Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The City

Recently I went to San Francisco for a day with my dorm on a Scavenger Hunt. For anyone who isn't local, in the Bay Area we refer to San Francisco as "the City" (not San Fran, not Frisco), which is one reason for the title of this post.

It was a fun day. My group wasn't going all-out competitive, and we started by getting lunch. We walked all over, and ran back from Ghirardelli Square to catch a train.

  • Meeting people from other parts of my dorm
  • SFMoMA "play artfully" suggestions on the sides of buildings
  • Going through tunnels
  • City Lights bookstore
  • Seeing beautiful buildings
  • Brownie from Ghirardelli Square
  • Running along the Embarcadero (no, really)
  • Coming home along Campus Drive while having a philosophical conversation with friends

I'm local, but I actually haven't done a whole lot in the City, and being with out of state people happy just to explore made me see San Francisco in a different light. Something I regret about high school is that I didn't get out more. This, I thought, should be my city, but I don't know it as well as I should. Instead of having a clear mental map of how long it takes to get from place to place and by what means, I stumbled around dependent upon Google Maps. I know the big tourist destinations, but not the smaller places that one would expect to get to know, living near a place for so long.

I mentioned that our name for SF was one reason for this post title, but there is another one: I want to think through (or perhaps just about) the idea of the city. The idea of living in one. My thoughts about maybe doing that when I'm older.

What do we associate with the word "city"? Fast-paced, hectic, exciting, dangerous, busy, public transportation, culture, museums, shops, restaurants, landmarks, lack of parking, business, international corporations, wealth, poverty, penthouses, slums. Simultaneous magnification and compression of human experiences. Intensity, variety, diversity. For me, personally, the idea of the city is tied up with notions of being young and free and possibly wealthy.

Cities may be megamachines: power multipliers, levers for action at a distance, systems that reduce people to functional units. (I should probably read more Lewis Mumford.) New York is probably the most archetypal American big city, and I am pretty sure that I wouldn't want to live in New York. But there are other cities, like Boston and San Francisco, which seem milder but without losing that "cityness."

What is this "cityness"? Well, the opposite of rural or provincial. Worldly, future-oriented, fast-paced, perhaps unstable. When we think of city dwellers we often think of rudeness or callousness, anonymity. Kitty Genovese being murdered and no one calling for the police. Skyscrapers. Ambition.

Please read "Cities and Ambition," an essay by Paul Graham. He talks about how different cities make different value judgments, and about how the ambitions of one city differ from the ambitions of another. New York values money, Cambridge values intelligence, Silicon Valley values power. He also says that cities are important as a locus for specific types of ambition: gathering like-minded people, the right colleagues, to work on problems together.

Furthermore, because (in case you haven't noticed over the past month) I've just started college, the last paragraph in his essay resonated with me quite a bit:
Some people know at 16 what sort of work they're going to do, but in most ambitious kids, ambition seems to precede anything specific to be ambitious about. They know they want to do something great. They just haven't decided yet whether they're going to be a rock star or a brain surgeon. There's nothing wrong with that. But it means if you have this most common type of ambition, you'll probably have to figure out where to live by trial and error. You'll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have.

I think I do want to live in a city during my early career. Actually, for my early career I imagine being somewhat itinerant, living where my projects are, following the work. But I like the idea of living in a city, young and free and on my way to becoming a force for good in the world (I may criticize the Silicon Valley conceit, but I have it too). Knowing the city in and out, having a favorite cafe and bookstore, being surrounded by people doing interesting things. Working hard and learning a lot and becoming a real person. Though that process, I hope, is already under way.

So what do I do with this? If you've been reading AI for a while, then you know I like things to be useful. What does this thinking about the city give me? Well, I know what I want--to expand my mind and worldview, and for my life and my world to act indelibly upon one another. To channel my ambition into something important and worthy. I knew these things already, but the thoughts of the city concentrate them somehow. Which, I suppose, is one of the city's functions: as a lens to collect ambition, distill it into something bright and cutting and capable of effecting change in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Make it *your* city right here, right now. it's yours for the taking, you'll grow, and you'll make the city be what you need it to be along the way.
    Good luck!