In the coming months, we’ll be running a series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries. Each week, our writers will focus on a trend that is meaningful to them, sharing anecdotes, opinions, and real-world illustrations of urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Urban Fatigue.
I’ve lived in New York City for eight years now—six weeks in a dorm on the Upper West Side, five months in a friend’s house in Riverdale, and seven and a half years in a series of Brooklyn apartments. Much of the time, I find the New York lifestyle invigorating. The lights, the crowds, the noise—they can make you feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself, something vital and important and exciting.
But, of course, New York is exhausting, too—both on a daily basis and, I’m starting to realize, cumulatively as well. I would have guessed that, over time, I would become less sensitive to many of the hassles of big-city living. In fact, the opposite has been true. I no longer have the patience I once had for long lines at the movies (or the grocery store); I no longer find New Yorkers’ famously brusque attitude charming. All of the inevitable minor difficulties of urban life have started to add up to a constant low-grade disgruntlement. Nowadays I get stuck in a crowded subway car and my first thought is, Why do I live like this?
This is urban fatigue, and perhaps it’s inevitable. A handful of studies have found that city living can be a drag on humans’ mental and emotional resources. In 2011, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that, in city dwellers, the part of the brain that regulates emotion and anxiety becomes overactive during stressful events. A 2010 study found that urbanites have an increased risk of anxiety and mood disorders. In 2003, Japanese researchers concluded that teenage students in Tokyo had a higher “feeling of physical disintegration” than students in a rural area.
Anecdotal evidence of urban fatigue is even easier to find. I recently published a book about artists’ daily routines and working habits, and I was struck by how many of my subjects needed to escape the city to be creative. Gustav Mahler composed many of his greatest symphonies on his summer vacations away from Vienna. Joan Miró returned to a farmhouse near the Spanish coast nearly every summer to recharge his creative energies. Gertrude Stein, Herman Melville, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe—all of these artists and many more did their best work when they stepped away from urban life.
I find these examples even more discouraging than the scientific studies. One of the reasons I moved to New York in the first place was to be in a great cultural capital and somehow join the city’s creative force. Now I wonder if doing prolonged creative work is better achieved by getting away from the city and its incessant demands on your energy and attention—if, as Joan Didion once wrote, “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.”
As it happens, Didion left New York after eight years, and there is a good chance that I may do the same thing. My wife and I have been seriously contemplating a move to someplace quieter and more affordable, someplace where the pace is slower, the people are friendlier, and the overall tenor of life is not quite so desperate. That’s right: we’re thinking about moving to Los Angeles.
. . .
Photo: Jim Pickerell, via the National Archives