Special to the Trinity Tripod
I just finished a book, scheduled to be available from Bristol University Press in the first week of June 2020, called RETHINKING URBANISM. The coronavirus pandemic has caused a whole lot of rethinking about urbanism.
In urban studies, SOCIAL DISTANCE is one of the first concepts we teach to students as a phenomenon often associated with urbanism. In his seminal 1938 essay, “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” sociologist Louis Wirth told us that the “urbanization of the world” was “one of the most impressive facts of modern times” and equated urbanization and the growth of ‘great cities’ with civilization. At the same time, though, Wirth suggested that urbanism needed a more complex and nuanced definition than population figures, density, industrialism, capitalism or a political designation of a place as a city would provide. To be sure, size, density and differentiation were PART of urbanism, but Wirth was more interested in how people created a way of life in these places. He argued, following Georg Simmel, that urban relationships were “impersonal, superficial, transitory and segmental,” full of “the reserve, the indifference, and the blasé outlook” that urbanites used as “devices for immunizing themselves against the personal claims and expectations of others.”
When I teach this essay, I will ask students from big cities if any of this stuff rings a bell, and of course it does, even more than 80 years later. New Yorkers or Londoners or Nairobians put on their city face when they walk the big city streets. Sure, they immunize themselves. That goes with the “sophistication and the rationality” Wirth saw as traits of city-dwellers. You gain freedom in a city, and you lose the human warmth of rural villages; you enter a “social void” with “great social distance.”
But hang on a minute. I’ve always found the Chicago School and many other Global North-centric approaches to urbanism rather frustrating. I’ve spent most of my research career, more than 30 years now, studying cities in eastern and central Africa. Rethinking Urbanism, like my four other books, has a lot of research material about Zanzibar, Tanzania in it. One of the defining experiences of my life, and not just my research career, came from a year of living in Kikwajuni, an historic Afro-Swahili neighborhood of Ng’ambo, the Other Side of Zanzibar.
There is nothing I would define as blasé about life in Kikwajuni. There is no social distancing. There is not even much physical distancing. The phrase I gave to my friends back in Los Angeles at the time was that I was living in a house with no walls. I talked to my neighbors through my bedroom window late at night, and had evening meals with friends on their baraza – verandahs – the places that gave life to the title of my first book, Verandahs of Power. On those verandahs, in those alleys, amid those houses without walls, I came to appreciate how Kikwajuni’s people, like so many people in inner city neighborhoods and informal settlements across urban Africa, maybe across the world, created these lively places together; such Afropolitan urbanism ought never to be idealized, but this lived interdependence challenged the very core of what the canon of urban studies said urbanism was.
And here we are now in the COVID-19 era. As I write this, half of the world’s people are practicing something called “social distancing.” I come from a medical family, and I read the New York Times coronavirus briefings every day, so I believe that the kind of social distancing the health professionals are advocating for is now and will continue to save lives. But in other ways, it is the precise opposite of social distancing that is saving lives – saving urban lives.
I’m more in touch personally with my senior honors students via Skype and Zoom this term than I would have been without this pandemic. My best friends and I have a weekly Zoom happy hour, the Center I run does the same, I have socialized with my former graduate students, and even attended – virtually – the 9th birthday party for a son of one of these students. It is in caring for one another, being in each other’s lives as if we are all living in houses without walls, that we will survive this.
My friend and colleague, the sociologist Johnny Williams, said it quite well the other day, that “the pace of change has been dizzying” but “we are carrying on with incredible grace, empathy, humor, compassion, and lack of sleep…. We are doing the best we can.” As I think about my 30 years of forging and maintaining friendships in Ng’ambo – these days by WhatsApp, Facebook and Zoom – it strikes me that what Johnny said the other day speaks to the day-to-day experience of many urbanites across Africa long before the Covid-19 era.
Never be blasé. Never be socially distant in your soul. Have compassion. Do the best you can.
Garth Myers is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies and Director of the Center for Urban and Global Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
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