UrbanEssays.org: Anonymity and alienation in the city

Anonymity and alienation in the city


People unfamiliar with city living think that city dwellers never have any privacy, what with all those people around. But actually, it often seems that the opposite is true. The huge mass of people makes each individual person anonymous in the vast sea of humanity.

A great example of urban anonymity is found in the opening scene from the movie Wall Street. Bud Fox is seen standing in a crowded elevator. Everyone is staring in any direction accept at another person. No one makes eye contact. Then the door opens and everyone scrambles out, no one acknowledging anyone else's presence. A wonderful example of anonymity in a crowded space.

The city is the opposite of the small town where everybody knows everybody. In the city, nobody knows anybody. Well, it almost seems that way. Even one's own neighbors are a complete mystery. I live in a building with over three hundred apartments, yet I know not a single one of my neighbors. Even the people living in the apartments adjacent to mine are total strangers.

The city dweller maintains a guarded emotional distance from his neighbors. Maybe this is a result of the physical proximity of so many people? Physical proximity is countered with emotional distance.

This is not to say that city dwellers are unfriendly. People who visit the city are surprised to discover how friendly everyone is after hearing so many bad things about the city. It's not that city dwellers are unfriendly, it's that they avoid attachments and only reluctantly allow new friends into their lives. Friendships rarely form between unconnected strangers. A mutual acquaintance is a prerequisite for the bonding of friendship. And this explains the anonymity of the apartment building. In the city, mere physical proximity doesn't lead to any kind of bonding.

Some sociologists have posed the theory that the anonymity of the city leads to feelings of alienation, of not belonging. This can easily happen to people who come to the city without a preexisting friendship network. The difficulty of forming attachments in the city can be too much for the person who's naturally shy or introverted, leading to alienation and loneliness. Which of course is quite ironic, being lonely where there are so many people around.