ANYONE WHO has ever had a dog and a skunk on her property at the same time, loaded hay into a loft in July, or contemplated the best way to catch a horse that just took off through the woods knows that rural life has its challenges. While cities provide their own complications, it’s time to set the record straight.
Our cultural imagination has us thinking the country life is the good and simple life. But it’s hardly the only simple life. The city has vast potential to provide an uncomplicated way of life—much more potential than it gets credit for.
“Living in the city is the simple life, when the city’s potential is maximized,” says Aaron Opalka, who has lived in Albany, New York for two and a half years. “One with a rural mindset might argue that the density, chaos and noise of the city are antithetical to the simple life. But my vision is one that permits walking or public transit to most, if not all, daily requirements.”
On his lunch break, Aaron can walk to the bank, retrieve his dry-cleaning, go to the barber shop, stop at the pharmacy, get a bite to eat, or even grab a new shirt and tie. “Naturally, not all at once. But the idea is I can walk to each of those things in five minutes. Think about the sprawling suburbs and all the time and resources wasted to accomplish each one of these errands.”
This is part of Kim Howe’s definition of the simple life, too. To Kim, who lives in the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago’s lower west side, the simple life means “few intermediaries between me and the things I need.” Her vision includes growing her own food someday and having “about seven possessions.” She certainly has more than that, but her walls display artwork from friends, and much of what she and her husband Jeremy own has been found, not bought.
Nicole Miano, who lives in Chicago’s East Garfield Park, points out that the nature of the city motivates people to avoid consumerism. “Since things are so concentrated,” says Nicole, “it motivates you to make sure you are reusing.” Implementing some aspects of this vision will come naturally, because the city is the simple life. But some of this simplicity means knowing how to find what you need and being willing to capitalize on what you find.
Ways to Simplify
In Chicago, most people use public transit. Though most Chicagoans have a love-hate relationship with the construction-burdened and disaster-prone CTA, we find that for the most part, it makes life easier. Jeremy Howe appreciates that he can do something else while on the train: reading, or listening to his iPod. “I like my life better for that,” he says. Getting a little farther in a book or getting a paper drafted for work or school means there’s less work to bring home, and listening to music, reading The Onion, or even getting the chance to stare at a sunset without distraction might mean that riding public transit lets us relax more than driving would have.
Then again, riding the L isn’t convenient for all Chicagoans, since there are many underserved neighborhoods without any nearby lines. And in other cities, riding public transit could mean that you don’t fit in with your demographic. Using Albany’s buses, for instance, isn’t considered normal behavior for a young professional. The feeling, says Aaron, is “why would a young professional climb aboard those rolling asylums?” Aaron, who scrapped his vehicle almost a year ago, has seen single-passenger cars drive by with their occupants gaping at him unabashedly. Recently, when gas reached $4 a gallon, he noticed more young professionals joining him.
Using public transit rather than cars is one of the most significant paths to urban simplicity, but the proximity of shops, restaurants and jobs encourages other modes of mobility. Nicole “would never bike in the suburbs,” where she grew up, but she often bikes in Chicago.
When other wheels are necessary, it’s easy to rent cars in the city. Zipcars and Chicago-based I-Go cars are an excellent deal compared to the cost of parking, insurance, maintenance, city stickers, and the enormous frustration of finding parking, shoveling snow, and bickering with your neighbors about why they moved the lawnchair you used to save your spot.
Another key to urban simplicity is being willing to take what you find. This means using nearby resources. It means buying clothes at the neighborhood thrift shop instead of the mall out in the suburbs, or grabbing a few needed items at the corner store instead of driving to the supermarket, where you’ll face the temptation to fill your cart. It means signing up for yoga at the park district for free instead of $50 for four weeks at the trendy place down the street.
Kim Howe advocates a paradigm shift when it comes to the urban simple life. The city “provides a lot of free shit,” she says, but you have to change your thinking before you’ll accept a lot of it. Instead of shopping, which she says means “I need this; I will buy this thing,” you’ll have to take things as they come. Flexibility is an avenue to simplicity.
Community Supported Agriculture provides another way to enjoy taking things as they come. Nearby farms offer “produce subscriptions,” where people can buy a share in the farm and receive a weekly basket of produce during the growing season. Subscribers can also buy cheese, meat, and egg shares and have these delivered to a nearby pick up spot along with the veggies. If you can’t just take your groceries as they come, but still want to ditch the car and shopping cart, companies such as Peapod and FreshDirect offer grocery delivery in many cities. It’s a good way to avoid impulse buying, and some companies accept manufacturer’s coupons and provide their own, too.
What the City Can’t Give
City life certainly has its problems, and the discussion of all the merits above focuses on what Nicole Miano calls “our age, white person existence,” a twenty- or thirty-something’s voluntary paradise. For those in marginal neighborhoods (beyond the reach of grocery delivery servies, car-sharing and even most public transportation), city life may not be easy, working one job may not cut it, and simplicity may not be so voluntary. We need to keep this in mind; voluntary simplicity is a luxury in its own way, and social justice should be a motivation for any downsizing we do.
The cost of living and limits of space are also complicated aspects of city life. They mean that in many ways, simplicity is a requirement. I’d still argue that it’s a freeing requirement. I daydream about having a counter wider than a dictionary, but I like that we don’t have room for an entertainment center. There’s simply a limit to what you can acquire in the city, and that’s freeing.
City life may have its difficulties, but a simple life is possible here. And seeing the skyline from a rooftop can be just as satisfying as diving into a mountain lake.
A version of this article originally appeared on The Curator, an online culture magazine published in New York by the International Arts Movement.
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