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The Pleasures of Urban Cosmopolitanism

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 30, 2011 01:25 PM

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Racial difference is a constant, even unremarkable presence in city life -- as simple as the way that, as you walk from one neighborhood to another, you're aware of whether or not you "belong." Racial differences, though, aren't always cause for wariness or unease. Often, they're invigorating. In The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, the Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson writes about those parts of the American city that allow "complete strangers to observe and appreciate one another" across racial barriers. Anderson calls these spaces "cosmopolitan canopies," and says they let ordinary people become amateur anthropologists, watching and, eventually, reaching out to people of whom they'd be more wary in other places. His broader question: can we encourage the growth of cosmopolitan canopies? Or do they only grow from the bottom up?


President Obama in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

Anderson's book is focused on Philadelphia, and starts with a walking tour of that city from a racial point of view: he takes in the Philadelphia equivalents of Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, Faneuil Hall, and South Station. Walking through Philly's neighborhoods, Anderson writes, often means having "a pervasive wariness towards strangers," created by the feeling that each neighborhood "belongs" to one group or another. By and large, this proprietary feeling is the rule. But scattered throughout the city there are oases of cosmopolitanism -- places characterized by "acceptance of the space as belonging to all kinds of people."

In fact, in such places cosmopolitanism is part of what draws a crowd: people enjoy meeting and watching other people who are different from themselves. Anderson looks in detail at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal, a huge, enclosed food court, shopping area, and grocery market where "no one group claims priority." At Reading Terminal, Amish farmers mingle with white, Asian, Hispanic, and African-American shopkeepers, restauranteurs, and customers -- in fact, everyone's smooshed together and forced to interact by the crowds. There's a pervasive atmosphere of trust, openness, and curiosity, and, in interviews with Reading regulars, Anderson finds that many people very consciously approach the Market as a place where they can be racially open. They enjoy "watching the show" put on by the diverse crowd, and enjoy experimenting with a more open kind of social life: trying strange food, striking up casual conversations with different kinds of people, and playing a part in a self-consciously open society. This isn't about self-congratulation -- it's about a relaxation of the emotionally costly social guardedness that one must uphold the rest of the time.

Why do cosmopolitan canopies like Reading Terminal work? (Anderson points to many others: parks, transportation hubs, sports stadiums, even the Whole Foods.) These are safe spaces, separate from the street, made warm and intimate by a shared experience -- food, shopping, travel, cheering on a team. But there's also an intangible ingredient: a mood, Anderson writes, of "civility" that allows people "to stretch themselves mentally, emotionally, and socially," and to develop "the growing social sophistication that allows diverse urban people to get along." Because they're so hard to replicate, Anderson argues, they ought to be treasured and protected -- and those of us who enjoy them ought to treat them "not as 'time out' from normal life but as a model for what social relationships could become." That's how cosmopolitanism spreads.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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