Look Closer

I love going on hikes around the City, to explore my urban surroundings. Besides the new sights and sites, and the plants and plantings, the major drive is to get up high and see out over everything. On many streets, if not most, we are sandwiched in between buildings in narrow corridors. The proverbial concrete canyons, if you will. There is much to see at street level, but it’s a whole different experience to get above it. I love our grand vistas, and with so many hills to contend with, the views are numerous and marvelous.

One interesting observation of urban life is how we focus our eyes. Growing up in rural country, I always looked out and far. Mountains on the horizon, forests, sky, fields, rivers. Birds circling overhead, deer dashing through the trees, fish jumping at the far bend in the stillest part of a stream. Moving into San Francisco was a huge change from that, though one I readily welcomed and embraced. Here in the City, you look closer. Not closer as in taking a deeper look, but closer as in focusing nearer to yourself. There are so many people in close proximity. In my small town we made eye contact with everyone when we passed. We probably knew them, but even if not there was an unspoken community between us that was acknowledged through eye contact. Here in SF, you pick up on that when you live in a neighborhood. You start to recognize over time that the City really is just a big conglomeration of small towns. But, there’s much crossover. You don’t know everyone outside your own community, and there are thousands of tourists on a daily basis. We learn to not necessarily avoid eye contact, but to be discriminating about where its privilege is shared. We focus inward, each with our own goal, our own destination, and we try not to interrupt each individual’s path. Coexisting is about respecting each other’s space.

You notice it, too, with windows. As much as is possible, street-level spaces are meant for public viewing. They’re restaurants, shops, offices. In residential areas, ground floors are occupied by garages. But there are many apartments and flats that are eye-to-eye with passers-by. My own flat, in fact, was once a garage, and the only natural light coming in is through a large window to the sidewalk. When you live in a space like this, you learn to pretend the outside world of passing people doesn’t exist. You ignore it, and go about your daily business as if nobody is watching. And, for the most part, nobody is watching. When you’re walking outside, respecting each other’s space means not staring in through windows that are right there in front of you. Between houses as well as in front, people plant screens to keep out “prying eyes.” Despite wanting the close proximity inherent to city living, they don’t want people being able to see their private lives.

Even windows a floor or two up are easy to see into, especially with the angles of the hills. But you don’t look. You don’t stare, anyway. We can’t help but catch a frequent glimpse of someone, but on both sides of the glass, eyes quickly avert. We look closer. Eyes are the windows of the soul, they say, and we avoid too long of a connection with either eyes or windows.

In many ways, it’s an unfortunate side effect of city living, this learning not to look at others. It’s not a taught trait, but it’s learned all the same. Intimacy is lost, despite the literal intimacy of sharing such a tight space with so many. Closeness is lost, but at the same time there’s a larger “closeness” than on the individual level. There’s a sense of community to be had. We may not look, but we all know we’re part of the same living, breathing entity. If you look closer, you can see it.

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