The word civilization is related to “civitas,” the Latin word for city. It’s one of the few things I remember from 7th grade Latin, that and my grade point average – hovering somewhere in the mid-sixties. Flunking out territory.
But lately it seems to me that the country, rural America, has wrested the mantle of civilization from our urban areas. That is if one of the definitions of civilized is the grace, the ease, the comfort with which you can go about living your life.
One small, personal example: I opened a specialized bank account upstate in a matter of minutes after a couple of banks in the city were flummoxed by the request. As the city bankers acknowledged, it was a crapshoot depending upon who picked up the phone in their compliance department.
Upstate the compliance department was the bank manager who signed off on the account immediately.
Renewing a passport in the city, or anything involving government at any level, can be a byzantine process that usually requires standing on long lines, occasionally to be sent home empty-handed.
Upstate I simply head to the City of Hudson clerk’s office. No line and my passport arrives by mail a few weeks later. Ditto anything having to do with my car, such as renewing my license, getting replacement plates, etc.
I realize such small advantages aren’t what’s typically thought of as the quintessence of civilization, at least as Plato or Aristotle may have envisioned it. Yet they are, if civility is inextricable from practical everyday experience.
I still love the city. The people watching beats anything I can see from my porch in the country. As much as I enjoy deer and birds, and even find the antics of chipmunks amusing, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as walking through midtown and seeing fifty thousand new people.
When one thinks of the benefits of urban living the arts – museums, Broadway, whatever; as well as shopping and good restaurants immediately come to mind.
But what really lends a city its vitality, its greatness is the almost unconscious cross-pollination among people of wildly different backgrounds – races, religions, ethnic groups, income brackets. In that regard, not just the sidewalks but also the subway, yes the subway, is an asset and a great equalizer.
In fact, that experience has become even more precious as the divide between the have-it-alls and the have-nots becomes ever more egregious. Rents are so high that young people can’t gain a foothold. And storefronts remain empty because of the hubris of landlords holding out for higher rents and competition from online shopping that drives bricks and mortar stores out of business.
There is admittedly much to be said for having a pharmacy, dry cleaner, pizza parlor and picture framer all on the same block. But again, is that what Plato or – pick your favorite thinker – had in mind when he or she conceived of civilization?
Nature and civilization are commonly thought of as opposites but nature, at least in climates that remain temperate, is increasingly becoming a shining beacon of civility in an age when the opportunity occasionally to block out the relentless pressures of technological society is ever more precious.
Being able to connect with something greater than yourself – whether through a walk in the woods, the mountains, or by the sea has become a luxury in a world that seems pressing in on us, and eavesdropping on us, at all moments.
The archetypical New Yorker these days is a young man, a wannabe mogul, rasping into his cellphone, trying to do a deal, with the rest of us listening in. It’s not a pretty picture.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times reports a “brain gain” from cities to rural areas. It makes sense. With the Internet, if your job affords it, you can work from home. You can also shop for the essentials and non-essentials; even though I remain convinced nothing matches the gratification of visiting a real store and pawing the merchandize.
A recent Gallup poll found that 39% of people want to live in the country or a small town compared to 12% in a big city.
There are various, practical reasons for the migration to rural America, among them more affordable housing. But so are trees, flowers, the changing seasons. Even chipmunks have a way of orienting you, contributing to your sense of peace and well-being. In other words: to civilizing you.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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