The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

In Many Places at Once

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Union Station in Washington DC, a place of frequent comings and goings

Union Station in Washington DC, a place of frequent comings and goings

One of my friends recently told me that he felt he was living in multiple cities at the same time. There was the city where he slept and worked. Then the city where he hoped to soon be working, and finally the city where his significant other lived. Each of these places demanded a portion of his attention and it was taxing to be in all of them—with body or mind—at once.

This multi-locational living can take on a variety of forms. For some people, it is a daily commute from a suburb of residence into a city for work. She wakes up earlier than the city-dwellers and clutches her to-go coffee cup on the long bus ride into town, arriving home in the same lengthy fashion. Another person may feel the pull of two cities in the form of a long distance relationship (as mentioned above). He holds late-night phone conversations across time zones, picturing his significant other going about her business in a far away place. If he’s lucky, he can sneak away from his primary home for a weekend here and there to see his loved one. He wants to be in both places.

Personally, I am partaking in the complex dichotomy of living in one place but planning to be in another. We get new jobs (or apply for them) in new cities and while we wait for them to begin, we imagine ourselves inhabiting new space—walking those streets in our mind’s eye until they feel like our own. Finally, I also see multi-locational living take shape in the process of temporarily relocating for work or extended vacation. In this case, someone rents an apartment in a new place for a month or more, and she begins to acclimate herself. The city starts to feel familiar, yet when her time is up she returns home.

How do these separate spaces make their demands upon us? What is the effect of being tugged in two or three different geographic directions? Unfortunately, the split can precipitate considerable harm. Allegiances naturally form for one place over another, and those sentiments can breed undue resentment. I witness this bitterness growing in some of my friends as they return to their parents’ homes after college and search for jobs elsewhere. While they may have harbored fond feelings for their childhood cities when they were away at college, their frustration at the economy and their lack of independence can turn them against these places. The “grass is greener” mentality takes hold as they envision themselves moving out and onto brighter places.

When geography separates us from our loved ones—whether for a workday or for months on end—we face particular struggles. Researchers at Umea University in Sweden determined, for instance, that a commute longer than 45 minutes increases a couple’s risk of divorce by 40%. We see how competing commitments to work and home (represented in the separate cities) raise tensions between family members. Meanwhile, couples who live in vastly separated cities usually reach a decision point where one thing has to be nixed: either the relationship or the physical distance. Managing responsibilities to multiple places is quite the feat.

I see a few potential paths here. We can compartmentalize our cities so that one is our “work city” and one is our “home city.” We can also maintain allegiance for one place over the others. Or we can find a way to appreciate each place for its particular role in our lives: the towns filled with childhood memories, the places where we dream of living, the cities seeped in career potential, and the locations where we find ourselves at any given moment.

Do you split your time (physically or emotionally) between different cities? How does it affect you?

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4 thoughts on “In Many Places at Once

  1. I’m fascinated by how every place is practically inexhaustible. No two people live in the same city, your surroundings exist in relation to all your other places. I like to think that every return to a city is a renaming of that city–the city is new. Your own city takes its form from what you desire. We desire different things because we were loved in different ways. There is room both for your big, stone New York and the little New Yorks that you put in glass globes. One is necessary, one is imagined as possible.

    I’d like to footnote Rebecca Solnit and Italo Calvino. Keep rockin, Rachel.

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  2. I’d question, and enter my own biases here, whether we’re headed in a direction where such a choice, an allegiance, is even necessary. We were once a nomadic people who viewed the land around us as a path, not a resting point, and we followed it where it took us, toward (literally) greener pastures with food and sustenance and a greater, fuller form of life. And when it struck us that it was time to move, we moved, grateful for what our surroundings had provided us but not with the feeling we were divorcing a part of our lives.

    I’d argue that was has changed isn’t our nomadic lifestyle, but the chains of civilization that anchor us to one place: mortgages, jobs, unnatural time constraints (see: jobs, again). In a world free from these constraints, your subject doesn’t need plans; he goes where he wants for as long as he wants. He sees his girlfriend when he wants, and maybe they’re not even separated by distance at all. The world is but one big city, and he is free to be a pedestrian traveling among them, swearing allegiance to none.

    We are, I think, headed in that direction. Mobility doesn’t change cities, but it will change how we identify with them.

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    • Jay I was actually debating a shout out to you in this post because I did want to mention the fact that some people don’t feel the need for allegiance to specific places, but rather they prefer to live and travel freely, unbounded.

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