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The City is Others

natschall's picture

I took a picture when I was in Paris the summer of 2012. It was originally meant to capture the metro station, so I would remember how different they seemed from those I knew at home. I happened to also catch a small huddle of people in the picture, though. They are laughing together, waiting for their train. Looking back, this represents everything I feel about cities.

I could say, as I had originally written down in my notes for this essay, that I judge a city based on its public transportation. But this isn’t quite true. Just as I meant to capture a photo of the metro station and ended up with a shot of a group of friends, I really judge a city based on the people in it (and perhaps I see the most of these people on the transport systems, which is why I jumped to that train of thought first).

When I go into a city, I’m mesmerized by all of the people walking around. It’s hard to imagine each of them having their own lives and stories, yet they do. When you see someone laughing, you know they have their own private joke, one you won’t ever be privy to. You can catch so many glimpses into so many lives when you’re in the city. And I thrive in that knowledge. Sometimes it even helps me to feel like I know people, even if I don’t know a single soul there.

I pick up energy from those around me. If I don’t know anyone, I’ll try to act cool, and as if I know the city (which I almost never do) and like being there (which can be difficult). But if I do know someone, and that person is excited about the city, I will pick up on that excitement and build it within myself. I recently went to New York City for the first time, and I was overwhelmed. I had never been in a city that felt so constantly busy. If I hadn’t been with my best friend, who lives in the city and knows it well, I would not have liked it as much as I did. His joy about being in the hustle and bustle spilled over onto me, and I found myself bouncing just as much as he was, purely because he loved it so much.

To really enjoy a city, I need to be with people who love it. I’m perfectly capable of building up a city in my head so that it’s my favorite place in the world, but that doesn’t mean that once I get there it will live up to my fantasies--in fact, it often can’t. The most recent example of this was my always telling everyone I knew that I was going to live in Boston when I grew up. Then, come freshman year of high school, my family actually did move to Boston. And I didn’t like it. I couldn’t ever picture myself living there. Perhaps I had built it up too much, or perhaps it was just that I was scared and alone and not in the company of all my loved ones when I first visited.

I believe that the reason I love the cities I do-- Washington DC, Paris, Pittsburgh, and now New York-- is because I saw them all from the viewpoint of someone who is honestly excited about that city and believes that it is the best place in the world. I need to have around me the very thing that I took a picture of last year, a group of friends who are happy and feel like they belong right where they are.

My connection is not so much my connection--it’s others’ connection and how they transmit it to me. I find it difficult to judge a city based just on what I see of it. What if I’m seeing only the good parts or only the bad parts? Then I get an inaccurate reading of how much I like it. But if I combine my judgment of the city with someone’s who lives there, then I feel secure in whether I truly like it or not.