Until I was 37 years old, I lived alone. It never struck me as particularly odd. If you’ve been in New York for any length of time, you know from both intuition and daily observation that many people live on their own in this town. But I never fully appreciated how many—and by extension, how colossally banal my own solitary arrangement was—until I checked with the Department of City Planning a couple of months ago. How many apartments in Manhattan would you have guessed have just one occupant? One of every eight? Every four? Every three?
The number’s one of every two. Of all 3,141 counties in the United States, New York County is the unrivaled leader in single-individual households, at 50.6 percent. More than three-quarters of the people in them are below the age of 65. Fifty-seven percent are female. In Brooklyn, the overall number is considerably lower, at 29.5 percent, and Queens is 26.1. But on the whole, in New York City, one in three homes contains a single dweller, just one lone man or woman who flips on the coffeemaker in the morning and switches off the lights at night.
These numbers should tell an unambiguous story. They should confirm the common belief about our city, which is that New York is an isolating, coldhearted sort of place. Mark Twain called it “a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race.” (This from a man who settled in Hartford, Connecticut.) In J. D. Salinger’s 1952 short story “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” the main character observes that wishing to be alone “is the one New York prayer that rarely gets lost or delayed in channels, and in no time at all, everything I touched turned to solid loneliness.” Modern movies and art are filled with lonesome New York characters, some so familiar they’ve become their own shorthand: Travis Bickle (in Taxi Driver, calling himself “God’s lonely man”); the forlorn patrons in Nighthawks (inspired, Edward Hopper said, “by a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue”); Ratso Rizzo (“I gotta get outta here, gotta get outta here,” he kept muttering in Midnight Cowboy … and died before he could). Remember Miranda in Sex and the City, racing off to the ER from panic attacks over dying alone? And then there was Christina Copeman. She famously did die alone in her apartment in East Flatbush. Her skeletal remains were discovered around Christmastime last year, an estimated twelve to eighteen months after she’d died, still neatly dressed in a beret and overcoat.
It’s stories like Copeman’s—terrifying in their every particular and, more important, real—that catch the attention of social scientists and have led some to the same conclusions as Mark Twain. “Every 20 or 30 years, we have a lament about the decline of community, and it’s usually due to cities and urbanization,” says Robert Sampson, the criminologist who chairs Harvard’s sociology department, when I visit him one sunny morning this fall. He mentions one of the classics of the genre, Louis Wirth’s Urbanism As a Way of Life. “It’s all about the impersonal way of life in the city—how it almost deranged people, led to this sort of schizoid personality, to psychosis and loneliness.” He smiles. “It’s a fun piece, actually. There’s some great quotes in it.” He leans back in his chair. “But this idea that cities are bastions of lonely, despairing people is a myth,” he says.
In American lore, the small town is the archetypal community, a state of grace from which city dwellers have fallen (thus capitulating to all sorts of political ills like, say, socialism). Even among die-hard New Yorkers, those who could hardly imagine a life anywhere else, you’ll find people who secretly harbor nostalgia for the small village they’ve never known.
Yet the picture of cities—and New York in particular—that has been emerging from the work of social scientists is that the people living in them are actually less lonely. Rather than driving people apart, large population centers pull them together, and as a rule tend to possess greater community virtues than smaller ones. This, even though cities are consistently, overwhelmingly, places where people are more likely to live on their own.
A couple of months ago, John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, decided to spend his one free evening in New York indulging in a favorite out-of-towner’s cliché, which in his business also qualifies as field research: watching strangers in Grand Central Terminal. “You’d see these people walking in all these different ways and at different paces, and all of a sudden, they’d be synchronized,” he says. Cacioppo has a mild presence, with a soft voice and a slim frame, but the second he starts talking about this stuff, he buzzes like a live cable. “If they were white dots on a black field,” he continues, “you could tell who belonged to who, just based on the synchrony of the white dots.”