The lure of the big city

I’ve got a friend whose dream is to move to New York to be part of the arts scene. While part of me understands the desire, part of me thinks, “What’s so great about the city when you live in one of the most beautiful places on earth (New Zealand)? What is it about urban life that calls to us, despite its many disadvantages? Desmond Morris explains it to me from a zoological perspective in the following passage. I’ve added some bold and italicized for emphasis.

“It is far more than just an international power game. There is an intrinsic, biological property of the human animal that obtains deep satisfaction from being thrown into the urban chaos of a super-tribe. That quality is man’s insatiable curiosity, his inventiveness, his intellectual athleticism. The urban turmoil seems to energize this quality. Just as colony-nesting sea-birds are reproductively aroused by massing in dense breeding communities, so the human animal is intellectually aroused by massing in dense urban communities. They are breeding colonies of human ideas. This is the credit side of the story. It keeps the system going despite its many disadvantages.”

“You may think that the price the super-tribesman is paying is too high; that a quiet, peaceful, contemplative life would be far preferable. He thinks so, too, of course, but like that physical exercise he is always going to take, he seldom does anything about it…..He could move away, but he would miss the excitement, the excitement of the neo-hunter, setting off to capture the biggest game in the biggest and best hunting grounds his environment has to offer…..only in the city does sustained innovation stand a real chance. Only the city is strong enough and secure enough in its amassed conformity to tolerate the disruptive forces of rebellious originality and creativity. The sharp swords of iconoclasm are mere pin-pricks in the giant’s flesh, giving it a pleasant tingling sensation, rousing it from sleep and urgent it into action.

This exploratory excitement, then, with the help of the cohesive forces I have described, is what keeps so many modern city-dwellers voluntarily locked inside their human zoo cage.”

This passage hints at a relationship that I’ve always found fascinating; the symbiotic relationship between the majority and the minority. In the city, society can tolerate significant minority communities, tribes of punks, anarchist, modern artists, poets, stamp collectors, incredibly dirty hippies, ultra-right wing nut jobs, etc, because of its sheer size. Think of the bell curve again. In a small community, a significant population with extreme views would make the situation unstable.  In a city, those extreme views are “are mere pin-pricks in the giant’s flesh”. Even the majority can indulge in the joy of going to see a modern art exhibit, a new band, a lecture, or about any other cultural or artistic experience. In this way, everybody gets a sense of being at the forefront of cultural evolution. Everyone can indulge their creativity. Everyone gets a sense of freedom because there are so many specialized niches to fill. Despite its overcrowding, traffic, pollution, and the pace, the city remains the place to be.

And what about the future? In an age of blogs, twitter, facebook, skype, and “online communities”, will the physical super-tribe of the city give way to wired, web-based super-tribes? Yes and no. Yes, we can see it happening everywhere. Take the Crossfit or paleo community. It’s essentially web-enabled. Then again, real community happens in real life. Look at all the blood, sweat, and tears in Crossfit boxes. If you’re a punk, it’s hard to mosh virtually. You get the idea.

Obviously there is a lot of ideas packed into the passage. More to come…




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