When I went off to a large university years ago, well-meaning acquaintances (a small mob of them) worried out loud that I'd lose my individuality. I would become a mere number, lost in the crowd. A smal college, they assured me, would treat me more like an individual. I went to the university anyway.
Much more recently, when I moved to New York City, a well-meaning mob worried aloud once more that I'd lose my individuality in the huge, impersonal metropolis. Only in small towns or cities, they insisted, could a chap get treated decently or be properly valued as an individual. Perhaps it goes without saying I moved to New York anyway. I'm that sort of individual.
Somehow, I've never felt that my identity or individuality was threatened in the least by having lots of money. Nor have I ever thought it depended on how I was treated by others. It's been my conviction all along that it is a function of my own behavior; and the greater the variety around me -- the more endless the options -- the more exactly my individuality might open into full expression. The smaller the choice of friends, the poorer the experience of life; and the narrower the choice of experiences, the more constricted the life. It's fine to be the salt-of-earth; but coriander, curry and cumin seed also have their zip and smack.
The notion that cities are a threat to individuality is nonsense, but it's a persistent bit of nonsense. Millions keep voicing it. For some reason, they all sound alike when they do. Those who fear cities -- New York especially -- seem to do so from a very small repertoire of stock reactions and false impressions. Those who love the city do so for reasons as endlessly various as the city itself.
I's a testament to our continuing respect for individuality, at least, that we use its possible loss as a telling (if specious) argument against cities. Doing so, however, may only testify to an ignorance of what really constitutes individuality -- or an ignorance of what cities are all about. Or both.
Cities don't threaten individuality. they enhance it. They call it forth and make heavy demands upon it. What cities tend to challenge is not identity but a false sense of autonomy. Those who say, "I'd be afraid of losing my individuality if I moved to the city" may really be saying, "I'm afraid to give up the security of my fixed assumptions, the comfort of received opinions, the reinforcements of a community whose mind is already made up. I'm afraid of not being in the majority, afraid of not being in charge anymore."
Cities dom force you to make up your own mind. A friend recently observed, "One of the things I love about New York is that here everything is true at all once, nothing is false -- at least no automatically." One has to decide for oneself. There's no mere falling back upon communal assumptions.
A cartoon some years ago showed a native New Yorker accosting two obvious tourists on the street: "New York is a nice place for you to visit, but I wouldn't want you to live here!" One of the things Im love about the city is actually living here -- which is to say, getting to know its nooks and treasures in a way the tourist never does. Increasingly, I feel the old platitude needs to be turned totally upside down. New York is a great place to live, but I would'nt want to visit here. It's much tougher on tourists than on residents. A tougher on rich tourists than on poor ones. Poor ones have to stay with friends, so they get some feel for living here -- a pleasure denied those who can afford the hotels and fancy restaurants.
I am glad, of course, that not everyone wants to live here. The apartment shortage is severe enough. I'm glad that many people want to live someplace else, and I'm pleased if it pleases tham to do so. It ism possible to love small towns or the country just as earnestly as the city. And it's possible to love small towns without fearing the city, and without maligning it as an engulfer of individuality.
I'm sure people love small towns in as many various ways as there are varieties of small towns. But there's only one New York. One in a million. Curiously, that's a way we have of stressing uniqueness and individaulity -- by calling something "one in a million." I don't find my own individuality diminished at all by being one in a million (or in several million) here in New York.
I'm glad, of course, that some of my best friends live in the woods or in small towns elsewhere: it's nice to visit.
I just wouldn't want to live there.