September 17, 2016

The Lonely City

I had a dream last night in which I was walking through this city, but in my dream, the city was empty. In my dream, there were no people, no traffic, no conversation. The streets were deserted, the city, quiet.

I was alone; I was not, however, lonely.

Loneliness is something that is acute in cities. This truth, as explored in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, is perhaps explained by the idea of being surrounded by people but yet being alone. Isolation is more piercing when we feel disconnected, knowing that connection and community are in front of your face, yet so far away.

I rarely feel lonely these days, even when I am alone. The cold edifice of the urban landscape feels warm to me, but I know my experience is unusual. Ms. Laing’s experience is perhaps more typical: the columns of the city act as metaphorical dividers. This urban solitude has been reflected in art and media for generations. 

The Lonely City is part memoir, part exploration of the art that loneliness inspires; it is a reminder that proximity does not equal connection, that density can cause isolation. It is a reminder that the city, even when completely deserted in our dreams, builds walls between us. Overcoming these literal and figurative walls is the challenge of our urban life.

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