It’s approaching summer, and with the increase of humidity, sweat, bugs, and garbage smells comes the possibility of moving. Almost everyone I know is on some sort of lease that follows the school year, and moving often happens either in May or August. There is a unique phenomenon to living in New York City that I have not seen in other places – people put up with often appallingly small spaces and subpar living conditions that wouldn’t exist elsewhere. I had a friend who lived in on the fifth floor of a walk up where the bathroom had no sink (“that’s fine, we just wash our hands in the kitchen!”) and another who lives in near-warehouse-conditions (or as realtors put it, “charming exposed brickwall”) and has a living room that doubles as a painting studio.
There is also another phenomenon, which may not be unique to NYC but is certainy ubiquitous: living alone. I am going to count ‘living with roommates’ as living alone, because who really has the money to truly live alone? And often people move in together remain complete strangers, as passing ships in the night.
This has been my thought process recently, especially with the purchase of a book at a conference in Boston. In “Going Solo: The Surprising Appeal of Living Alone” by Eric Klinenberg, the author attempts to address the question of this relatively new trend of living alone. I approached the book expecting him to explain the effects of individual living through analysis of demographics, culture, or urban planning. This he did in one chapter. I felt like it didn’t speak enough to my own experience of living alone (which I have done since I was 18). Instead, he defined living alone as truly living alone. Roommates didn’t count, according to him and Helen Gurley Brown, the founder of Cosmo and someone he quotes frequently in one chapter. I would argue that this does count, since it is still a form of independent living that requires a level of emotional and financial detachment, as opposed to living with family or a significant other. And anyway, we (including the author!) are talking about New York, where a crappy studio apartment will set you back $1200 a month.
Klinenberg then delves into two troubled worlds of solo living. The first is SROs, or Single Room Occupancies, which are a little talked about form of individualized living in New York for men suffering from drug addiction and homelessness. The second is the world of elderly people who live alone, often without the support of their families. It is easy to forget that there are so many layers of existence in this city, people who run parallel lives and are almost guaranteed to have no contact. It’s almost as if this is truly what the author wants to write about – the thesis and title of the book excludes these two forms of solo living, and seems to point towards his superficial reading of the rise of ‘trendy’ individual living, the Cosmos, the Sex and the City, the ‘working girl’ trope. He treats these as an intriguing shift in demographics and not much more. There is even a hint that for the author, living alone is a transition, rather than a permanent stage or end goal. I would have liked to see him investigate more into the effects that these individuals have had on the development of cities and urban planning, and perhaps how these individuals have further marginalized the world of SROs and elderly solos.
What does it mean to live alone? I’m sure that everyone who reads this has or will live alone sometime in their life. Can we really theorize something that we are so emotionally invested in? Is it possible to look at solo living with an unbiased and uncritical eye? This is something that Klinenberg has tried to do, and although it is an interesting read, it lacks courage to truly address the attachment that our society has to cohabitation.