A small town in a big city

November 19, 2018

Right now, as I write, I hear the soft sounds of a piano through an air duct. The duct is shared with our neighbors; the kids next door are practicing the piano.

I love that. It's a nice human touch over the din of traffic two blocks away, on 880.

I graduated from college in 2009; since then, it's been nonstop city life, first Seattle, then the last seven years in the Bay Area. That's nine years—almost a decade—of easy access to airports, public transit, and the best food in the country. It's after Thanksgiving, but still, it's hard not to feel grateful. I've lived well.

Even so, something was missing. I first noticed it in Seattle. I tried to ignore it, but couldn't help feeling something was just a litle off.

I felt it when I got on the 550 bus to Redmond with a different group of people every day, all heading to our jobs at Microsoft. "Who were these people?", I wondered, all of them glued to their phones and Kindles.

The feeling came back every year as the winter holidays approached. Putting up Christmas lights is a huge production in Chicagoland; in Seattle, it felt like nobody had time.

Serious business

I went to church almost every week growing up. My dad knew everyone there; he'd gone to middle school with half of them, in the working-class neighborhood where he'd grown up. We knew everyone on our street, their jobs and where they worked, even the names and aspiration of their children. When I was five, my elderly next-door neighbor occasionally invited me over to play with his model train set, or swim in their in-ground pool when his grandkids visisted. For seven years in Seattle and San Francisco, I couldn't even tell you the name of one other person in the apartment buildings where I lived.

Living in a condo building (and getting married) has given me many of the things I missed. It's been great. Where I live now, people hang Christmas decorations. The building's board, which I'm on, is throwing a Christmas party. I know my neighbors.

It's a small town in a big city.

As I thought more about it, I realized this is what people mean when they say a place has a "neighborhood feel"—places like Manhattan's upper west side, or London's Notting Hill. Places like these combine the cosmopolitanism and access of a large metropolis with the human-scale intimacy of small towns.

I see why people love these places so much; they're awesome.