Book Review: "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone"
Chances are the typical high-level urban planner, someone who has been through graduate school, secured a good job, and put in the years to rise to a position of authority, lives what might be considered a conventional lifestyle. He or she is probably married, probably has a house, and probably lives among the same.
There's nothing wrong with that lifestyle, of course. Many American cities and suburbs have been built to its exact specifications. But, needless to say, the conventions of the past are not necessarily those of the future. And yet there is always the subtle danger that planners plan according to what they know. For them, Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone offers a potentially instructive glimpse into how the other half lives: some out of preference, others out of desperation.
While the recession has forced many young adults back into their parents' basements and guest rooms, a far larger segment of the population is now living blissfully alone. With robust incomes and social fabrics woven through the Internet, they rent one-bedroom apartments, buy condominiums by themselves, and hang out in bars, coffee houses, and all other manner of third spaces. They are unmarried but not necessarily young, and, as Klinenberg emphasizes, they are alone but by no means lonely.
Not surprisingly, few of these "singletons" live behind picket fences or shop at Walmart. Rather, they are predominantly an urban species, living in close proximity to work, friends, and amenities that, according to Klinenberg, can make solo living a more preferable to, say, marriage and child-rearing. Naturally, they seek certain things in their cities that mom, dad, and 2.5 kids do not. We're talking about high-density housing, cafes, bars, coffee places, and even bowling alleys, where they will not bowl alone but rather will meet their friends and enjoy the solitary life together. It's as if Ross, Joey, and Chandler all moved into their own places across the hall from Carrie, Samantha, and Charlotte.
As his bowling references suggest, Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at NYU, takes direct aim at scholars such as Robert Putnam, whose 2001 Bowling Alone decried the unraveling of civic life in America. Indeed, in the late 1990s that trend was in full force, but since then it has reversed, thanks in part to the Internet. In 1950, 22 percent of adults were single and accounted for 9 percent of households. Now, more than 50 percent are single and 31 million—15 percent—live alone. A full one-third of people 65 years and older live alone.
Planning has always been tied to demographics, though the planning trends often lag behind demographic trends. The implications of singleton culture for planning are, naturally, vast, and even obvious. It's not hard to imagine that a great many of these people wouldn't mind if every city looked like San Francisco or Greenwich Village.
Indeed, singletons have to live in cities: their lives take place in public, not around the dinner table or the living room television. A singleton's salary could buy any one of the thousands of idle tract homes in Riverside or Las Vegas, and still they fight each other for apartments in Hollywood and North Beach.
Unfortunately, Klinenberg relies on an overabundance of human interest stories to make points that are largely obvious. Goodness knows, most policy-related publications can use more color, but Klinenberg takes it to an extreme, with a parade of vignettes about singletons in varying states of domestic bliss (or misery, as the case may be). He gives us stories about divorcees and loners and characters who sound like they're auditioning for Sex in the City. There are anecdotes about misadventures in cooking, cats, and there is Helen who proclaims, "marriage is [f'ing] boring." We meet Charlotte, “who at fifty-two carries her big-boned body with grace and confidence.” We face learn the axiom that nothing more lonely than being with the wrong person
We even meet Sasha Cagen, the founder of the “Quirkyalone” subculture, a label that conjures an image of Zoey Deschanel making paper-chain men at her kitchen table with Yo La Tengo playing at moderate volume. According to Cagen, whom Klinenberg describes as “charismatic,” "when one Quirkyalone finds another, oohh la la. The earth quakes." If planners ever find out what "oh la la" entails, then there's probably a whole other set of public policies that they should consider.
Some of those stories, of course, are heartbreaking. Forget about the wine bars: some of the people who live alone in the big city are truly alone. Klinenberg describes the process of locating next-of-kin of a loner who passes away. Investigators find a single postcard, dated a decade earlier, from what appears to be a distant relative. When the relative is tracked down, she barely recognizes the name of the deceased.
Klinenberg also checks into the unsettling world of single-room occupancy hotels, which he describes as crucial havens for (mainly) men who are crippled by poverty, crime records, and substance abuse and have nowhere else to go. Ironically, in many cities these very same hotels are being demolished or converted to make way for lofts. And he describes the elderly, many of whom have lost spouses and friends, and are no longer connected to their kids. They survive on lifelines like Meals on Wheels.
Meanwhile, singletons come and go; they are a huge constituency, but rarely do individual members invest themselves deeply eoung in local politics to actually amount o an interest group. Finally, singletons on the fringe -- the ex-cons and drug addicts in SROs, and the lonely seniors, are not particular likely to speak up at their next city council meeting or to attend a fundraiser for the next mayoral candidate. They may appreciate the privacy of the voting booth, but civic life is, by definition, a public affair.
For a moment, Klinenberg brushes against what would have been his own strongest point: singletons are not merely prevalent; they are also, ironically, politically marginalized. Cities have long been dominated by the passions of parents, who lobby for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and the eradication of exactly the sort of vice that many young singles enjoy (and enjoy responsibility). Moreover, homeowners exert far greater political force than renters do. They have a tremendous financial stake in the fate of their cities, and they tend to stick around for decades.
Klinenberg diagnoses the problem that “greater representation in politics….(doesn’t) come easily for any group of poeple, and particularly not for one that's as heterogeneous as singles.” Dispiritingly, he concludes that “it's not yet clear whether it's possible to form a collective identity based on being a singleton."
In his final chapter, Klinenberg leapfrogs over the question of public participation and discuss ways that public policy might accommodate singles if they were to form a bloc of their own. He notes that humans have been living collectively for some 20,000 years but singly only for a few decades. In broad strokes, he recommends that "we could, for instance, begin thinking about how to redesign our metropolitan areas so they better meet the needs of the people who live and work in them." Instead, we are at least a generation too late. With the trend already in full swing, “we've failed to redesign cities and suburbs to meet the needs of singleton society,” he writes.
Klinenberg points out public subsidies of both housing and public transportation overseas that make cities like London, Stockholm, and Tokyo so appealing to singles -- and, not incidentally, such economic powerhouses. Stockholm emerges as Klinenberg's favorite city, which has a long tradition of quasi-communal living and all sorts of policies to support it. (It's no wonder that Sweden gave rise to Ikea.) His point, of course, is that in Europe, policies have promoted urban living just as in the United States they have promoted the suburbs.
As it happens, American cities are, finally, getting more Swedish. Greater density, mixed use buildings, public transit and the other hallmarks of smart growth seem to uphold the singleton lifestyle nicely. “Oohh la la,” indeed.
Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone
By Eric Klinenberg
The Penguin Press