Come, shall we go and kill us venison?

I read this in a NYT book review yesterday:
Under what conditions are people willing to help others? Urbanites, or the
social dynamics of urbanism, have been particularly implicated in these
inquiries, whether by “diffusion of responsibility” — the more people who
are around, the less any one person feels compelled to act — or “information
overload,” the idea that city people must filter and limit what they take in,
including appeals for help. (Tom Vanderbilt, "Up from Calamity," Sep. 6, 2009)
It got me thinking about the implications of raising my kid in the city. I grew up in the city, and loved it, so I don't have any of the usual qualms about it. I suppose it would be nice to have a backyard, or to go out and catch frogs in a nearby pond (this, for some reason, is what I think of as the quintessential perk of growing up in a suburban/rural environment). But I don't feel like I missed out that much. I had other things instead--like the zoo that I used to visit just about every day on my way to school, the classes I took at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a fluency in jive. (One of those is a lie.)

But what effect does it have to grow up with that urban "filter"? Or, perhaps more importantly, the awareness that the people around you aren't interested in you or concerned about your welfare? Someone once told me that when she first started college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she smiled and said hello to absolutely everyone she encountered, because that's what she was used to in the small town where she grew up. In contrast, I sometimes don't even say hello to people I've met, because I assume they don't remember meeting me.

There's also that weird phenenomenon where you don't say hello to people you encounter repeatedly because they live in your neighborhood or they're in one of your classes--unless you encounter them somewhere unexpected, like an airport. I often think about this sort of thing in elevators--how bizarre it is to be in such close quarters with other people without acknowledging each other. If the elevator broke down and you had to wait hours for help or figure out a way to rescue yourselves, those people would become your lifeline. It's unnatural, but it's what you have to do to protect yourself when you share a small area with thousands of strangers. (Interesting fact: there were 12,750.5 people per square mile in Chicago according to the 2000 census.)

Would I have less difficulty with social interactions if I had grown up in a small town where everyone knew each other? Would I be less jaded about humanity?

I actually did know most of the people in my neighborhood growing up, and it was a fairly closeknit community. And we were part of other communities--my school, our church, my dad's work colleagues. It's probably important, when you raise your kid in a city, that you find and cultivate those types of relationships. I think one of the reasons my parents came to dislike the high school I went to is that they were never able to break into the parents' social circles and feel a part of that community. And that probably contributed to all the trouble I got into there. This is somewhat troubling because neither I nor my husband are very social. We could go weeks without interacting with anyone but each other and not even notice. I really want my son to be more outgoing, but I'm afraid both nature and nurture are working against him.

I do find it funny, however, that when you set Nugget down outside on anything but asphalt he is completely nonplussed. When we were at the beach a few weeks ago, it took him the whole first day to get used to the sand. The second day, some people came up to us and expressed shock that he'd started walking overnight--he was so thrown off by the sand that they'd assumed when watching us the day before that he wasn't walking yet.

In a related aside, yesterday we went applepicking at this fantastic farm about an hour west of Chicago. Nugget tried to bite the apples while they were still on the tree, and he went crazy for the cow they had on display. I do love a day in the country, especially when it involves fresh-baked apple-cider glazed doughnuts.

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