The City Way of Life

In big cities, such as New York or London, it often seems as if all aspects of city life are public. For instance, taking the subway to work each morning in New York, that is public. Riding the subway consists of sharing the same air with hundreds of people that you do not know, and that you don’t care to know. It is simply a way of transportation from point A to point B. In contrast with this big city way of life is the Southern way of life, to which I have a strong connection. Whereas in big cities people are almost forced to be unconcerned with the hundreds if not thousands of people they come in contact with every day, people in the South are know for their “Southern hospitality.” It has become apparent through class readings and discussions that there is a stark difference between small town Southern life and the blasé  attitude of big city life highlighted by Georg Simmel.

The above picture shows the many individuals that use the New York subway system on a daily basis. The people that use the subways as a means of transportation are so accustomed to the large crowds that they seem unconcerned about what is going on around them. They are simply getting where they need to go, and for the most part, not taking notice to the lives they encounter in the process.

This is very different when considering the Southern way of life. The majority of the Southern population own their own cars and have no dependence on a transportation system. Maybe this plays a role in why Southerners seem to have more time for people. They are not bombarded with the unwanted presence of hundreds, or even thousands of people in their everyday lives, so when they come in contact with others they take notice of them and their situations instead of walking by and simply acting as if the other people that crowd the streets do not exist. When describing the streets of London in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens writes, “streams of people apparently without end poured on and on, jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward, scarcely seeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side” (319). This description of London by Dickens reminds me of the discussion we had in class relating to the type of mental block you must have to live in a big city, New York being the city focused on during our discussion. As discussed in class, due to the mass population of New York City, it would be impossible to say “hello” to every passing stranger or to stop and aid each homeless person on the streets. Due to the fact that inhabitants of large cities cannot be involved or concerned with everyone they come in contact with, they develop the blasé attitude. Simmel refers to this attitude as the way in which people that live in big cities do not discern one person from another due to the large masses of people they come in contact with each day.

This picture shows a crowded London street full of “streams of people” that seem to be unending. As Dickens writes, no one looks particularly concerned with anyone else. They seem to be solely focused on their individual destinations.

In regards to communication in big cities, I found the class discussion about when it is and when it is not appropriate to speak to others in big cities to be particularly interesting. Having never been to New York and always living in the South, the thought that saying “hello” to someone being strange, or even threatening, is foreign to me. As discussed in class, saying “hello” to strangers on the street, or striking up a conversation with anyone that you are not interacting with is anything but normal. This is certainly not the case in places like the South. I find it interesting that things considered strange and threatening in big cities such as New York are things that are considered common courtesy or simply Southern hospitality here in the South.


The Blackwell City Reader



Filed under City Cultures

3 responses to “The City Way of Life

  1. auburn22

    Being a Southerner, I completely understand feeling strange about NOT speaking to and making eye contact with the people you pass on the city streets. Growing up in a small town and having a generally friendly personality, I thought at first that the New Yorkers were quite rude on my brief visit. After the first day I caught on that things just had to operate differently in a big city. Though I initially experienced culture shock, I quickly caught on to this attitude and by teh end of the week found myself bustling around with the same blasé attitude which had at first offended me.

  2. I love hearing about how Simmel makes people think about their own identity and mental life. Do you think it’s regional, or do you think it’s about living your life in public, or both? Why do you think being right next to someone on the subway makes them take on a blase outlook when driving in traffic (something that even Southerners in smallish towns have to do) might not? I’d be interested to see what you think about the relation between people in other cities that are more car-dependent like LA.

  3. thepurplegg

    As an abstraction, it can be hard to understand the numbers of people in big cities. I agree that it was weird to think of saying “hi” to people as an unusual action until I actually went to New York City. I felt so claustrophobic with all those people crammed on the streets around me! I could never have greeted them all, but the people I did actually meet were all great. The people on the subway may not look at anyone around them, but when the people on our train realized we were lost, they all jumped up to help. If it weren’t for good samaritans on the subway, my family would probably still be wandering around the tunnels. The citizens care. They just cannot show it in the same ways the citizens in a small town can.

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