Cities really are a happy medium
Richard Florida reports on how the trends in what people want from their homes have finally shifted away from bigger and further away from other people towards people wanting to live in more walkable areas. There’s also a rise in people willing to go down in home size for a shorter commute, which I attribute less to the trendiness of it and more to rising gas prices. But one thing hasn’t really budged at all, and that’s people’s hostility to sharing a wall:
Privacy from neighbors is the top consideration tested for Americans in deciding where to live (45% very important; 42%, somewhat…. Living in a single-family, detached home is important to most Americans. Eight in ten (80%) would prefer to live in single-family, detached houses over other types of housing such as townhouses, condominiums, or apartments.
If you live in the country and your house is sitting in the middle of a giant, sprawling yard, I suppose that makes sense. But when around other people? Having lived in all forms of housing, I can safely say the thing that irritates me the most is the wasted space between homes. It’s hard to garden in, because the houses block the sun. No one ever hangs out there. It’s just space for the sake of space. Atrios, luckily, addressed this fetish for air between houses:
I certainly get – and share! – privacy as one thing that people want in their abode, but it’s also the case that so much crappy construction has led to people thinking that shared walls are inevitably paper thin. I almost never hear anything from my neighbors through the walls. I admit if they had a noisy barking dog it would be a problem, but that would be a problem if we had ten feet of air between the buildings too.
My last condo in Austin did in fact have somewhat thin walls, but even then, it wasn’t too huge a deal. Obviously, we’re happy to live now in a sturdy and ancient brownstone with walls that only allow barely any noise, but even when we lived in a place that wasn’t so well-built, the pluses way outweighed the thin walls problem.
But I think it’s more than that. The word “privacy” gets bandied around a lot, but it’s not really well-understood. I’ve lived most of my life either inside a city or in a small town, but I somewhat briefly lived in a suburban neighborhood as well, so I’ve done the full round. And here’s what I think about privacy: it’s the ability to go about your business without people up in your shit. I have no idea what other people think privacy means, but if they agree with me, then they’re all confused. After all, 40% of Americans say they want to live in rural areas or small towns, and that’s basically giving up your privacy. When you live in a small town, everyone is up your shit all the time. Your neighbors are your TV set. There’s also very little freedom for certain people, because social hierarchies tend to be stringently enforced. (Which goes a long way to explaining why the people of Cleveland, TX had the regular gang raping of an 11-year-old going on under their noses, and no one did anything about it. When one person—in this case teenage boys—outranks another—young girl—that’s how it just goes.) The upside of this is that you are constantly around other people, so living in small towns is pretty great for extroverts, especially if they really enjoy gossip.
Suburbia seems to be the flip of that. You have nothing but privacy, but the layout of the suburbs tends to discourage getting to know your neighbors too much. My experiences of the suburbs were that they were impersonal and that you basically retreated into your own little world. And I lived as inner ring in a suburb as you could—it was still technically in the city of Austin. But it was boring, people weren’t friendly, and my then-boyfriend and I were feeling pent up, so we moved back to the city.
Cities are really just a happy medium. If you’re paranoid about your neighbors knowing you subscribe to Harper’s and that you have friends who stand outside to smoke and that you come home late on the weekends some times, then no, you don’t get privacy in the city. But compared to a small town, it’s incredibly private. The lack of space is made up amply by the fact that no one gives a fuck what you do. Yeah, I can occasionally tell when my neighbor has a date, because I can hear a woman’s voice speaking to him as they climb the stairs, but I’m too busy with my own life to care, and plus, no one else I know knows him. So even if I wanted to gossip about it, who would I gossip with?
But the density of it tends to lessen the loneliness that comes with all that privacy. If nothing else, more people means more people that you have something in common with, and so you have a greater chance to make your own community. When I lived in the city of Austin and I was bored and lonely, I was a short bike ride away from going downtown to see a show and meet up with friends. Not that it’s a breeze—making friends is hard wherever you live—but the suburbs can make it especially daunting, since it’s hard to know where to start. And I’ve repeatedly had the good fortune to mix the best part of small towns, which is having your friends in walking distance, with the city life. New York, of course, is even more this way. You can really mix and match your exposure to other people and new experiences to exactly what you need right then and there. People really don’t give a flying fuck what you’re up to, but they do care about you as a person. So you get the fortune of having someone on hand to reach out if you slip and fall on the sidewalk, but you don’t have to put up with that person gossiping about you. I really don’t understand why this mix isn’t more obvious to other people. Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe they are.
By the way, I’m increasingly convinced the big house fetish is a patriarchal thing. It’s a lot easier to be all for big houses is you’re not the one cleaning them.