Alone, together: What it means to inhabit The Lonely City
Revisiting Olivia Laing’s ode to urban isolation in a time of social distancing
May 15, 2020
By Annie Howard
I first stumbled upon the book The Lonely City by Olivia Laing in the basement of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. Months out from graduating college and lacking any sense of forward momentum, it seemed well-suited to my forlorn wanderings, as the empty city in front of me reflected back my own uncertain future.
The Lonely City is a unique book, blending elements of art history, memoir, and psychology to unravel the complexities of loneliness in urban space. Its interest to planners may not immediately jump off the page, given its emphasis on artworks and the emotional experience of cities. Still, Laing raises a number of challenging questions about what cities look like today, and the ways in which forces like gentrification are making it harder to find space in cities that’s meaningfully inhabitable by diverse populations of residents. Particularly as we continue to ponder what it will look like to return to livelier versions of urban spaces in the coming months, and the necessity of remaining socially distant even when we begin to reopen public space, it’s valuable to think through the social ramifications that urban planners will be designing for to make urban space livable under quarantine conditions, from the expansion of car-free areas to an increase in outdoor-seating restaurants.
“You can be lonely anywhere,” Laing suggests, “but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.” Sharing physical space is now a fraught experience. Urban space has lost its essential role, as the site where we come into contact, voluntarily and involuntarily, with others. Instead it heightens our separation even more profoundly. Today, the lonely city is everywhere, its empty boulevards and bistros, nightclubs and neighborhoods the very same we now struggle to occupy.
Loneliness is tricky. Its inherent nature makes it difficult to explore communally, and despite its widespread appearance in our emotional lives, it took psychologists until the mid-20th century to explore its effects in detail. Moreover, loneliness feeds upon itself, a feeling that’s crept into my life over the last few weeks. “If it’s difficult to respond to people in this state, it is harder still to reach out from it,” Laing says—and she’s right: in so many conversations with friends I’ve had recently, it’s those uncertain moments that linger before admitting our shared loneliness that are most difficult. Together, we each face a desire to break down barriers growing within us, pushing up against the fear of not being able to say anything at all.
To better understand the experience of loneliness, Laing turns to the work of artists, whose personal and artistic journeys through isolation are a window into these difficult feelings. Through Edward Hopper, she finds worlds “populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress.” In the last essay written by David Wojnarowicz, the influential gay artist and activist who passed away from AIDS at age 36 in 1992, he wrote, “I feel like a window, maybe a broken window…I am a glass human disappearing in the rain.” In these figures, Laing finds lonely souls that manage to conjure something of the essence of isolation for the rest of us, expressions that Laing frequently describes as liberating in the moments in which she felt most isolated while researching the book, offering solidarity in solitude.
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In rereading the book in the last few weeks, I’ve found similar comfort in the reminder that there is something valuable to be found in isolation, that an experience so fundamental to modern life cannot be wholly negative, taxing as it can be over ever-growing durations. I’ve tried to hold this feeling in place as I plug into my iPod for yet another solo walk, so uncertain when I’ll be able to see friends or grab a drink at Simon’s, my neighborhood dive bar. Still, for as much as loneliness has come for us all at once in the pandemic, I appreciate Laing’s observation that isolation is hardly an equal-opportunity emotional burden: most of the time, its effects are often “a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.”
When the time to return to the wider social world, inhabited by the physical presence of those who are regularly disregarded in normal life, will we become more compassionate to their loneliness? Can we acknowledge the emotional and physical toll that comes from living without secure housing, with addiction, with mental illness? Seeking obvious answers for how to live in the lonely city, Laing demurs: “As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse or obligations to each another.”
Though these questions may not have immediate bearing on the work and skills of urban planners and architects, it’s worth considering the ways in which the longer-term forces of gentrification have created spaces less capable of holding difference within them. Laing cites Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind, which describes the consequences of AIDS in the gentrification of New York and the transformation of neighborhoods that once held space for people from many backgrounds. Schulman argues that we’ve lost complex urban social spaces as a consequence of redevelopment, pushing away vulnerable people and replacing them with more homogenous and less inclusive populations. Even as gentrification erases difference and dissonance in urban space, Schulman argues for their necessity to city life, as she states, “Feeling comfortable cannot be the determining factor in my actions.”
It’s an edifying claim, and takes on new meaning in a post-covid world: so many of the daily activities we once took for granted have become unthinkable, and expecting the world to return to a place in which they return is unlikely anytime soon. While we mourn the loss of essential urban spaces like crowded nightclubs or day games at Wrigley Field, there’s also a profound significance in accepting that these absences, however comforting their eventual return will be, are essential for the moment. There’s a discomfort in the lost routine of summer street festivals and crowded beaches, but it’s a necessary price to pay knowing the consequences of returning too quickly to these old habits.
In a moment of heightened uncertainty, a craving for certainty and a fear of vulnerability has left many people in a constant state of anxiety about their surroundings, pushing us ever further apart, the same fight-or-flight mechanisms that only heighten loneliness. As we pick up the pieces in the months and years to come, it will be cities—places meant to foster communion, to offer unexpected bridges across familiar dividing lines—that must serve as the terrain in which we become ourselves again. I know that I need the city in all its busyness to feel most myself: today, there’s little I miss more than the everyday spaces of urban social life, the endless hours spent on the bus or walking through dense crowds that were all too easy to take for granted before everything changed. For now, the lonely city is overpopulated, abruptly crowded with millions who might otherwise only visit as tourists; as we plan our departure, the challenge of reintegration, and our ability to bring back those who might otherwise be left behind, will be acute.