Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Urban Streets Provide Setting for Human Kindness

Several years ago, my wife and I took my mother to San Francisco for a post-Christmas outing.  We had an uneventful evening of shopping and dining near Union Square.  At least, it was uneventful until we tried to return to the car for the drive home.

Crossing Powell Street, my mother tripped over a cable car track and fell in the middle of the street, cutting her forehead.  Several passersby helped us get her onto her feet and to a bench in the square.

Then came the moment that stays with me.  A woman who seemed homeless or close to it approached us with an unopened bag of new tube socks.  If she truly was living on the streets, the socks may have been crucial to her wintertime wellbeing.  And yet she offered to give us a pair of socks to help staunch the bleeding.  We found something else to apply to the wound, so declined her offer.  But the selfless kindness of her offer remains fresh in my mind.

Nor was that my only brush with urban compassion that year.  A few months earlier, I’d been in New York City with a group of friends.  One evening, returning from a late ballgame, we noted a woman in front of us, trying to cross a street.  She was elderly and in ill health.  Her ability to reach the curb safely seemed uncertain.  A couple near us, perhaps on a date, noted her difficulty and stepped to either side of her, helping her complete the street crossing.

On the far curb, the couple continued on their way, but one of my traveling companions checked with the woman to ensure that she could continue safely.  Only after confirming that the front door of her apartment building was a few feet away did my friend rejoin us.

Whenever I write about human behavior in the city, a regular reader reminds me that he had closer relationships with his neighbors when he lived in a rural setting than now when he lives in a walkable setting.  I’ll stipulate that there are decent people living everywhere, downtown, in the suburbs, and in the countryside.

But there is something special about the kindness that appears in cities at times of need.  On city sidewalks, on crowded subway cars, or in the elevators of large buildings, we often avoid eye contact to preserve a sense of privacy.  But when an emergency occurs, our common humanity asserts itself and we quickly offer aid, even if that aid comes with personal inconvenience or even risk.

Cities provide a unique setting to showcase the innate goodness of most people.

 Writing in Atlantic Cities, Sarah Goodyear relates another story of a city dwellers responding well during an emergency.  In this case, the incident was a mentally-ill man stabbing strangers in a park.  Before the police could arrive, one passerby had subdued the attacker, others had aided the victims, and still another was caring for a dog whose owner had been wounded.

Goodyear also notes that Jane Jacobs, writing over a half-century ago, had described a similar incident in the New York City of her time.  One more time, strangers had offered aid in time of need.   As Goodyear writes about Jacobs, “When scary things happen, we tend to focus on what has gone wrong.  One of the things that made Jacobs such a genius observer of the social milieu was her ability to see what is going right.”

The next time someone complains that cities are filled with evil-doers, please remind him that there are far more people willing to rise to the occasion and to perform with a high level of decency.  As Jacobs observed, much is going right.

And about my mother?  We got her to an emergency where she was stitched up.  She was good as new within a couple of weeks.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Your theme here seems to express itself especially clearly in walkable urban settings. Yes, one time as I sat on the side of small road in Iowa, cogitating on the two flat tires on my gear-laden bicycle, a farmer came down a side road and wordlessly assisted me in getting my bicycle in the back of his pickup for a ride to town and help. Here in Petaluma, while commingling safely on my bike with motor vehicles can be challenging, I am frequently accorded small kindnesses, such as waiting motorists backing up to clear a passageway for me to proceed while they wait to access the street.

    And one afternoon I left my bicycle at the Water Street side of the pedestrian bridge to Dempsey's to help a man with a disability push his stalled wheelchair over the hump. I learned that his chair had become too discharged to get him home, about another mile. With my bike unattended on the other side of the bridge and a pressing engagement, I was at a loss for how to assure the gentleman's wellbeing. Suddenly two diners from Dempsey's took an interest and interrupted their meal to attend to the situation. In two minutes the man was on his way inside to finish lunch with the couple, who then made he sure he got home safely. We may not have streetcars in 21st century Petaluma, but as with other locales, we certainly do have the spirit of Blanche DuBois' kindness of strangers.

    1. Barry, thanks for the comment and for the fine examples of rural and urban kindness to strangers. The two may take slightly different forms, but both exist.

  2. Glad your mother is safe, but I think there's a deeper something here about the relative isolation and interactions that we get in urban and rural settings.

    I grew up five miles from "town", East Chatham New York, which at the time consisted of Slattery's General Store, a bar, a gas station/mechanic, and a post office. The post-mistress once correctly delivered a letter to "Mom, 12060" by reading the postmark and knowing that there was only one person with a child in the area of the postmark in the Rural Delivery area.

    We had the weekend home of a NYC couple across the street from us, and then it was a quarter mile down the dirt road either way to our neighbor's, but we knew them. When there was an arsonist torching barns, we helped lay out hoses and do patrols on the days around the full moon. When SIDS hit my younger sister, neighbors from the square mile or more around us dropped by with food and support.

    Then in my adult life I lived in fairly dense areas, knowing few of my neighbors, 'til I moved out to Lagunitas. Once again I discovered that rich sense of not just disaster preparedness, but discussions on the street that led to book sharing, pulling together to do road maintenance, tool sharing, even the "it's 7 miles to town and dinner's in 30 minutes, can I borrow a cup of flour?". There were several "neighborhood" parties a year, some of them impromptu, and everybody knew the names of most people on the loop road.

    Now I'm back in Petaluma, and it's been a long slow haul to try to build that same sense of community in our much denser neighborhood. We've introduced across the street neighbors to each other. We've been the sole instigators of neighborhood parties. I'm finally getting people to drop by the shop when I'm working in it, but there's a sense of alone-ness that seems peculiar to dense living.

    I'm glad to hear that you and Barry are finding these nuggets in this space, I know I'm constantly looking for them and trying to create them, but I'd love to find people who've explored the sociology that in my experiences seems to make communities stronger in less dense areas.

    1. Dan, thanks for writing. We're writing about different things. My blog post was about the willingness of strangers to do well by other strangers in time of stress. You're talking about community bonds between neighbors. Both are legitimate subjects of discussion, but they are different.

      Regarding the latter, which you addressed, I'll stand by the comments that I've previously made to you. I think neighborhood bonds exist in a city, but they look differently than they do in the country. And the difference exists because people are trying to protect their privacy. They're willing to be part of a community, but they don't want to chat every time they wheel out their garbage cans at the same time.

      Let me offer an example from our neighborhood. Like you and your wife, my wife and I are the neighborhood party-givers. Every Christmas Eve, everyone assembles at our house and has a fine time. As they leave, they promise to have us over in the coming year. It rarely happens. Some don't even wave when they drive by.

      But twice this past year, we had household emergencies, one regarding a pet and one regarding a telephone, while I was away. For health reasons, my wife had limited capacity to deal with either situation.

      The first time, a neighbor, who is also a cousin, dropped everything she was doing to take the dog to the vet and sat with my wife while the dog was put to sleep.

      The second time, a different neighbor set aside his weekend chores to take my wife to the mobile phone store, where he spend more than an hour reviewing the options under my wife's contract. He then called me, so I could make a decision.

      I wouldn't mind being invited over for dinner a little more frequently, but wouldn't trade that for the safety net that the neighborhood is providing.

    2. Yes. I too value the response in household emergencies far more than the neighbors over for dinner, but I do think they're somewhat interrelated, or on a continuum, and I've found that sense of stepping in when there's something to be done, and feeling like we can ask, to be much stronger in rural settings.

      That said, we have finally gotten to the point where people drop by the workshop and say "hi" while their kids build cars out of wood scraps, and a neighbor did ask for some help on some interior detailing woodwork the other day, so... baby steps.

    3. Dan, I'll suggest that we never know the extent to which our neighbors will rally to our aid until we truly need that aid.

      I'm pleased that you're beginning to build a rapport with your neighbors. A little catalytic action is always good.