Tuesday, September 24, 2013

'The city's nice and all, but just to visit.'

The normal human state of affairs is, apparently, to feel tense and stressed in the city, and relaxed in the country. I gauge this from the many conversations I've had over the years, both living in the city and living in the not-city, about the relative peace-of-mind one experiences in each. Everyone finds their calm increases around, if not suburbia (although sometimes that), at least nature.

And here's the thing: I feel the reverse. I don't want to feel the reverse. And it's gotten a whole lot better now that I at least can drive (feeling entirely calm while doing so is another matter). I've learned that I can be happy living in either. But I still, to some extent, feel calmer in the city than the country, or in a suburb/small town.

And it's not a New York-centric snobbery thing, although the preemptive assumption from others that it must be makes it difficult to talk about. It's a city thing, and doesn't somehow cease to be true for me in Philadelphia or Chicago. Smaller cities too? To a point. Must I say that the town where I live - with its main street that only has businesses on one side of the street (except for about a block over by the fish store) - is a city?

It's absolutely not a yuppie-amenities thing - there are concerts and plays and sushi places and coffee shops (note the plural - we got a second one!) and expensive yoga pants I periodically consider buying but never do. There's a better-than-it-needs-to-be bookstore. But there aren't crowds. OK, there are, but only during Reunions, and that's event-crowds, not urban throngs.

It really is a matter of comfort. I don't find it particularly stressful to be on a crowded subway, a diverted bus. Whereas every time I drive somewhere (and yes, people drive in other cities as well, but it can potentially be avoided), I worry about what if I need to take an alternate route, and need to pull over to check directions? What if I need to park but the lot is really busy, and (as can happen) another car backs out of its spot and into my car, because evidently people who didn't recently get their license are pretty blasé about such matters? What if a deer runs in front of my car? And the whole anonymity thing, the whole diverse-crowd-so-no-one's-looking-at-you one.

Anyway, I could go on about this at such length... About how the idea that country=calm gets reinforced by urbanites for whom the country is an occasional escape, and who'd lose their minds if they actually had to live somewhere remote. About how much (no, not all) of what seems like snobbery from people who've moved from the country to the city is actually a defense mechanism of those who experienced whichever forms of exclusion in the small towns they came from. But it's too easy to get sidetracked. My point, the one I'm trying to really insist on here, is that that overall sense of relative calm supposedly experienced in the country... that's not how it works for everyone.


Flavia said...

Some of this may just boil down to: different strokes for different folks.

But I'd point out (by way of agreeing with you) that the idea of the country as a place of restorative relaxation has always--since the Classical era--been an urban fantasy: the pastoral is fundamentally an urban genre--and usually an elite, rich-person genre (think of Marie Antoinette and her sheep, or the ex-Wall Streeter who buys a Montana horse ranch).

Living, full-time, in the country is hard--something those ex-urbanites who buy farms or horse ranches or whatever tend to find out pretty quickly.

Rachel @Musings of An Inappropriate Woman said...

I feel what you're saying, Phoebe. I usually feel a flood of calm come upon me when I arrive in Manhattan, as if these closely knit buildings are how it is "supposed" to be. For me, at least.

(I do enjoy some pretty country scenery too, of course.)

Petey said...

"it's gotten a whole lot better now that I at least can drive (feeling entirely calm while doing so is another matter)"

Y'know, simply popping a few Xanax or Ambien prior to driving will immensely enhance your sense of calm. And once you soon officially become Doctor Phoebe, you'll have your own prescription pad to obtain such driving succor.


"My point, the one I'm trying to really insist on here, is that that overall sense of relative calm supposedly experienced in the country... that's not how it works for everyone."

Civilization is absurdly pleasant. I thought we'd all achieved consensus on this point a long time ago...

Phoebe said...


"the pastoral is fundamentally an urban genre" and "Living, full-time, in the country is hard"

Good points! I wonder, though, if there isn't something between the two - the thing that's implied in someone saying they wouldn't want to live in a big city (but, by implication, would prefer a suburb/smaller or more sprawling city).

Some of the country love I've witnessed comes from the summer-home set, but it comes more often from people who effectively can't imagine that there are people who grew up in the center of big cities, and for whom *that* setting is normal, and the site of whichever provincialism. And it's the disbelief, I think, that gets at why people don't come to the reasonable "different strokes for different folks" conclusion, and instead assume that anyone who claims to be calmer in a city is just waxing pretentious.


Glad to know I'm not the only one to experience this!

caryatis said...

Phoebe, are you talking about driving in the country or just being in the country?

I find it hard to believe that a person would not be calmer--on a physical level, heartbeat slowing down and so forth--in a quiet, low-crime, low-pressure setting, if we set driving aside. Just getting away from the sound of sirens and not having to clutch your purse constantly? It's similar to the difference in peace of mind I feel when I leave the outside world behind and lock the door of my apartment.

Petey said...

Since everyone seems to like talkin' ev-psych these days, let's go to the paleoanthropology record.

For a long while in modern times, we had this nice hypothesis that our tribe figured out agriculture around 10,000 years ago, and that this directly lead us to the first settled, urban life. Made sense when you thought about it, cuz the economics works.

But recent paleoanthropology science seems to definitively turn this on end. It seems we developed settled, urban life more than a millennium before agriculture. Thus the cause/effect is actually the other way around.

So, the tribe is hardwired to think urban life is the tip-top, even before there was an economic 'package' to justify it.

Marauding gangs of deer going on unstoppable rampages are the least of it. It's about a sense of calm well-being.

fourtinefork said...

I'm definitely from the contingent that is less calm in a quiet, low-pressure setting. It was precisely the lack of other people and feeling of isolation that made me more afraid and less calm. I'm reassured by having tons of people around me: it gives me (admittedly, a possibly specious) sense of safety. I have no problem roaming around my neighborhood in Harlem at all hours of the night because there are always people out, but I was much more concerned when I was out walking or biking by myself when I lived in a small town with a big university.

Phoebe said...


The reason I mention driving is that you can't really separate out the mode of transportation from the locale. If I want groceries, I need to deal with what remains, for me, a somewhat frightening experience. News reports constantly telling of local car crashes don't help.

But yes, even separating that out, it's... like Fourtinefork says. Some people feel calmer in crowds than isolated. I've lived in fairly dangerous (and quite safe) parts of different cities, and for whichever particularities of my background, personality, who knows, do not have to *try* for PC reasons not to feel scared, but just... don't. Whereas when I jog in the woods, I find that a bit "Twin Peaks"-ish and unnerving. I find it a relief when there are a bunch of random people around, and kind of eerie when there aren't.

And yes, I do find it easier to sleep with city noise. (Crickets, gah!)

But the short, can't-argue-with-it answer is, the city's where I grew up, and that's simply my experience.

caryatis said...

Yes, I understand what you two are saying about how a person's feelings of safety or the opposite are affected by their experiences. And certainly, very isolated surroundings are not exactly calming. When I was hiking in Alaska, I was very aware that a bear, moose, serial killer or even broken leg could be fatal.

But I think the fact that chronic high noise levels are stress-inducing and unhealthy is pretty much objectively true, because of our physiology and not our experience. You may get used to the sirens and car alarms, but they are not good for you.


"Dr. Suter and other experts say more than 20 million Americans are exposed in their daily lives to persistent environmental noise loud enough to cause hearing loss - above 80 decibels, or about the level of vacuum cleaners, electric tools or heavy traffic.

Aside from loss of hearing, noise is suspected of having a variety of physiological effects. Many studies have strongly suggested a link between noise and high blood pressure...A 1982 investigation by William Meecham of the University of California at Los Angeles found a higher rate of cardiovascular deaths, strokes, suicides and murder among 200,000 residents of a flight-path corridor near Los Angeles International Airport than in the rest of the city, although factors other than noise probably played a role. Dr. David C. Glass, provost of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says there is evidence that noise degrades the immune response, impairing resistance to disease."

Phoebe said...

Huh! Well if a study says so, perhaps I don't actually experience what I experience.

Another way to look at it is, are the people stressed by city life (which we're conflating with "noise") perhaps people whose normal is somewhere less urban? I have no trouble believing that those who aren't from the city and visit it are genuinely stressed by it. But I can't imagine I'm alone in being from a city more generally comfortable in one. And what about all the other articles about the medical dangers of loneliness?

And again, the driving thing. Cars can kill! Pedestrians can jump into the road from between parked cars on 45mph roads! Merging can go wrong! It's really scary, even if no 1982 UCLA investigation backs up my I suspect not altogether original observation. For people who learn to drive at the 'feel invisible' age, maybe it's easier, but yes, I'm going to have to say that this adds more stress to my life than a subway commute with a loud musical act possibly could.

In any case, if you're making some kind of physiological argument (that I of course couldn't answer, not being a medical expert, let alone in this area), then fine, maybe I only *think* I'm calmer in a city. But is what matters, in the conversational context, my blood pressure (which is fine, last I checked) or my experience? I'm still going to balk at being told that one simply *is* calmer in the country.

Phoebe said...

Or to put it another, more concise way: many things distinguish city from not-city, noise being one of them. Crime - as in any individual's likelihood of being the victim of it - may not be higher in a city. Unless a study shows that country life is objectively more relaxing for all, including people who grew up in cities, I'm not sure bringing up studies does much good, as some are going to point one way (noise, muggings), others the other (loneliness, car accidents).

Petey said...

"But I think the fact that chronic high noise levels are stress-inducing and unhealthy is pretty much objectively true, because of our physiology and not our experience. You may get used to the sirens and car alarms, but they are not good for you."

This is true. I would not advise getting an apartment facing Houston St.

However, there have been numerous studies showing that, (if you control for age, income, education, race, etc,) folks who live in cities are happier, healthier, and live longer than folks who don't live in cities.

So, while noise can certainly be a downside, your overall mental and physical health tends to benefit from urban dwelling.

Petey said...

"The reason I mention driving is that you can't really separate out the mode of transportation from the locale."

As someone who absolutely loves driving, I'll still certainly agree with you that a place where you can mostly get by via walk/bike/subway definitely takes the cake.

For example, when I lived in Los Angeles, I quickly migrated to the Westside beach-adjacent area because it is one of the few areas of LA where you can do things without a car. I still had to drive to work, (and my commute actually increased significantly), but the advantage of living in an area where you could get much done via walking and biking made the whole place a helluva lot more pleasant.

In fact, IMHO, America has precious few livable cities due to the car-dependent nature of most of 'em, compared to Western Europe. Phoenix, for example, is not a city. It's hell.


Also, we really need to get you comfortable driving at some point in the future. My sincere suggestion: drive more.

Driving is like learning a language or a musical instrument. You don't feel comfortable doing it for a long time, until suddenly, you do.

Here's how I'd proceed. Buy a pair of these. They don't do anything real, but they will provide a totemic and ritualistic entrance into the realm. Then, when you have an hour or two free during a midday, just go joyriding. Buy a physical road map, head out East or West, stay off heavily trafficked roads, and explore. Get lost, pull over, refer to the map, and get unlost. Rinse and repeat every week.

Phoebe said...


I appreciate your pointing out the advantages of the city, but it might be a bit beside the point. The issue is, comfort is subjective. My objection to Caryatis's comments was basically that you can pinpoint why someone not from a city might be nervous in one, but that this doesn't somehow tell you that someone from a city wouldn't find whichever other things to make them relatively more anxious in the country.

caryatis said...

I guess I'm trying to separate different ways of feeling calm or good. Your sense of being comfortable in a certain environment is different from your perception of being safe from crime, which is different from the actual crime rate, which is different from your level of chronic stress due to noise exposure. I can't argue with you on the first two, but I can on the last two.

To go back to subjective opinions for a moment, yes, cars are stressful, and yes, you can avoid driving in some cities, but you can't avoid being around cars. Some of the most aggressive drivers I've encountered are in cities, and is it really less stressful to encounter these people as a pedestrian or cyclist? Harassment of bicyclists as when as sexual harassment of female pedestrians doesn't seem to happen as often in the country.

Phoebe said...


As I've already gone on about in my insufficiently-concise way, there are just too many potential objective differences between city and country to isolate one (noise) and say that this makes all the difference. It could be, for example, that whichever negatives come from noise are cancelled out by whichever benefits of walking/biking more. And there may be a lot of crime in a city, but it might be largely confined to certain deprived communities in that city, such that the average middle-class white person (or middle-class person, period) is actually safer in a so-so part of a city than in a smaller town. What I'm saying is, you haven't demonstrated that the city objectively is more stressful than the country, in some way that would impact absolutely everyone.

As for cars, what's scary about them is in part true wherever one is, although I must say, I didn't find them all that frightening as a pedestrian in NYC (I didn't often bike there, what with the excellent public transportation/my enjoyment of walking long distances in a city) because they're generally moving so slowly.

But it's also the fact that a car can kill people. Which does just inherently make things different if you're driving one, as vs. if you're simply observing them as a pedestrian. I'm a hyper-attentive driver, likely because I'm so new at it, so no 'one drink is OK,' no texting/phone calls, etc. And I'm good enough at driving now that I'm not in that 'still learning' phase where I'm not entirely sure where to check around the car to see if someone/something is coming. But it's incredibly scary that people can and do just randomly dart out into the street from the other side of parked cars/foliage, on roads that aren't moving at an urban crawl. Also that a great many cyclists didn't get the memo about needing (by law, even) to use lights when biking at night, this in an area where there probably won't be street-lights.

The idea that a trip to the grocery store could theoretically kill someone is, yes, kind of upsetting, enough to raise blood pressure, I'd think, for someone who didn't get used to driving in the carefree teenage years.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, yes, I agree with almost everything you say about driving being stressful (I'm even worse than you, having recently failed a driving test.) Although if you had biked in a city, you would probably find that more terrifying than being a pedestrian. It's interesting that you find it more stressful to think that you could kill someone than that you could be killed.

If I may say an off-topic word in favor of the bikers, I know I should use lights at night, but it's such a hassle. It's not like when you're driving and they just come with the car. You have to plan ahead to bring lights, and if you miscalculate how late you'll be out or when it gets dark, or if the battery dies or the light falls off or gets stolen, then you're ten miles from home and you have to get home somehow, right?

Phoebe said...


I find it more stressful to be in a situation where it's possible to kill OR be killed - driving doesn't make you-the-driver immortal! In any case, there was absolutely no need for me to bike in the city, given the other transportation available, so while I might have opted to risk death-by-car-door while commuting, it wasn't my only option.

And in terms of lights... I got around by bike for almost a year after moving away from the city, and I know what you're referring to. But even just being in a car as a passenger, I saw how it goes from a driver's perspective, and it's not really fair to them to be invisible on the road. Obviously if your lights are stolen, that's another issue, but you can avoid this by removing them and putting them back on again when you head out.

Petey said...

NYC. Coyote free since 1765.