Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In the age of the Internet, why does it matter than I live in the city?

A friend passes on a link to this interview with Witold Rybczynski, author of "Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville." This passage stood out:
Think of the difference between “town” and “country” one hundred years ago. It was absolute and affected what you ate, how you lived, the amenities to which you had access, and much more. I would argue that today the differences between amenities, resources, etc. available to someone living in an exurb outside Denver or Pittsburgh, and living in downtown Denver or Pittsburgh, while they have not disappeared, are slight. The fact that information, medical care, education, entertainment, and so on have dispersed is significant. I am not aruing that there are no differences at all, but rather that they have, for most people, diminished to the point of being trivial. Nor is the balance weighted to the city, as it once was. Suburban Philadelphians, for example, have more choice in department stores or food stores, than those living in Center City. On the other hand, we all have equal access to Netflix and Amazon.
I've alluded to this phenomenon before. Thanks to the rise of the Internet, my arrival in Philadelphia from Kansas didn't offer as stark a difference as it might've, say, 15 years ago. When I got here, I mostly continued reading the same (online) newspapers and listening to the same (online) radio stations that I did before. As I wrote for Metropolis: "The miracle of the Internet is that it can bring you news, music and video from anywhere on the planet. The curse of the Internet, it turns out, is that it can bring you news, music and video from anywhere on the planet. It's easy to avoid the local culture."

Being cognizant of that dynamic doesn't entirely remove it from the equation. Because of that, I've had to think long and hard over the last couple of years—through unemployment and illness—about why we stay in Philadelphia instead of heading back to Kansas.

What can I say? I've seen the Philadelphia Orchestra live on several occasions. Philadelphia is not as blindingly white as the town I left. Nor as overwhelmingly Christian. And there's a vibrancy to Center City life—Rittenhouse Square buskers, food carts, and the ability to run into an amazing cross-section of people—that doesn't quite exist in rural areas. We don't have to own a car here. The differences are mostly smelled and tasted, and to some people they might seem marginal, but they are real, and they are not unimportant to us.

Professionally, too, there's a difference. There are more media opportunities on the East Coast than in Kansas, obviously, but I do my work on the Internet. Shouldn't matter, right? Wrong. Weirdly, my move to the Big City somehow put me on the radar of more organizations that wanted coverage through my Scripps Howard column than when I was in Kansas and doing it on more of a full-time basis. Go figure.

City life isn't for everybody, and it's not as "exotic" to a rural-raised man like myself as it once would've been, but it's still different enough.

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