Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jane Jacobs II: or the enduring thrill of street life

About a year or so ago, I was exploring the idea of community for what we call--unappetizingly -- a “fast casual” restaurant chain. One of my projects was to figure out the potential role of this chain in the life of the local community. On a survey with a couple thousand respondents, I asked them a half-dozen different ways if they thought the internet had a positive or negative effect on real communities. Was the internet a source of community? A supplement to community? A replacement for community? Death to community?

The results, as I recall, were right up the middle. Half the people thought the internet was good for community; half the respondents thought it was bad. In general the positive and negative evaluations, aligned by age, but not entirely.

Now, a year later, I’m out in the field; this time talking to real-life people about their real-life urban neighborhoods, and finding that—as other studies have shown—the internet has, if anything, enhanced the hunger for real community, at least among city dwellers.

Urbanites are looking for the same things in great neighborhoods they always were: engagement, stimulation, street life, diversity of people and experiences. And they are willing to give up a lot to get it. They live in smaller, louder, less convenient spaces than their suburban counterparts. These inconveniences are, if anything, a point of pride among urbanites, who, characteristically, look down on suburbanites who gave up exciting, cramped, loud urban lives for space, security, homogeny and boredom. One woman who recently moved away from one apartment near a fire station to a new urban neighborhood and said that she missed the sirens.

What else do they love. The same things urbanites have been loving for hundreds of years: the local coffee shops and bars, music venues, art galleries, the dry cleaner that knows their name, and just watching the great mass of humanity pass by. Which isn’t to say that the rise of internet communities haven’t impacted some key dimensions of urban life (in the local coffee shop, the mac laptops were scattered liberally), but it certainly hasn’t replaced the core pleasures of life in teh city.

The one thing urbanites wished they had in their apartment building that they didn’t have now: a door-man or concierge who could accept deliveries! As much as they loved chatting with the local dry cleaner, they all did a lot of online shopping and they needed some to receive their packages when they were at work. They wouldn’t mind a Target nearby either.

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