Durable Growth

Urban streets provide setting for human kindness

Union Square

Union Square

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 (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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