By Sharon M. Meagher, Ph.D., Marymount Manhattan College
Since the pandemic, I have found myself doing two things that I rarely if ever did in the “before time”: a) regularly binge-watching TV (no time before!) and b) crossing the street or stepping into the curb to avoid oncoming pedestrians—especially if they are not wearing masks or are not wearing them properly. I know that I am hardly alone in engaging in these pandemic behaviors. The latter has made me very worried about the way that we have changed our thinking and actions towards strangers on the street, and whether and how we will recover after the pandemic. Strangers, and even friends and neighbors, have become more estranged as we keep our (social) distance.
In her 2020 Netflix series Pretend it’s a City with Martin Scorsese, Fran Lebowitz notes that our encounters with strangers on the sidewalks had changed even prior to the pandemic. She argues that with both the advent of cell phones and the increase of tourism in New York City, people stopped yielding to others on the sidewalk, making it more difficult to get where one is going without being stuck in foot traffic or getting bumped. Lebowitz argues that the solution would be for pedestrians to “pretend it’s a city,” asking wayward pedestrians to recall the time when we knew how to walk among strangers on the street and then reenact those behaviors.
Lebowitz could have invoked the great urban thinker Jane Jacobs, who called the remarkable way in which both strangers (and neighbors) on the street interacted with one another in ways that required little communication but seemed choreographed as a kind of “sidewalk ballet” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, pp. 50-54). Jacobs worried about the assault on lively street life threatened by Robert Moses’s plans for highway construction that would have displaced people with automobiles. Jacobs argued that city streets were capable of handling strangers because there was a clear demarcation of public and private space, neighborhood people watching the activity, and lots of activity to watch (Jacobs, p. 35). The pandemic has disrupted this ballet much further, and I worry that we may not even know or remember how to follow Lebowitz’s injunction to “pretend it’s a city,” that is, to engage with one another in that street ballet.
Is there something to recommend “pretend it’s a city” as a moral imperative that would help us live better with one another? I am in no way suggesting that Lebowitz is a moral philosopher, but her call to “pretend it’s a city” woke me from my binge-watching fugue state to reflect on how this can and has worked as an ethical instruction. To do so, we need to think about what a city is—what is it that we would need to pretend if we are to do better?
The idea that the city might provide a normative foundation for ethical thought is not new; arguably the first such effort can be found in Plato’s Republic, where he imagined the origins of the city to help think about the justice of the individual “writ large”. Much more recently Iris Marion Young developed the idea of actual diverse cities as an alternative to what she criticized as a nostalgic, homogenous imaginary community that served as the foundation for communitarian approaches to ethics. In her Justice as the Politics of Difference, she begins the chapter “City Life and Difference” with a quote from Jane Jacobs in which Jacobs argues that the room for tolerance of difference is created “…when streets of great cities have built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together on civilized but essentially dignified and reserved terms” (Jacobs, p. 72; cited in Young, p.226 ).
Young invokes the city as an alternative to the impasse that had emerged in ethical debates in the 1990s, when Michael Sandel and others had engaged in a critique of liberal individualism by returning to ancient Greek understandings of humans as fundamentally social beings. Young argues that the concept of community is both too homogenous and too idealized to serve as a foundation for ethical life in a diverse society. Young posits the city as a better alternative: “A normative ideal of city life must begin with our given experiences of cities, and look there for the virtues of this form of social relations” (Young p. 238).
While I embraced (and still do) Young’s call to think of urban life as providing a normative foundation, I argued (and still believe) that she constructed a false dichotomy between the diverse city of strangers and the homogenous rural community. City life clearly entails more encounters with difference, with others who are strange to us, than we might encounter in a small rural town. But city dwellers are hardly immune to nostalgia, as we bear witness in Lebowitz’s yearning for a lost sidewalk experience. And rural townspeople are hardly cut off from the world, especially in the age of the internet. In the age of globalization, everyone has ample opportunity to connect with others.
Young was very right to worry about the ways that homogenous communities that reenforce members’ views and make difference intolerable are likely to create injustices, but it is hardly the case that only rural peoples face such threats. All types of dwellers—urban, suburban, and rural, are increasingly drawn to virtual communities through the invitation of social media algorithms that place us on endless feeds that give us more of what we already like or with which we already agree (and therefore reenforce sameness (see, e.g., the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma) and we all need to think about whether we are making an effort to connect with others who are different from us. To the extent that cities always have been the places of diversity par excellence, we would do well in both our virtual and real lives to “pretend it’s a city” if becoming moral or just persons demands that we consider and respect Others, including those most different from us.
But do we learn that type of respect if we imagine the city as a place of strangers where our encounters always remain alien and we do not develop closeness, do not engage in community? While communities can be closed, those that thrive do so in the act of transforming encounters with strangers into meaningful relationships. And it is in this transformation that ethical life becomes possible. In her discussion of the sidewalk ballet, Jacobs notes that neighbors encounter one another familiarly outside their homes, but then go to work, “filling the role of strangers on other sidewalks” (Jacobs, p. 51). Part of the ballet of the sidewalk, and of the city writ large, is that city dwellers move between and enact various roles as friends, neighbors, community members, coworkers, and strangers.
The injunction to “pretend it’s a city” then, needs to be an invitation not only to get along better with strangers, but to invite strangers into our communities and to open ourselves to invitations to join theirs. It means taking the risk to invite others into our lives in meaningful ways. Cities are constituted not only by strangers, but by a multiplicity of communities within them. It is through the transformative process of being a stranger to becoming a community member that we learn to be ethical.
While there may be some readers or viewers who engage Lebowitz to learn something about the strange city of New York, I expect that most of her audience shares her love of New York and some familiarity with it. At the very least, she draws an audience who wants an encounter with New York through the perspective of a quintessential New Yorker. Lebowitz makes it clear that she cannot imagine living anywhere else and has some disdain for those who do not have the guts to try to live in New York. While Lebowitz loves to observe strangers on the street, she loves her apartment where she has control over who enters. Much of her humor comes from misanthropic comments about how much she dislikes “her fellow man [sic],” but the criticism is not of humans per se but of the failure of others to attend to the city and to one another. In Pretend it’s a City as well as in her writings, Lebowitz’s anger and dislike of others seems to be grounded in a real interest in ensuring that others get along as civilized strangers. But she shares little wisdom about how strangers become more than that and she does not seem curious (beyond passive observation on the street) about those who are not like her. She notes that she believes that you can only know your contemporaries, but the examples she shares makes it clear that these are contemporaries who share her New York.
Another show might actually provide us with better insight into how to not only pretend it’s a city, but to realize what it means to be a citizen (in the broadest sense of the term). In John Wilson’s HBO docuseries “How To With John Wilson,” filmmaker Wilson roams the city of New York (with occasional forays outside the city) in search of assistance on how to do different things, documenting the experience with his camera. He learns through observation of others and through dialogue with mostly strangers (but also his landlord and neighbor in one episode). And while he invites us to laugh at the truly strange (inviting the audience to think “only in New York would you see X or Y!”), what makes the series much more than a freak show is that we often witness Wilson and those whom he encounters develop authentic relationships, or at least find support in one another.
The first episode recognizes that we need to start by getting along with strangers, and that that involves making small talk. We learn through a series of both successful and unsuccessful encounters what sorts of topics are best in first meetings. For example, we should avoid discussing uncomfortable topics like personal relationship issues or controversial ones like climate change (stick to niceties about the weather!). The philosophical gadfly may not be the best source of wisdom on small talk. The strangest conversation Wilson has is with a philosopher who proceeds to mention climate change, inequality, and weapons of mass destruction in less than thirty seconds.
The remaining five episodes, though, get us beyond strangeness. The second episode explores the very odd phenomena in New York of ubiquitous building scaffolding. Supposed to protect us from the danger of falling debris from buildings, scaffolding presents its own dangers as it shields crimes from witnesses on enclosed sidewalks and itself has been known to collapse. Indeed, I would add scaffolding to Lebowitz’s list as the number one thing that has negatively altered sidewalk life and pedestrian encounters in New York. In Wilson’s conversations with others about scaffolding, we learn not only about how people deal with this new element of street life, but also about the many ways in which we try to protect ourselves from harms in ways that might cost us true connection with others.
Likewise, in the episode “How to Cover Your Furniture” we meet people who keep their furniture covered in plast and how those covers are made, but Wilson also engages in discussions about what is being protected and whether it is worth it. Persons with plastic furniture covers that keep strangers and strange things off their furniture nevertheless invite Wilson into their homes. And they learn from one another. Wilson sums up what he learned in his many conversations on coverings: “I finally felt confident heading into the future with or without a cover. Nature gives things character, and anything that happens to our stuff along the way is evidence of a well-lived life.”
If we let our scaffolds and protections down, we can (and do!) learn many new things and form friends. In two other episodes, the subjects are about how to live better with acquaintances and friends, but Wilson takes some of his lessons from strangers he encounters. In the episode “How to Split a Check,” Wilson explores issues of justice when we dine out with others, and how difficult it is to make everyone feel that the split check calculations were done fairly. He concludes that we need to figure out how to support one another, or we “feel raw and then we’re all cooked.”
In the last episode, “How to Make Risotto,” Wilson documents his many failed attempts to make the perfect risotto to repay his landlady for her many years of friendship and support. In search of a stranger who might help him, he finds a man with an Italian flag hanging on his home, and he takes the risk of inviting Wilson into his kitchen to teach him how to make risotto. After repeated failed attempts to cook a risotto that he thinks is worthy of his landlady, Wilson seeks other adventures to take his mind off it. In this episode and others, Wilson takes a risk to engage with many persons both inside and outside New York who live very differently than he does. While every encounter is respectful, that does not mean that Wilson endorses everyone’s ideas or behavior. But we can still learn from them. For example, when Wilson encounters a young man who loves diesel and has rigged his truck to spew dark smoke from its engine, Wilson comments, “Maybe some people are just comfortable with doing whatever they want without any concern about the effect they have on others.” Overall, though, we learn that many if not most of the strangers Wilson meets do want to help, even if their efforts misfire.
In the end, we witness Wilson’s efforts to learn how to live well by accompanying him on his journey in which he looks closely at his city and reflects on his own efforts to live with others. In words echoed later by Iris Marion Young, Jacobs invites us in the prefacing remarks on illustrations in The Life and Death of Great American Cities, “to please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well listen, linger, and think about what you see.” John Wilson helps us do that even when the danger of a pandemic might keep us from being fully engaged. It is not a substitute, but it can help us think about the way that danger is mitigated not by ignoring or avoiding strangers or strangeness, but by engaging enough strangers that they are no longer all strange. So when we “pretend it’s a city” we need to think about the ways that cities afford us both the opportunity to live well with strangers but also to negotiate difference and build communities with those who had been Others to us.