The Great Empty vs. The Great Filling

As a UVic alumna, I receive their Torch magazine whose recent cover article features cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Robin Mazumder and his research on how cities affect our mental well-being.

For his PhD in psychology, his research focused on stress responses when people were dropped via virtual reality into two separate locations in central London: 1) next to a high-rise building and 2) next to a low-rise building.

I imagine the participants of the study being dropped into a high-rise scene like this for the first location. (Photo of NYC by me)

Not surprisingly, author Michael Kissinger summarizes:

What he found was that tall buildings make people uncomfortable when they’re surrounded by them. Conversely, people have less of a stress response when they’re in environments that are built at what’s considered “human scale,” or the European model where buildings tend to top out at five storeys. 

Reading this brought me back to my literature courses in university. In the early 20th century when the development of urban spaces was accelerating at a fast pace, German socialist Georg Simmel was similarly concerned about the affect of the city on an individual in his landmark essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” from 1903. In fact, he was the one who coined the term blasé, which Merriam-Webster defines as “apathetic to pleasure or excitement as a result of excessive indulgence or enjoyment.” It’s a paradox: to feel something so strongly that you end up not feeling anything at all.

Many moving parts on a typical street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Simmel says that the extreme excess or intensification of stimuli in the city “agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all.” Examples of stimuli he gives include “the grasp of a single glance . . . each crossing of the street . . . [and] the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life.”

Bryant Park in NYC. Love this dynamic park nestled behind the public library.

I have to admit that I am a city lover. I sang New York’s praises after visiting it for the first time (well aware now that living there would likely be a very different experience). In BC, I once had a job in what some would consider an idyllic pastoral setting where sheep and cows grazed in fields outside my window, their bleating and mooing a lunchtime lullaby. But I longed for blinking streetlights and fast-moving things: cars, bikes, people. Looking back, I think I was drawn to what those fast-moving things represented: opportunities.

While I don’t live downtown and am not surrounded by high-rises, I do live in a city and enjoy venturing downtown because of the different pace of life it offers. When Vancouver was shut down early in the pandemic and on and off since then, I looked forward to roaming around Gastown only to be dismayed at how empty it was. The photographs from around the world in this New York Times article “The Great Empty” capture that melancholy well.

Gastown’s famous steam clock (photo by me). What is time anymore?

If I were a subject in Mazumder’s study, I wonder what my response would have been. If he had conducted his study both pre- and post-pandemic, would there be a significant difference? Would the long amounts of isolation and at-home time make a bustling city scene more attractive than normal? Would we be less stressed and more excited? Or would the long absence of this hustle and bustle trigger anew the anxiety of crowds and stimuli that we had forgotten we were used to?

Grand Central Station, NYC, back in 2011.

I have a chapbook out now called ‘Let Us Go Then’ that alludes to T.S. Eliot’s quintessentially modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that one could argue features a speaker (Prufrock) desperately trying to overcome the blasé. The first stanza of his poem comes to mind when I think about “The Great Empty.” Obviously Eliot is writing in a very different context than our current pandemic one, but he is addressing emptiness of another kind: emptiness with modern living and all of its “fillings” as I paradoxically call them in my final poem of the chapbook.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

“A patient etherized upon a table” and “half-deserted streets” strike an eerily familiar chord. I find a degree of solace in this world-weary speaker who presents as an urban, educated individual who is painfully unsure of the world he finds himself inhabiting (and where he fits in, as a result).

The speaker is longing for emotional, spiritual, and physical connection.

I joke that I never knew I was extroverted until the pandemic hit. Give me people! (another Paris photo)

This longing ties into Michael Kimmelman’s introduction to that New York Times article showing mesmerizing photographs of empty public spaces:

Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good. Covid-19 doesn’t vote along party lines, after all. These images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful.

They also remind us that beauty requires human interaction.

Burrard SkyTrain Station, Vancouver.

Human interaction indeed. That’s what Robin Mazumder comes back to in the UVic article: designing cities that are at a human scale, where most necessities are met within a 15-minute walk or transit ride, where spaces foster mixed uses and diverse users that create opportunities for community—a good kind of filling, maybe even a great one.

A mixed-use space (Woodward’s atrium in Gastown, Vancouver) I wrote about for my Master’s research.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s