I’ve heard it said that ours may be the age of the “mega-city.” Cities like Cincinnati, where I came of age, seem to be in an uncomfortable middle zone. With a metro of 2.1 million people, substantially larger I might note than the city of Rome at it’s climax in the first century AD, Cincinnati is to many a sleepy, provincial town. Yet to me, coming as I did from that homogeneous shmear we Americans all know and love, it was Metropolis.
This is so far a familiar story, and my cliches are already making me a little queasy. Will I be able to avoid them?
To my friends, some of them, Cincinnati was a layover. It’s not that they got there, many of them, gave it a couple years, and then changed their minds, but rather that they came from high school already with the ambition of making it to New York or other big eastern cities. In my program especially, people co-oped half the year in other cities, in Cincinnati only three months at a time for five consecutive years. These people grew attached to other places and got jobs there.
How many dates did I go on with people I knew would be leaving?
As a planner though, and perhaps as one with typically little concern for his own economy, I grew attached, got involved, and made lasting friendships in a place that could ultimately offer me little work.
2.1 million people. If you met one person every five seconds and never slept, it would take more than seven years to meet every Cincinnatian, assuming they all stayed put for a damn second. And I couldn’t find satisfying work that payed more than a stipend. Bigger than Rome and I couldn’t find the work society tells me I ought to be doing.
Having found all my best friends, and even a husband, in Cincinnati, it has now come to pass that everyone that I really care about is living in a different city. Not just not in my city, but each in their own.
Cincinnati, New York, San Fransisco, Denver, and me in Toronto. The closest any of these cities are to another is 550km. Even my family will be split soon as my little sister goes off to college in Boston and my parents retire to who knows where.
How ’bout them cliches? Can this get any more boring? People moving, getting older, life changes, yadda yadda.
But I feel like I need to stop here and just ask: What the hell is going on? That everyone I care about should not only not be in the same general place but scattered utterly across the continent. Is this the modern condition?
Most people of course don’t make it this far. Most aren’t this mobile. Most don’t go to college. Many people live with their families or could walk to their parents’ house if they laced up some comfy shoes. But for me and my peers, the academics with whom I am presently associating, we are the jet-set without the money. Hopping from one gig to the next, and I count a term-limited stipend-salary PhD or masters as a gig, we seem prevented from really setting deep roots anywhere except in our own ambitious media-fed dreams for the future, in Metropolis.
What deeper effect this has, and it always seems wise to wrap up with some musing on the deeper meaning of it all, I can only wonder at. But it seems to me that for the foreseeable future, the West’s non-wealthy elite, the mobile educated, will be rootless and alienated from the spaces they occupy. Renters all their lives, never settling, ever taking the excuse of a conference in who-knows-where for the chance of seeing old friends, neither of you from this place that you’ll occupy only once together and ephemerally at that, those places competing viciously for our indifferent attendance.
The world grows homogeneous, the cities blur together. We are always in metropolis, and yet so far apart.
The time has come that if I wanted to settle down, and selfishly make a home for myself at once, I would have to start by moving to New York or San Fransisco. These places, where I have never lived, hold the most of my friends. Now it’s interesting to note that my partner, of a lower class than me through no fault of his own, which I think is relevant, very much has all of his friends in Cincinnati. Which of us, in the abstract, might be said to have the better life? What are the costs of ambition today? What are the benefits of immobility?