I visited New York City with my wife this past weekend for Valentine’s Day. It turned out to be the coldest one on record for NYC. But despite the deep freeze we saw plenty of pedestrians and cyclists going on with their lives, with a few more layers than usual, and we were right there beside them.
This might seem like a crazy way to spend a vacation to some. Many years ago I probably would have thought so. When you become drawn into the habit of focusing your life around maximum comfort — controlled temperatures, personal space, easy access to owned cars — the idea of exposing yourself to harsh weather alongside strangers on busy sidewalks seems extreme and odd.
I thought about this when I read a post called “Ten songs for urbanists” by writer Robert Steuteville. He’s made a good list of songs that have messages in the lyrics urbanists can identify with. One of them is The Monkees’ Pleasant Valley Sunday, written by Carole King. It’s a favorite of mine.
The lyrics describe the blandness of suburban America in the 1960s, a world that probably seemed strange to a Manhattan-born New Yorker like King. Here’s a passage from the song’s bridge that touches on the idea of prioritizing comfort and what that can do to us:
“Creature comfort goals, they only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see.
My thoughts all seem to stray to places far away
I need a change of scenery.”
I’d like to compliment this lyric with a another quote, this one from writer Lewis Mumford who gave a warning voice against the rise of car-centric suburbia as it was happening in the mid 20th century. If Carole King never read Mumford, she was at least inspired by the same ideas about suburban life (emphasis from me):
In the suburb one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle.
Mumford knew that the car-centric, sprawling suburbia that was developing at the time clashed with the way communities and cities had developed and thrived for millennia. We were reconstructing our development patterns on a scale for cars, producing many neighborhoods that were extremely comfortable for those who could afford them. But they were inhospitable to the kind of pedestrian connectivity that engenders healthy interactions with our environments and with each other.
Downtown Atlanta, where we live, is not anywhere near as dense with residents and street life as NYC’s Lower East Side, but we do get a chance to have a somewhat similar pedestrian-based life. And I’ve found that there’s something about braving the elements on a sidewalk, shoulder to shoulder with other pedestrians, that makes you feel like you’re part of a vibrant community.
One time I was at Downtown Atlanta’s Mammal Gallery and I overheard some artists talking about how they felt it was necessary to get out in the weather and expose ourselves to the good and bad because it connects us with something primal and essential about humanity’s experience of nature. That’s a heady concept, but I think it’s also rooted in common sense.
I think we do have a tendency to numb ourselves with comforts in modern life and to become detached from reality. You see this in the way that it’s possible for many people to go from living rooms to cars in a garage and then to a destination without ever being outside in a group with others. It keeps us from knowing the reality of the weather and, more importantly, from seeing the real experiences of people outside of our cultural and economic groups.
In this way, not only does home life and transportation become a bubble of comfort, but our range of contact with others is a bubble as well. After living in that type of silo, it can be a shock to encounter people and outside of our comfort zone. It shouldn’t be — and the fact that it often is should be a sign that we need to put less of a priority on personal comfort and a higher priority on urban spaces that facilitate diversity, communication and understanding.