Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book review: "The Lonely City"

Lonely City, The 07

Olivia Laing is a British writer who found herself isolated in New York City a few years ago, and this book is the result. The title suggests personal essays on loneliness in an urban context, and in a way that's what the book delivers, albeit with a twist. Laing addressed her personal situation by studying the theme of loneliness in the lives and work of four American artists: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Henry Darger (1892-1973) and David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992). Her writing is clear and without jargon, her discussion of artwork accessible even to this dilettante.

She achieves some insights as she studies them, in the way of random personal epiphanies, any of which is an invitation to a conversation.
Loneliness is difficult to confess, difficult to to categorise. (p. 4)
I wonder now: is it fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age, underpinning the changes in both our physical and virtual lives. (p. 253)
Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that's moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. (p. 261) 
 I think [the cure is] about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted. (p. 279)
The hook on which I'll bite speaks directly to the urbanist movement.
You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. (p. 3)
The biographical approach she takes to the phenomenon of urban loneliness is at once both illuminating and unhelpful. Each of the artists lived to some degree in isolation from those around them, usually for multiple reasons: artistic sensibility itself, homosexuality, mental illness or the presumption of it, poverty, social anxiety, fame, childhood abuse. Loneliness in their cases seems to me to be merely a symptom of other, deep problems.

What interests me about loneliness is not the experience of exceptional people, but its very ordinariness. As such, it is a psychological puzzle, or perhaps series of puzzles.

It could be a social puzzle as well. Does the way we construct our societies--their values, their design, their economies--affect people's abilities to connect with others? Urbanism has since the work of Jane Jacobs noted the distances and barriers between people created by suburban sprawl. And "it gets lonely in a small town," sings Greg Brown. But everyone knows it is possible to be lonely in a crowd, and certainly, as Laing points out at the beginning of her book, possible to be lonely in a crowded city as well.

Is the answer more traditional urban design? Third places? Churches? Social media--or staying off social media?

Note that there is a difference between urbanism and urban areas as they exist today (which are largely the by-product of several decades of suburban sprawl). We are not, in other words, limited in our choices to what already exists. In an essay on that was recently re-posted on Strong Towns, writer Jay Walljasper (cited below) notes design movements not only at the city level...
[New Urbanism seeks] to build new communities (and revitalize existing ones) by maximizing opportunities for social exchange: public plazas, front porches, corner stores, coffee shops, neighborhood schools, narrow streets and, yes, sidewalks.... [In Minneapolis] I marvel at the choices I have to mingle with the neighbors over a cappuccino, Pabst Blue Ribbon, juevos rancheros, artwork at a gallery opening or head of lettuce at the farmer's market.
...but at the neighborhood level as well. Walljasper highlights the work of Ross Chapin, a Seattle author and architect who has designed "pocket neighborhoods" of four to twelve households "where meaningful 'neighborly' relationships are fostered." This builds social capital, and from an example from Walljasper's own life, political capital as well.

I've used loneliness for years in introductory public policy classes as an example of a problem (defined as a situation with broad effects most people see as unacceptable) that is nonetheless not a public problem (defined as a problem where the public expects government to become involved). Ironically, loneliness may be a public problem. Government can't, of course, cure anyone's personal loneliness, but can design cities that facilitate interactions instead of isolation, and can facilitate access to mental health care for those who need it.

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Picador, 2016)

Jay Walljasper, "How to Design a Neighborhood for Happiness," Shareable, 25 March 2011,

1 comment:

  1. Wow. This is interesting. It's also, I think, a can of worms, crying out for more and more hooks.


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