalk and immediately became incredibly disoriented—my suburban life had not prepared me for the influx of sensory stimuli I experienced. Also it is difficult to orient yourself when the most prominent landmark you can see happens to be the harried (and very mobile) businessman blocking your vision.

However, because I was with another person at this time and did not reside in the city for any length of time, I was unable to experience the loneliness of city life. But the expression “alone in the crowd” comes distinctly to mind when I remember my friend’s troubles last summer.

New York City is often described as “cold”. I’m not sure if I completely and totally agree with the statement that unfriendliness in the city is attributed to the amount of extra stimuli in the environment, although I do believe it is a factor. And once it has become normative to sit alone, walk quickly, avoid eye contact and hide behind books or phones or newspapers it becomes very difficult to break the social norms without appearing odd at best threatening at worst.

Erin B. Taylor, “Alone in the city: How we create personal space in the maddening crowd”



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