October 23, 2008

What Makes a City a City?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

What defines a city? How do you know if you are in one? The definition of a city is rather vague, like a population center of significant size. The U.S. Census Bureau defines a metropolitan area as having at least 50,000 residents. But it takes more than numbers of people to create what a city is all about.clip_image002[5]

I had the opportunity to explore part of the city I live in recently. One day this summer, I took the bus from my office to my home. The trip is usually eighteen miles and 30-45 minutes by car; by bus the journey was 24 miles and took about two hours. Yes, it took much longer than normal and will not become part of my routine, but the ride taught me a lot about what it means to live in a city.

My trip began at about eleven am on a Tuesday. There is a bus stop right outside the building where I work, but a coworker who rides the bus said to walk one block north to catch the express—“trust me, it’s worth it,” she said.

I took her advice and let two local buses pass, wondering how long I should wait for the coveted express. As I stood outside in the summer sun on the sidewalk I felt vulnerable, both to sunburn and to passersby. My recourse was to read the newspaper in the shade and avoid making eye contact. Soon others gathered and I was surrounded by a variety of people: a man in a suit, boys in t-shirts, and an elderly woman. I grew impatient, now understanding why when I drive down that same busy street I often see people step off the curb and walk into the street looking into the clip_image002[11]distance to see if their bus is approaching.

The express bus soon arrived. While everyone else quickly boarded after flashing a bus pass, I held up the line by sticking my dollar in the machine. Even though it was midday, the bus was nearly full. After a few stops it was standing room only; mothers with children, men alone, and a pair of elderly women apparently just done with a shopping trip. Another woman wore a collared shirt bearing the logo of an upscale grocery chain and was likely on her way to work there.

The signs on the buildings changed from an English-Spanish mix to Korean and Thai as we moved north on Vermont Avenue. We closed in on the hills, once far in the distance, and the Griffith Park Observatory grew larger in the window. I paid close attention to the street names, which I recognized from traversing them in other parts of town but didn’t know on sight in the part of town we were in. Sunset Boulevard was my stop, and I reached to pull the chord to signal the driver, hesitating and hoping that someone more experienced on the bus would do it first. It made no sound, and the woman next to me told me, “don’t worry, this bus always stops there.”

She was right; nearly everyone got off. Sunset and Vermont is the site of a large hospital and light rail station. My next bus was waiting for me there too. The next leg of my ride was the longest, but after a few miles it was also going to be a more familiar route. 

The starting point was completely unfamiliar. I hadn’t been to the east end of Hollywood in more than fifteen years, when it was pretty seedy and carried an air of danger. But that day, at what was by then 11:30, it was lively with activity. People came in and out of new office buildings and shops, and once shuttered buildings had construction cranes over them.

It reminded me of what author Jane Jacobs called “street ballet”; a natural choreography that emerges when cities are vibrant and alive. Although not trained as a sociologist, Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a seminal work within urban studies. She was active in her New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village when city planners threatened to bulldoze blocks to make way for a freeway that was supposed to traverse Manhattan. Jacobs argued that modest blocks, with what might seem like ramshackle buildings are not urban blight, but that the many residents, merchants, and shoppers coalesce to actually create cities. Taking away these everyday moments, like the one I observed would not just alter city life but in effect destroy it.clip_image002[9]

I confess that I am usually part of what Jacobs most feared: commuting alone in my car, separate from the city and its many ballets of daily life. Riding along Sunset Boulevard brought be back into it: the seemingly effortless choreography of cyclists attaching their bicycles to the bus’s bike rack before boarding the bus, all showing their bus passes one by one at a steady pace, somehow matching traffic perfectly.

clip_image002[7]When I’m in other cities with subways I like to use them as much as possible. Not only is it usually faster, cheaper, and environmentally friendly, but you get to witness the ebb and flow of the daily life of its everyday inhabitants. Buses are slower, especially at rush hour, but my bus trip was filled with views of street life unique to Los Angeles: a couple of film production studios, the CNN building, the Sunset Strip (including a stop in front of The Roxy , the club where music legends were born), world famous comedy clubs, and new shopping plazas where people shop and lunch in order to be seen.

In contrast to the “everyone-for-themselves” mentality on the freeways, people on the bus were very courteous, going out of their way to help a woman in a wheelchair on or giving up their seats for elderly passengers. The bus helps create what Emile Durkheim called social solidarity, a sense of connection that creates ties and reduces the sense of disconnection people so often experience in cities. 

When I finally got to my stop and got off the bus, I felt disconnected from the people around me again. Maybe if people in cities took the bus once and a while they would feel more a part of their communities, more of a sense of common purpose. Cities, after all, are created by the people in them, not by their boundaries or buildings.


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That's a cool perspective on city life today. It kind of goes to show that just becasue you live in a big city and are surrounded by tons of people doesn't necessarily mean you know a lot about what's going on through out the city or people. I've always lived in small towns so I'm not familiar with city life, but it sounds crazy!

I really enjoyed this post. I've always wondered what it would be like to live in a big city and be around that many people; I honestly thought I would not be able to handle all of the crazy crowds. It's interesting to hear a story on how such a large city can be made into a smaller community

This is an amazing story. I never would have guessed that such a moment could happen in the middle of a city, let alone Los Angeles! If in your situation, I would have been just as skeptical about waiting for the bus or pulling that cord, hoping for the vehicle to stop. I always thought of cities as disconnected, filled with too many "faces in the crowd" to remember. I'm glad that there is at least one place where connections can be made, even if only for a moment.

This is such an interesting perspective on the city life. Though I've never taken a subway before, I vow to do so as soon as I get the chance. From a sociology course that I'm taking, I've learned that a city must be made up of 2,500 people to be considered a city. I know that Los Angelos has tons more people than this, but it's great to understand that there is still a sense of community. Even if it exists on the buses or subways, we need to be aware of maintaining social solidarity in all areas of the world. Your story has inspired me to view cities in a more positive light.

I really enjoyed reading your experience taking the bus throughout Los Angeles. I've been there once, but didn't get the experience like you did. I agree with you that the people in the city make the city what it is, and not their buildings.

I enjoyed reading about your bus adventure. I live in a small town and I'm pretty much just a country girl because I have never been on a bus. I'm pretty sure I would have been afraid waiting for the bus and pulling the cord. It's amazing how for a moment everyone would in a way connect especially in a big city.

This story was very impressed. When I chose this article at first, I thought this article wrote about how cities are formed. Moreover, I thought I could learn how this city I live. However, author wrote a story of internal. I really agree with author’s opinion. When I was lived in Busan, South Korea, I didn’t have a car and I was young. I usually took buses and a subway, so I didn’t know isolation from community. The reason is that I already existed with other people and community. I heard lots of things from other people and saw lots of things how city changed. However, after I come to the United States, I didn’t take a public transportation gradually. That means I got away from the community where I live. I couldn’t listen news of citizens and see a city that how keeps work and change. I realized I make isolate me by myself.

That was a great example of social solidarity. It was a wonderful perception of your feelings growing toward the city. Just by riding the bus you felt a closer connection that is usually lost to most people. It has really changed now and that social solidarity isn't found that often. I'm glad that you recognized that, and I wish more people would enjoy that feeling of community that is shortly shrinking.

I was interested in reading about your ride on the bus in LA. I liked how you said people would be more part of their city if they took the bus. I think that's true because that's a good enviornment to get a variety of people that live in your community. It's amazing how doing a simple thing, like taking a bus somewhere can make you feel more connected to your enviornment and the people in it.

It was interesting to read about your ride on the bus in LA. I think being apart of a city shows one the true diversity among the world. It's amazing how doing a simple thing, like taking a bus somewhere can make one feel more connected to the environment. I come from a small town, where not much diversity takes place, so this story was interesting for me to hear!

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