The Null Device

The urban loneliness myth

New York Magazine has an interesting piece on cities, living alone and the myth of endemic urban loneliness and alienation:
Of all 3,141 counties in the United States, New York County is the unrivaled leader in single-individual households, at 50.6 percent. More than three-quarters of the people in them are below the age of 65. Fifty-seven percent are female. In Brooklyn, the overall number is considerably lower, at 29.5 percent, and Queens is 26.1. But on the whole, in New York City, one in three homes contains a single dweller, just one lone man or woman who flips on the coffeemaker in the morning and switches off the lights at night.
These numbers should tell an unambiguous story. They should confirm the common belief about our city, which is that New York is an isolating, coldhearted sort of place. Mark Twain called it “a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race.” (This from a man who settled in Hartford, Connecticut.) In J. D. Salinger’s 1952 short story “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” the main character observes that wishing to be alone “is the one New York prayer that rarely gets lost or delayed in channels, and in no time at all, everything I touched turned to solid loneliness.” Modern movies and art are filled with lonesome New York characters, some so familiar they’ve become their own shorthand: Travis Bickle (in Taxi Driver, calling himself “God’s lonely man”); the forlorn patrons in Nighthawks (inspired, Edward Hopper said, “by a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue”); Ratso Rizzo (“I gotta get outta here, gotta get outta here,” he kept muttering in Midnight Cowboy … and died before he could).
There are several assumptions here: the equation of living alone (outside of a stable nuclear family) with loneliness and psychological toll is one of them. Another one is the great American myth about small-town values, one we see trotted out (often by people on the right of culture-war politics) time and time again.
In American lore, the small town is the archetypal community, a state of grace from which city dwellers have fallen (thus capitulating to all sorts of political ills like, say, socialism). Even among die-hard New Yorkers, those who could hardly imagine a life anywhere else, you’ll find people who secretly harbor nostalgia for the small village they’ve never known.
One problem with "small-town values" is that the word is often a dog whistle for a certain brand of reactionary intolerance; a strong in-group-vs.-out-group distinction, knee-jerk traditionalism, bigotry and petty authoritarianism, only painted in folksy Thomas Kincaid colours. One example of this that came around not so long ago was failed US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin approvingly quoting a fascist newspaper columnist's praise of "small-town America". If small towns stand as a symbol of intolerance and conformism, all things urban could be said to represent the opposite, cosmopolitanism and liberalism.
Cities, in other words, are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them). And in their present American incarnations—safe, family-friendly, pulsing with life on the street—they’re working at their optimum peak. In Cacioppo’s data, today’s city dwellers consistently rate as less lonely than their country cousins. “There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, an increase in trust,” he says. “It all leads to less alienation.”
Cacioppo and Patrick cite a range of studies showing that students in classes with the best rapport imitate each other’s body language; same goes for athletes on winning teams. The presence of other human beings puts a natural limit on how freakily we can behave. And where better to find them than in cities, where we have more ties? (Think about the sociopathic kids who shot other kids in Red Lake, Minnesota; at Northern Illinois University; at Virginia Tech—what do they have in common? They were living in isolated places.) Robert Sampson, paraphrasing Durkheim, puts it this way: “The tie itself provides health benefits. That’s where I started with my work on crime.”

In any case, recent research has revealed that the equation of living alone and loneliness does not follow; for one, what sociologists call "weak ties" are at least as important to psychological wellbeing as more intimate connections, and cities full of singletons are swarming with potential weak ties (and often stronger ones as well):

“In our data,” adds Lisa Berkman, the Harvard epidemiologist who discovered the importance of social networks to heart patients, “friends substitute perfectly well for family.” This finding is important. It may be true that marriage prolongs life. But so, in Berkman’s view, does friendship—and considering how important friendship is to New Yorkers (home of Friends, after all), where so many of us live on our own, this finding is blissfully reassuring. In fact, Berkman has consistently found that living alone poses no health risk, whether she’s looking at 20,000 gas and electricity workers in France or a random sample of almost 7,000 men and women in Alameda, California, so long as her subjects have intimate ties of some kind as well as a variety of weaker ones. Those who are married but don’t have any civic ties or close friends or relatives, for instance, face greater health risks than those who live alone but have lots of friends and regularly volunteer at the local soup kitchen. “Any one connection doesn’t really protect you,” she says. “You need relationships that provide love and intimacy and you need relationships that help you feel like you’re participating in society in some way.”
In fact, many Internet and city behaviors we consider antisocial have social consequences. Think of people who lug their laptops into public settings. In 2004, Hampton and his colleagues looked at just those people—at Starbucks, in fact, in Seattle and Boston—and concluded that a full third of them were basically using their laptops and interacting at the same time. (Cafés, in other words, were like dog runs, and laptops were like pugs, encouraging interaction among solitaries.) Hampton did a similar study of laptop users in Bryant Park, and the same proportion, or one-third, reported meeting someone they hadn’t before. Fifteen percent of them kept in touch with that person over time (meaning that about 5 percent made lasting ties out of a trip to Bryant Park with a laptop).
Conversely, married people—women especially—have smaller friendship-based social networks than they did as single people, according to Claude Fischer. In a recent phone conversation with the sociologist, I mentioned a related curiosity I came across in a paper about the elderly and social isolation in New York City: The neighborhoods where people were at the greatest risk, it seemed, were in neighborhoods where people seemed very married—family neighborhoods, in fact, like Borough Park and Ridgewood. “That’s not strange at all,” he says. “They’re the prime category of people to be isolated.” He explains that these people “aged in place,” as sociologists like to say, staying in the homes where they raised their own families. Then their spouses died, and so did their cohort (or it moved to a retirement community), and they’re suddenly surrounded by strange families, often of different classes or ethnic backgrounds, with whom they’re likely to have far less in common. “Unless they have children living nearby,” he says, “they’re likely to be quite isolated.”
The article concludes with the notion that the internet—another thing often pooh-poohed as alienating and antisocial—functions, in terms of facilitating weak ties, much like a city; in fact, like the ultimate city:
Think about it: Serendipitous encounters between people who know each other well, sort of well, and not at all. People of every type, and with every type of agenda, trying to meet up with others who share that same agenda. An environment that’s alive at all hours, populated by all types, and is, most of the time, pretty safe. What he was saying, really, was that New York had become the Web. Or perhaps more, even: that New York was the Web before the Web was the Web, characterized by the same free-flowing interaction, 24/7 rhythms, subgroups, and demimondes.

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