Monday, January 19, 2009
According to this article, city-life may actually impair your mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is apparently less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. Ironically, though, the same aspects of city-life that dampen your ability to think clearly and live a healthy life are strongly correlated with innovation and creativity. Do we have to choose?
When i moved to Chicago from New York, it would annoy me to no end that most dinner parties would include some comparison of the two cities. Why was it a good thing that the new Moroccan restaurant seemed "so New York" and that the Picasso exhibit at the Institute of Art was "just as good" as the MOMA exhibit a few years back? I chalked it up to a "second city" inferiority complex and was happy to dismiss it and focus on all the amazing sites and sounds Chicago had to offer. When I left Chicago for San Francisco, I was faced with a different facet of the same conversation: The never-ending "East Coast/West Coast debate." San Francisco is so hippie. New York is so dirty. San Francisco has natural beauty. New York has actual culture. People--myself included, much as I would try to stay away from it--could and did and do discuss the merits of SF versus New York ad nauseam, with the passion and fury of the sort of lover's quarrel that exhibits the sliver thin line between agony and ecstasy, love and hate.
We love our cities like we love people.
The newest wrinkle of the "Great City" debate occurred when my husband and I left San Francisco for Berkeley. Technically a suburb of San Francisco, Berkeley is a far-cry from the suburban life I grew up with. Locals and transplants (my husband considers himself part of the latter group while I still feel like an interloper) wax profound about the University atmosphere, the amazing food, the colorful people. And all of these things are true. But this litany of pro-Berkeley propaganda often ends with the phrase "and it's so close to the city." Because, despite everything Berkeley has going for it--and I really do love living here--it just is not San Francisco.
I was thinking about it this weekend. City life. Why so many of us are so mesmerized by it, we so many of us sought it out as soon as we were allowed to be out past 10pm. The newest iteration of the "city conversation" at the parties I frequent no longer compares metropolises in which we have lived, but involves starry-eyed couples dreaming and scheming ways to return to the cities. Some of the couples have little babies and are duking it out with the stroller brigades in places like Noe Valley, vowing to stay in the city almost as if discussing a duty they hold...as long as they find "acceptable schools." 99% of these people will leave San Francisco in the next year. The majority of the dreamers are couples like me and my husband, who left San Francisco (or New York, or Chicago) soon after having kids, pulled by the age-old, pregnancy-triggered need for greenery and space. (According to the article, one of the main reasons city-dwellers experience diminished intellectual ability is the "stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard.") Then of course there are the nay-sayers. The couples who proclaim that they miss nothing about city-life and breath sighs of relief as they pass by the urban jungle in their "baby on board"ed cars, en route to their bucolic oasis 15 miles away. But you know what? I only know one couple like this. And they are liars.
The article dances around what I and so many people find so amorphous and yet miss so much: The palpable energy city-life offers. When you dissect it, it doesn't make any sense. I don't really need to see the make-shift jazz band on the corner of Powell and Geary after seeing John Guare's revival of "Rich and Famous." I don't feel a void in my life due to the fact that, when I walk around in Berkeley in the evenings, the streets are not buzzing with the animation of packs of teenagers, and homeless people declaring "My Mickey balloon had a few Coronas." (That happened on Friday night). And, as a parent, I don't envy the kids fighting for spots on the swings, the moms jockeying for slots in the "coveted" preschools.
When we were in SF Friday night (after seeing the new John Guare revival and stopping to listen to the make-shift jazz band on the corner for a second), I found the words spilling from my mouth for the millionth time: "Let's move back here," I said, holding my husband's hand, almost imagining him whisking me away to a small and absolutely family-unfriendly apartment in the sky.
But I recognize I am of two minds. The city article gives a new explanation to the calm and serenity that envelopes me as I make the 5 minute drive up the hill to my house in Berkeley. Maybe the trees and foliage and green are doing their work, I don't know. I never expected to be the sort of person whose actual demeanor changes as I almost automatically go through the banal motions that take me back home. But something happens as I leave my city job and my city life for the bigger part of my world, perched on top of that hill, in my house in the Berkeley hills. Something transformative. I shed the desire and the want and the searching that is so much a part of my life at the bottom of the hill (and that, make no mistake, will be waiting for me, like a hitchhiker, in the morning). I drive the windy roads, still audibly gasping at times at the vistas that unfold in front of me. I feel myself slowing down. And I climb and climb, incapable of preventing the smile that automatically starts to spread, anxious to see the faces waiting for me behind my decidedly un-hip, suburban door.
(Thanks Ayesha for the article!)