How to Inhabit a City

Having spent nearly a year in San Francisco as a resident, I started talking with my friend Purva, a long-term San Franciscan, about the difference between her understanding of the city and mine. The discussion resulted in some questions & notes for a booklet or monograph we think it might be worth writing.

Notes and questions on inhabiting a city

  • Sit in the middle of Golden Gate Park and practice drumming.
    Find a reason to sit and observe people

  • Do some self-exploration: what do you want to get out of a city?
    Raise questions rather than answers.

  • Look at the scales at which one can inhabit the city: apartment, neighbourhood, city.. what would you do differently at each scale?

  • How do friends fit in?
    What do you do differently if you know people vs. if you don't know anyone when you move there? How do you do things on your own? What kinds of things? When?

  • How do you find guides? How do you identify a "good" guide?

  • When do you do the 'touristy' thing?
    What are the differences between inhabiting and exploring a place?

  • How do you stop seeing a city as a place with a bunch of things to do, and see the meanings and the stories present in it?

  • Some ideas on uncovering the secrets of the city:

    • the archival section of the public library, the chamber of commerce, and other institutions of public record.
    • noticing things: placards, signs on poles, boarded up businesses, old typography...
    • look up.
    • talk to strangers.
    • volunteer in a senior home.
  • Whose view of the city do you want?
    What are you missing when you hang out only with people from the same age group, work, social stratum...?

  • Change your speed of movement through the city.
    Take public transit. Walk. Bike. What do you notice when you're not operating transit machinery?

  • Some things I regretted when leaving Columbus for SF:

    • not connecting with the local farmers outside the city who bring their produce to the farmers markets.
    • not exploring my neighbourhood thoroughly.
    • not getting enough stories.
  • How do you leave a city? What makes for a good departure?

  • Navigation: when should you use a map?
    What kind? When should you not? Should it be digital or paper?

  • When do you blend in, and when should you stick out?

  • Pay attention to kids and play.
    Where are they allowed? Where are they not allowed? What do they find joy in? What is missing where there are no kids?

  • What stories and lessons are buried under place names?
    Where did a place's name come from? What does it mean that it was named that way? What happened to the people involved, and where are they now?