Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Replay: The Aloneness of an Urbanophile

[ I linked to this piece from my last post, and it proved popular in some quarters, so I’m re-running it here. This post originally ran on February 26, 2007. ]

As my name should tell you, I’m a big lover of cities. I’d much rather vacation in some large metropolis than a sandy beach. I’m a fan of the “great indoors” of the coffee shop, museum, cinema, or opera house much more so than any outdoor activities. Among my urban pursuits is independent cinema. Not too many other people seem that interested in many of these flicks, however, so I often end up seeing them by myself. Now this doesn’t bother me too much. I’m pretty self-sufficient. I learned at an early age that if you are into things that aren’t mainstream, you’d better be prepared to do them alone.

What I find interesting though is the high number of other people that attend these events by themselves. I was particularly noticing this over the weekend as I took in a film. Over half of the audience was people attending by themselves. And it really struck me that this is possibly one of the signs of a strong urban culture. If you are in a place where lots of people are out attending obscure events on their own, this not only shows that you’ve got patrons for them, but you’ve got people with enough passion and self-confidence to go out and do it by themselves in a culture that typically doesn’t see people going to films, concerts, etc. alone. I don’t think there’s any profound insights here, it’s just something I’ve observed.

Topics: Urban Culture

13 Responses to “Replay: The Aloneness of an Urbanophile”

  1. AmericanDirt says:

    Your statement does not augur well for the aims of social capitalists like Robert Putnam, but you raise a good point. Most of my trips to small town squares or declining shopping malls are unaccompanied. And, coming from a disparate cultural microcosm, I couldn't find anyone to visit the Creation Museum in Cincinnati with me, so I went alone.

  2. Matt says:

    I go to concerts and movies more often than not alone. I guess some people might see it as sad, and I guess it kind of bothered me for a while. But the way look at it is, if I cant find someone to tag along, why should I miss out on stuff I really want to see? Plus its a great way to meet people and you're much more unencumbered.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    I certainly don't suggest that doing everything by yourself is the way to go. Clearly the social stimulation of a big city is why the "Amazon effect" hasn't and likely will never lead to an exodus to the countryside. But in a big city with so much to do, and so many diverse interests, I go with the Matt approach: why should I miss out on something just because nobody but me wants to do it?

  4. printersrowpoet says:

    Agreed. I often go to independent films and the symphony alone. I certainly enjoy doing these with other people, but I have no issues with doing them by myself. Maybe it's awful of me to admit it, but sometimes it's better when I'm alone, because I don't have to make conversation with anyone – I can focus completely on my involvement with the piece of art. And as a writer, that intense focus can lead to inspiration.

  5. Ironwood says:

    Great insight, Urb, illustrating again that the most personal is often the most universal.

    And some number of people who show up alone end up meeting someone, whether or not that's the goal. Either way, when there's a critical mass of other one-off's in a room, nobody's really all by him or herself.

  6. mheidelberger says:

    I just went to see an independent film last Friday night, and you guessed it, by myself :) I know this phenomenon well. AmericanDirt, my photographic trips are typically unaccompanied as well; most of the people I know are either uninterested or afraid…lol

  7. Alon Levy says:

    One of the advantages of big cities is that they offer enough subcultures that you don't have to be alone.

  8. Patrick T. Reardon says:

    It seems that you've hit upon another way in which cities and traditional suburbs are different (by which I don't mean better or worse). In a suburb of large tracts of single-family homes, you're unlikely to find a single person living in one of the homes by himself. Yet, in certain neighborhoods of Chicago, for example, there are many apartments, and many opportunities for a single person to be able to afford to live alone.

    So an Andersonville or a South Loop will attract a lot of singles, and businesses will follow.

    In the case of movies, a cinema in such a neighborhood is more likely to have independent films than, say, in Schaumburg or Tinley Park. This, I suspect, is partly due to the other sorts of people who are attracted to places with a lot of apartments — artsy types who might not be making a lot of cash from their day jobs, people whose lifestyles or sexual orientation make it more difficult to fit into a more mainstream area, and people who just march to a different drum.

    Of course, in other city neighborhoods where the population tends to be more blue-collar or low-income, there isn't the disposable income to pay for indie movies.

    Putnam's "Bowling Alone" made a point for the way American society today is fragmenting. But I suspect you could do a fairly long riff on how "Watching Movies Alone" is an indication of something in the other direction. A book perhaps?

  9. Roy says:

    When I'm hanging out with people, I want to go to a bar or a restaurant. When no one wants to hang out, that's the perfect time to go to a movie. I've never understood why large groups of people go to movies together. (Of course, the one exception is around the holidays when families go to the movies to avoid having to deal with each each other for a couple of hours.)

  10. JG says:

    Observation is where good ideas and truths begin. This I am not convinced is a unique trend to the city. But if so I highly suspect it is due more to the diversity of choices for culture and entertainment and is less based on the types of people who grow up in or move to urban areas. Still I agree there may be an "independance" or self-condidence of those who live in the city – particularly among those who grew up or are from a smaller towns.

  11. Michelle says:

    I think it is more due to personal type than being part of a particular subculture. I've known people from small towns who are very independent, traveling far all on their own, and I've known "city mice" who are completely co-dependent and won't do anything without friends. Personally I think learning to enjoy dining and attending events by yourself is a skill and pleasure everyone should master… and maybe if everyone did, attendence/patronage would rise in particular areas. And maybe we wouldn't need stuff like EHarmony.

  12. Thoroughly Educated says:

    One of the reasons I felt uncomfortable in – and fled – a small town is that my urban habit of going to movies and whatnot alone always felt a little weird. I was sure to run into somebody who knew me, not well enough that I was glad to see them, but well enough that I felt I had to explain why I was out alone, or invite them to join me. I'm headed back to the city to reclaim the safety of anonymity when I want it. Sometimes I enjoy being able to indulge my own tastes in dance or film or whatever without feeling responsible for somebody else's enjoyment.

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, everybody.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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