The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    The Meaning Of Cities

Next-Door Strangers

The Crisis of Urban Anonymity

Marc J. Dunkelman

Woman in a Coffee Shop, 1982, by Max Ferguson; private collection; Bridgeman Images.

Debate persists about which demographic mix best drives a city’s success.

Late one afternoon nearly two decades ago, having made my way down the length of Manhattan’s west side, I met my grandfather at a quaint Italian restaurant in the West Village. He greeted me in the vestibule, gave me a hug, and asked how I’d thought to recommend this particular trattoria. I explained that an old buddy who’d grown up in New York had suggested it, but I quickly added that in the near future neither of us would have to depend on personal recommendations. That same friend had recently offered me a demonstration of Vindigo (a precursor to Yelp, the social networking site that rates local businesses). Once installed on a Palm Pilot (a precursor to the iPhone), the app would list all the restaurants near any given Manhattan intersection, sorted by cuisine. After a user selected the restaurant, Vindigo would offer walking directions.

I’d expected my grandfather to guffaw—oh, the wonders of modern technology! Instead, he frowned. “Marc, when I was a young salesman traveling between hosiery mills in the small towns of North Carolina, I’d get off a train with nothing but a suitcase and make my way over to a friendly looking stranger. ‘Is there a good place to eat around here?’ More often than not, that guy would direct me to a hole in the wall or a diner a few blocks away. With some frequency, we’d strike up a conversation—sometimes he would join me for the meal. He’d tell me when he served in the war and share some of the local folklore. After a few minutes we’d invariably be talking about our families. That’s how I got to understand the world—by talking to strangers. If I returned the next year, I’d often look up the same fellow. With all these fancy technologies you’re telling me about, how are people going to get to know one another? You ask me, I think it’s going to make everyone lonely.”

I listened respectfully to my grandfather, not entirely surprised to discover that he was a Luddite, but I dismissed his criticism all the same. A handful of introductory-level college courses had convinced me that technology always disrupts existing patterns of behavior—and that the naysayers generally are proved to be naive. So my grandfather and I ordered our pasta, the conversation turned to lighter topics, and I relegated his ornery objection to the back of my mind. Only years later, after more than a decade of work in politics and government, did I begin to wonder whether he hadn’t been on to something. Maybe the disruptive changes that define contemporary life have, in fact, altered social patterns in ways many of us fail to appreciate.

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