In all my stops at the San Francisco airport, I’ve never been outside. Pretty strange when I think about how many times I’ve been through that airport on the way or simply returning home.
I spent my whole life dreaming about far away cities like London, Paris, and New York. Perhaps you could say I had an obsession driven by what I saw on TV or read in books. These cities were mythical, but always part of the plan. As soon as I’d turn 16 or 18 or 21 I’d finally go study abroad. If that didn’t happen, I’d settle for a few days in one spot, just enjoying what had been previously unattainable. That may or may not consist of fine wine on a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower.
The idea of cities is etched into our consciousness from infancy. Movies, songs, and books all talk about these great, grand, bustling places. I can think of my favorite books and personal essays about cities almost without trying. Sometimes they convey what it’s really like to live there (Dubliners always comes to mind) or maybe their authors are ready to leave for a new life (Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That”). Even more modern reads speak to our desire to wander a great metropolis: Anna and the French Kiss along with the other companion books about Lola and Isla are some of my favorite YA reads ever. I mostly love the girls that narrate the books, but spend most of my time being insanely jealous that they get to live in Paris, San Francisco, and New York– sometimes all within the span of a year!
What does dreaming of cities do to us and why are they a part of our cultural mythology? I know streets and places I’ve never been because I’ve spent hours digitally walking the streets of cities I wanted to go. I can even take this one step further: I’ve walked the streets in virtual reality, a second-hand experience for those who can’t travel. Many have asked– will such digital wandering replace what we’ve done in real life?
For a short story of mine that appeared in the third Writers Edit Press Kindling, the answer was yes. My characters take a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, eventually ending up at the NYU campus. I didn’t originally imagine them there: the boy and girl in this story started out in so many other cities. But something about that iconic backdrop spoke to me. The problem? I had never been there.
To write the story, I spent hours just walking the bridge in Google Maps, considering the way the light shifted over the bridge cables as the sun goes down. The key to writing that story was the change from light to darkness that mirrored the dialogue of my characters and the unfortunate realization that comes only at the end.
Some say that Baudelaire is the reason that we’re so obsessed with cities. Personally, I doubt we can attribute that to any one person. But all the same he did have an influence on our understanding of the flâneur. What he has to say about cities is nothing short of intriguing:
“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”
― Charles Baudelaire
Baudelaire’s “innocent monsters” could be the people that walk past us on sidewalks, or maybe something else entirely. Possibly our own aspirations. They seem innocent enough, but the monsters that haunt us, that urge us to become reality often think they need a certain type of space to come true. For example, many people still think that if you want to be a writer you have to move to New York. Just look at any movie or TV show about women working for big magazines (looking at you 13 Going On 30!) and it’s not hard to see why people still think that. It’s not just because there are people who refuse to believe that magazines exist outside of that city. Rather that we’ve been primed to believe that nothing but the education of living on a city block will truly teach us how to write like our literary heroes.
I’d like to think that it’s connected to the idea of cityness, the question of who we think we are in relation to high-rises and neighbors we imagine to have the same aspirations as us. In most stories I’ve read, the characters are naive city virgins who find themselves in the great cities all while navigating romance and a budding career (eye roll). This can’t just be something that came out of nowhere. We really do want something from the cities we see so much of without ever encountering them in real life.
Just think of New York’s obsession with itself. At any given time you could probably find a book set in New York City on the New York Times bestseller list. Otherwise, what’s the point?
And there’s nothing wrong with loving New York. Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter may be set in that city, but her unique focus on restaurant servers who aren’t in the business for the short term (paired with unforgettable prose!) makes her book’s setting far more than forgivable. It’s a literary darling right now for a reason!
Maybe it’s not that culture is at fault for our obsession with city blocks. These writers may just be giving us exactly what we want. Instead of the dark, dirty street corners and suffering of the homeless, we idealize street names, structures, and the regularly-occurring push pins on our Google Maps that show us where we should go next.
I love cities, but it’s a painful obsession to have when you’re otherwise unable to go all the places you dream of. When you see friends and random people from the internet skate by your Instagram feed living the fabulous life.
Still, our obsession with cities may not say what we think it does. What comes to mind for many people is a sense of wanderlust, that life should be about collecting experiences and not things. But to those who can’t travel, it’s quite likely that we’re dismissing another part of life that matters just as much as jetsetting to remote continents: home.