Posted July 10th, 2016 by Nate Wessel

I’ve heard it said that ours may be the age of the “mega-city.” Cities like Cincinnati, where I came of age, seem to be in an uncomfortable middle zone. With a metro of 2.1 million people, substantially larger I might note than the city of Rome at it’s climax in the first century, Cincinnati is to many a sleepy, provincial town. Yet to me, coming as I did from that homogeneous shmear we Americans all know and love, it was Metropolis.

This is so far a familiar story, and my cliches are already making me a little queasy. Will I be able to avoid them?

To my friends, some of them, Cincinnati was a layover. It’s not that they got there, many of them, gave it a couple years, and then changed their minds, but rather that they came from high school already with the ambition of making it to New York or other big eastern cities. In my program especially, people co-oped half the year in other cities, in Cincinnati only three months at a time for four consecutive years. These people grew attached to other places and got jobs there.

How many dates did I go on with people I knew would be leaving?

As a planner though, and perhaps as one with typically little concern for his own economy, I grew attached, got involved, and made lasting friendships in a place that could ultimately offer me little work.

2.1 million people. If you met one person every five seconds and never slept, it would take more than seven years to meet every Cincinnatian, assuming they all stayed put for a damn second. And I couldn’t find satisfying work that payed more than a stipend. Bigger than Rome and I couldn’t find the work society tells me I deserve.

Having found all my best friends, and even a husband, in Cincinnati, it has now come to pass that everyone that I really care about is living in a different city. Not just not in my city, but each in their own.

Cincinnati, New York, San Fransisco, Denver, and me in Toronto. The closest any of these cities are to another is 550km. Even my family will be split soon as my little sister goes off to college in Boston and my parents retire to who knows where.

How ’bout them cliches? Can this get any more boring? People moving, getting older, life changes, yadda yadda.

But I feel like I need to stop here and just ask: What the hell is going on? That everyone I care about should not only not be in the same general place but scattered utterly across the continent. Is this the modern condition?

Most people of course don’t make it this far. Most aren’t this mobile. Most don’t go to college. Many people live with their families or could walk to their parents’ house if they laced up some comfy shoes. But for me and my peers, the academics with whom I am presently associating, we are the jet-set without the money. Hopping from one gig to the next, and I count a term-limited stipend-salary PhD or masters as a gig, we seem prevented from really setting deep roots anywhere except in our own ambitious media-fed dreams for the future, in Metropolis.

What deeper effect this has, and it always seems wise to wrap up with some musing on the deeper meaning of it all, I can only wonder at. But it seems to me that for the foreseeable future, the West’s non-wealthy elite, the mobile educated, will be rootless and alienated from the spaces they occupy. Renters all their lives, never settling, ever taking the excuse of a conference in who-knows-where for the chance of seeing old friends, neither of you from this place that you’ll occupy only once together and ephemerally at that, those places competing viscously for our indifferent attendance.

The world grows homogeneous, the cities blur together. We are always in metropolis, and yet so far apart.

The time has come that if I wanted to settle down, and selfishly make a home for myself at once, I would have to start by moving to New York or San Fransisco. These places, where I have never lived, hold the most of my friends. Now it’s interesting to note that my partner, of a lower class than me through no fault of his own, which I think is relevant, very much has all of his friends in Cincinnati. Which of us, in the abstract, might be said to have the better life? What are the costs of ambition today? What are the benefits of immobility?

Jeremy Johnson July 27, 2016

Get ready, this is a quickly written, barely thought through, and mostly unedited. But hell, I figured I would give this a few minutes of thought. I suppose we will have to use our telecommunications to unpack all of this further, you have a lot going on in this post!

Obviously you are not alone in the thoughts of mobility. I too have friends (and you) in different cities and countries. Mobility never really means freedom, and the freedom to be mobile is not exclusive to being mobile. Some people root, others don’t. Whether it’s a class thing or not is always hard to say, it could have a lot to do with a sense of community. I think of the isolationist Hobbits here… They actually remind me a lot of where I grew up in Kansas. There are a lot of people types, and location plays a role with all of them. Opportunities for rummaging around this world have grown to near immediate speeds, and its not always about financial ability. I will look at a few different people here that show how much personal proclivities command actions. The one thing they have in common is this topic, other than that though, the application of mobility is dramatically different.

Vacation, travel, relocation, all very different things that involve mobility. Getting away from it all is the opposite of moving to it all. I think often times it’s hard to understand one’s own motives for physically changing locations on the short as well as long term. I think it’s interesting that Americans typically like to vacation, Europeans seem to prefer travel. There is something about culture here that could be explored, but this is just a comment, not a blog… I think that the ability of 1st world nations to move across borders is pretty amazing in the modern era, but it is by no means the only consideration. I think of my current work on the life of Maria Sibylla Merian and her need to move across the ocean to study and discover. This was in the 1600s, and mobility certainly wasn’t easy for a Dutch lady during that time. Luckily, yes… she did come from a higher class, but still had to finance her trip to Suriname by selling off prints to achieve a greater goal. Think of Sir Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent many times more days and years in the field than Sir Charles Darwin. These were two very different people who came to similar conclusions. In this case, however, Darwin was upper class and not interested too much in travel. He preferred to have things sent to him. Wallace, one of Darwin’s suppliers, was very much lower class and lived for it. You remember that famous Voyage of the Beagle? That was Darwin at 22 years old. After that, he never really travelled like that again. We have explorers and discoverers who both make their advancements at home, and others couldn’t even understand the concept of home. Perhaps culture suggested to most during the 19th century that travel and relocation were expected; whether that be a boarding school, or for the well off, a European grand tour before settling down. Perhaps the expectation was more about fulfilling family obligations and taking on the “business.” These cross classes completely. I guess I am wondering if anything has really changed? How does our modern culture affect the subject?

The opportunity to be mobile intoxicates many, many who later find out that they hate it. In the USA I think that this comes down to a “grass is always greener” mentality rather than a “be the change” idea. We have so many young people leave, not because its in their blood, but because they need an idea of freedom and expect a clean slate will provide that. Perhaps they were never really meant to be mobile… because after a time, they hate it. Having failed to reach the moon they end up settling down. I’m thinking of the after school kids here. Unsatisfied with their situations and falling into false promises of their education, they believe in a sort of entitlement. These poor students are easily dragged around the world like a child behind a leashed bear, having no direction but somehow thinking that if they keep hold of the leash, they are still in control somehow. Wait, am I talking about the age of enlightenment or current times… I lost my train of thought. I wonder if there is some sort of correlation between access of communication and distances traveled for opportunity and self-betterment as we move through time?

Communication makes this relocation a bit easier though. While technology allows us to cross the globe with little pocket money, so too it allows a greater connection with people. Though this might not be physical, at least it is mental. The stakes are much less in mobility now. One doesn’t need to commit to a destination’s culture anymore. Nate, you can still be a Cincinnatian, because in some respects you still are, at least until your connections in Toronto tip the scales. Some don’t need that sort of slow development. People who are the most mobile often times make very strong lasting connections in an extremely short amount of time and then migrate elsewhere. The thing that they have going for them is that have the benefit of high mobility, the ability to make human connections quickly, and the dedication to maintain those contacts without concern of proximity. I don’t know many of those people, but I know enough of them to come up with a profile. So, are you a traveler, vacationer, or periodic relocator? It’s interesting that class used to dictate this in a different way that you explore. High class was able to afford staying in one place. Journeymen, artists, craftsmen, and other generally lower class people could never afford that… they moved where the wind took them. Perhaps now we have a bit of a mixing because first world nations are able to do both. I still wonder how the wonderer culture has so infiltrated college kids, because you are right, youth move, and they move a lot. That’s not really a good or bad thing, but I do hope that in the end everyone ends where they think they should by understanding their own gut feeling.