Last night, my wife and I re-watched the movie “You’ve Got Mail”. Between us, I’m sure we’ve seen this movie a dozen times, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s one of those “comfort films” that often star Tom Hanks (“Big” is an even better example.)
In case you haven’t seen it, the movie takes place in Manhattan. I personally would like to know what percentage of all movies set in urban America this is true of. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s over 1/3. I couldn’t help but wonder why.
First, there’s a few obvious reasons. 1) New York is the largest metropolitan area, and the commercial capital of the United States. Thus, it is our “defining” city, even though it really bears no resemblance to the rest of the country. 2) It’s vibrant and active and beautiful and gritty and adventurous and scary and charming… a ready-made backdrop for almost any emotive setting. But I also think there’s a very important third reason.
Most stories are about relationships, for good or for ill. Consequently, the best setting for a good story is a place where relationships are always imminent, where people are always bouncing off each other, surrounded by an influx of culture and heritage. Stories thrive off of ironic juxtaposition and strange bedfellows. How many movies can you name in fifteen seconds that feature an unlikely pair or group of people forced to work together?
This the fabric of community… the building blocks of a city. I think so many stories take place in New York because we as humans innately recognize the humanness of such a place.
Yeah, I said it. New York (or at least the historic portion of it) is a supremely human place. Although many of its buildings far surpass human height, and no one can really fathom the immensity of its population, it does allow its people the opportunity to live their lives on a human scale. You could live in a town of 15,000 people and not experience this… rambling around in a 3,000 square foot house, pulling your SUV out of your 3-car garage, onto a six-lane highway and up to a grocery store with its own zip code. Whereas the average person living in Manhattan has a small apartment, no car, travels on a sidewalk or a track, and shops in quaint, independently-owned stores. And the most human thing about it is that there are humans everywhere.
Contrary to what Hollywood might suggest, these traits are not completely unique to the Big Apple. A few other American cities have exhibited them all along, and many, many more are just starting to understand the appeal of urbanity.
Please don’t conclude that I am judgmental of those who live in the country or the suburbs, or who own a big house or an SUV. I don’t know you well enough to judge you. But I would love the opportunity to challenge you into re-thinking the importance of the physical context of community.
Most people think of community as a metaphysical thing… it’s something that “just happens” between people… you know, we’ll “bump into” each other. I think this is the attitude that brought about the cul-de-sac, the strip mall, and the subdivision. The developers expected community to continue, because they thought it was indestructible, and not at all tied to the design of one’s environment. But because these suburban anomalies were invented for the convenience of the motorist, not the pedestrian, the “bumping into” all of a sudden became much more dangerous, and much more likely to create enemies than friends.
I guess this is just a long way of saying that I love the city. I love how the inconveniences of it force people to relate, to work together, to get along or else. I love how the historic neighborhoods give us perspective, and help us to think about how the decisions we make today will affect people 100 years from now.
Obviously, cities have more than their share of problems. That’s what happens when good people (like you?) leave them behind. So let me issue a challenge to all the creative, hard-working, clear-thinking people out there to find a city near you, and do your part to turn a mere neighborhood into a vibrant community.