Declining? Far from it. Cities are hotter than ever before
Dr. Gregory Smithsimon is sick of New Yorkers getting such a bad rap. So he devised a way for the students in his Barnard College urban studies class to measure the kindness of New York strangers.
They intentionally “lost” wallets containing $4, a MetroCard and several of his business cards at points across the city. Surprisingly, given New York’s tough reputation, 82 percent of the wallets were returned.
“People think cities are awful places, and they certainly think New York is an awful place,” Smithsimon said. But cities "can be organized and wonderful. They work based on everyday collaboration and cooperation between strangers.”
Cities are the ideal laboratory for studying human interaction, and such research has taken on new significance given that people are flocking to cities as never before.
According to the U.N.'s State of the World’s Cities 2006/2007 report, this year marks the first time in history that the world’s urban population will surpass the rural population. New York City’s population is more than 8 million, making it the nation’s most populous city. It has long been able to claim that distinction. The 1790 census by the newly created U.S. Census Bureau also showed it to be America’s largest city, with a population of 33,131 people.
But being populous doesn't mean cities like New York are popular. The Book of Genesis refers to “the whore city” of Babylon. American heroes like Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville were notoriously anti-urban. One of the first sociologists to study New York’s urban dynamics, the late Dr. Leo Srole of Columbia University, noted in a 1980 paper titled “Mental Health in New York” that cities have been despised since their beginnings.
More recently, social scientists have tried to more accurately measure how cities are perceived. Dr. Robert Levine, a professor of psychology at California State University in Fresno, conducted a study in the early 1990s in which he ranked U.S. and international cities by “kindness of strangers.” Researchers, mostly Fresno study abroad and international students, feigned injury and blindness and noted who helped them cross the street or retrieve a dropped pen. Of 36 cities examined, Levine found New Yorkers to be the least kind.
But not all studies portray New York negatively. In fact, some researchers have gone out of their way to try to capture and measure a city’s positive energy.
William Whyte, a sociologist, set up cameras above busy midtown Manhattan intersections during the 1970s. Whyte meticulously noted “schmoozing patterns,” spots on the sidewalk where people most often interacted. He found that conversations were more likely to be struck up in a crowded area. “What attracts people most, in sum, is other people,” Whyte says in his 1988 book, “City: Rediscovering the Center.”
Had Whyte been examining tourists in Times Square on a recent April afternoon, he would have noticed a group of six high school girls from West Salem, Wis., and their two chaperones. They were part of a two-day field trip with more than 100 other band and choir students. Before setting out on a 20-hour bus ride, the students had been warned to leave expensive accessories at home, beware of muggers and rapists and never leave the group.
“Our band director said that if we wandered away from our chaperones we’d end up in a body bag,” said Tina Van Riper, a West Salem 16-year-old.
Even though several West Salem teenagers found a crack pipe stuffed under the mattress in their New Jersey hotel room, they all agreed that New York City was an amazing place and completely different from the city they had been warned about.
Dr. Harold Takooshian, an urban psychologist at Fordham University, is accustomed to city misconceptions. He regards cities as places that can be “exciting, serendipitous and stimulating.” In explaining how he tries to dispel preconceived biases about cities to students in his urban psychology class, he began crooning the lyrics to Petula Clark’s classic serenade, “Downtown.”
"The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Takooshian found in a 2002 study that when asked, most New Yorkers were willing to make change for a dollar or give directions to a lost child.
“There’s a huge gap between the surveys which show that people don’t like cities,” he said, “and the actual behavior, which shows that you can’t keep people out.”
One of Takooshian’s graduate school advisers was Stanley Milgram, a City University of New York professor known as the modern founder of urban psychology. Takooshian still remembers participating in one of Milgram’s most famous experiments in which students rode the New York City subways to determine whether or not riders would give up their seats when asked. More than two-thirds of them did, although the experience of asking them was absolutely terrifying, Takooshian said.
“We think of cities as full of problems,” Takooshian said, “but there are a lot of people smiling. I’m one of them.”