A Community of Strangers

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A thought creeps into my head as I wander down the street, just, it seems, to nag at me a little. I weave in and out on the busy sidewalk, side-stepping a woman who’s just stopped to browse at a window display and wonder how it is that we can all possibly live here together in the city.

What keeps this whole show from coming to a crashing halt? Just then, a familiar face holds out his cap and asks for some spare change.

Waves of people, anonymous and unknown, streaming by us, standing next to us in line, simply sharing the same space with us. This is the urban condition. A cacophony of disconnected and seemingly random voices and noises, sounds and smells subsume us in a world of the unknown. In the city, day and night melt together, winter and summer merge seamlessly with the quiet turning of a door handle. The city is confusing and senseless. Life in the city, it seems, is always in flux, always moving, awake and changing. It has no beginning nor end, no start or finish, no yesterday or tomorrow, there is just now, just today. It is the negation of time, of season, of continuity.

A dreary morning has given way to a sleepy sun that could barely lift itself above the roof of the apartment across the street and now seems content to nod off again casting long fall shadows.

I slow up. Something smells good. Glancing across the street a line up has already started forming outside a popular restaurant around the corner. Just before dark, right on cue.

We often think of neighbourhoods as places, as the streets and parks and buildings that surround us everyday. We think of buildings and roads and crowded buses. These are the things that stay the same, that give us that connection between what happened yesterday and what’s happening now. They are the bricks and mortar, the timeless, unchanging glass and steel that keeps time from running amok and immersing us forever in the unintelligible chaos of the city street. These are the things we know to be true.

The physical infrastructure of our built environments is critical in the linear progression of our lives, as the glue, the watch face upon which the seconds can be counted away, the backdrop in front of which we play out the days games. Without this certainty, city live would be impossible.

But look a little closer. Our neighbourhoods are filled with people, with a lot of people, most of whom are not known to us. The canvas onto which is painted our daily lives is more than simply the physical space we occupy.

The city is filled with strangers. All around us a thousand bit players, hundreds of extras, unaware that they are all playing roles in each others lives. We are all strangers here. Even those we think we know, the guy at the bakery or your favourite barista, those people that we always come across during the course of our day, are time markers, props in the elaborate construction of meaning we engage in daily.

It is these people who render our experiences legible, who give form to the formlessness of the city as we navigate our way through our days. We are all strangers here, and yet we are not alone.

These strangers are part of the city, elements of the architecture, accessories in our daily routine of feeding and entertaining ourselves. And yet it is these people that we rely on to give the places we live, shop, and work some predictability, some feeling of security, of home.

These are the people we enter into a thousand tiny, often unnoticeable relationships with in each and every encounter. It is these people with which we constantly create the links, however informal, that stand at the core of urban living.

We are able to live in the places we do because we have some certainty, some continuity to the ebb and flow, the comings and goings and seeming chaos of the city. It is not necessarily that the physical space in which we live stays the same, is predictable, and feels like home. While this is surely important, it is the fact that the same people are in the same place everyday. Place is far more than the space it occupies, it is the people and indeed, the relationships that remain there, day in and day out.

I work my way down the crowded sidewalk and burst into the warm, steamy confines of the local burger shack. I ponder my order, but I always get the same thing so the pause is noticeable to only the keenest of observers.

Order placed, the cashier asks uncommittedly, “Name.” More of a statement than anything else. “Andrew!” I look around shocked, and a little worried. “That’s it, isn’t it?” The other girl behind the counter asks above the slow din of the place. “Yeah,” I look up smiling, “that’s it.”

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