In the city

I’ve been indulging my ongoing fascination with the city lately, trying to learn as much as I can about how cities came to be the way they are.  But I don’t really feel good at writing about it, so I’ve been keeping that part of my life mostly to myself.  But I’ll share where I think my fascination comes from.

I was born in Orange County.  Please don’t hold that against me.  I lived in an around the OC until I was about two, then we moved to the desert to a tiny town of approximately 4,000 people.  It had zero stoplights, a couple of small markets, a park in the middle of town and was surrounded by fields.  The nearest larger town was about ten miles away.  The nearest big city was actually very close by, but it was in Mexico.

The first time I ever really got to spend time on my own in the city was when my family was living in Thessaloniki, Greece.  I was about ten.  My school friend was the son of some sort of American civil servant who was in Greece promoting American culture, because this was during the Cold War and I guess America had people devoted to doing that.  He lived in a huge rented house near downtown Thessaloniki and on a few occasions I went there to play.  His parents either didn’t know or didn’t care and we’d go for walks around town.

Urban Greece didn’t strike me as much different than any other part of Greece- where there were people living there were people out doing stuff.  This is something actually I noticed in Japan as well.  The idea that you live in a house and nothing is going on around it- no foot traffic, no commerce, no social events- is something that I’ve only seen be very prevalent in the USA.  So walking around the city wasn’t all that different than walking around small towns there, it was just bigger.

I don’t think we even had money, so maybe we bought some candy, maybe we didn’t.  But for me it was pretty cool to be able to walk around the city with another kid my age.  Just two guys, exploring.

This is another thing I often saw in Japan- kids just walking around town.  No parents anywhere.  On their way to school, or to the park, whatever.  No one cares.  I often think about doing that with my son- he and his friends could easily ride to the park on their bikes but for two reasons- one, cars make right turns on red without a second glance at pedestrians- I have narrowly escaped getting run over more times than I can count and two, I worry that the police will pick them up, and then come arrest me for negligence, or something.  But I’m not worried about a couple of boys getting abducted.

When I got to be 16 there had been a mall constructed in Mexicali, just across the border.  I could leave my house, drive ten minutes to the border, park (to this day I have never driven in Mexico, despite having been there dozens of times), walk across the border and about a mile to the mall and hang out at the mall.  I didn’t do a whole lot there, but I’d seen hanging out at the mall in movies, so I wanted to do it too.

When I was 18 my parents went to Greece for a couple weeks.  My brother was sixteen and they didn’t trust the two of us in the house, or maybe they were worried about getting arrested for neglect on their return, so they arranged for my brother to stay with my uncle in San Francisco.  I was to drive my brother to the airport, fly with him to San Francisco, deliver him to my uncle, spend the weekend, and then drive home and watch the house for the remaining 10 or so days.

My uncle in San Francisco is the poster man for benign neglect and told us to do whatever we felt like.  He showed us how to use BART and then let us go.  We spent two whole days traveling around the city.  This was early 90s, so it was still pretty gritty.  It may still be gritty now, I haven’t actually been back since.   But I was in love.  I got my Doc Martens shined because that seemed like an adult thing to do.  I bought records.  I met random people and skateboarded with them.  It was awesome.

When it came time to decide on a college, I chose San Diego.  My mom wanted me to go to LA, but I wasn’t ready for that big of a step.  San Diego is almost diet city.  I use the phrase diet ____ every now and then to mean something is not the full strength version.  Like Japan is diet travel, because even though everyone speaks another language, everything is actually convenient and easily accessible, and the food won’t give you diarrhea like it will in China.

San Diego too was a dump back then in places, but I like it here.  It could be better in a lot of ways, but there’s a lot to like about how the city is.  But that being said I was reading about housing discrimination and red-lining today, and someone made a list of the areas in my city that had been redlined.  What was sad was that before even seeing the map I was able to guess what areas had been designated as off-limits for lending by the FHA.  So not everything about cities are great.  But it’s something I’ve been really interested in and I’m trying to process it.  I’ve even felt somewhat that I should reconsider my long held belief that further schooling is not for me.  But we’ll see.



  1. Unless I’ve got it completely wrong, the industrial revolution turned cities into what we consider “modern,” which is to say crowded, noisy, dirty, polluted and crime-ridden. Which doesn’t mean I don’t like cities. I do, but I no longer want to live in one … just near one that has really good hospitals, restaurants and entertainment. Maybe a few museums too.

    I grew up in NY in the 60s and it was like your SF experience. It was GREAT. I’ve always been grateful for that because I got to taste everything. It was the best part of growing up.

    1. I think the short synopsis is that industry built the city, it was crowded and dirty, then it got even worse when people moved out the suburbs and hollowed out the city’s tax base. Then industry left too. Then people started getting bored in the suburbs and are moving back to the city because it’s not so dirty anymore and because there’s more to do.

      I can imagine getting tired of living in the city- hassles like walking out to your car and finding that the windshield’s been busted get old after a while. I’ll probably move back to the country someday. But I like being able to walk around and see things happening. I’m in a borderline suburb right now and that’s pretty dull.

      1. I lived in a city until I was well into my 50s. That’s when the parking, the traffic and the dirt finally got to me. I miss it even now in some ways, but I do like the uncrowded streets these days.

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