Privacy and Solidarity in New York City

I consider myself a pretty private person. New York City is not a private place. We hear each other through walls, see each other’s bedrooms across airshaft windows, and dodge each other on city streets. And yet, this total lack of privacy inverts itself, and turns New York into one of the most private places I can imagine. It’s a New Yorker’s rite of passage to cry on the subway, embarrass themselves in public, or get into a loud argument on a busy street corner. In a city with so much density, and people, and events, and news, and noise, and stimuli, almost no individual actions end up being notable or remembered. It’s ultimately much easier to find a needle in a haystack than a needle in a pile of needles.

Given that this anonymity and privacy comes from what seems like complete human-to-human indifference, it’s easy to assume that New York is a cold uncaring place. We are, after all, the home of the Kitty Genovese murder, in which dozens of New Yorkers heard a woman get murdered  and did close to nothing. This incident led to the creation of the bystander effect theory, and has done no favors to New York’s reputation. New York gets an unfairly bad rap here. These notable failings are outweighed by the solidarity and kindness New Yorkers display to each other on an every day basis. The true measure of this is not the outliers, the Kitty Genoveses and subway saviors that hit the news, but the margins. It is the small actions, taken every day by millions of New Yorkers, that make New York what it is.

When people ask me about living in New York, there’s one story I always tell. I’m walking back home from a deli, with a brown paper bag full of beer, when it starts to pour. The bag gets soaked. Between the sogginess and the weight of the cans, it splits open, sending tall boys careening in all directions on the Tenth Avenue sidewalk. Before I know it, a reusable bag is pressed into my hand, the cans are brought back and packed, and I’m quickly on my way. Four total strangers, with no hesitation, obligation, or words, coming together to make my life a little easier. A NASCAR pit crew could not have done it better. That is solidarity. That is New York.