Marry Your City
The vital importance of civic commitment // reducing optionality unlocks new commitment-specific goods
The benefits of a good marriage cannot be overstated. Selecting a partner (well or poorly, or not at all) is one of the most important decisions you make in life.
Where you choose to live should be regarded similarly: you should do it deliberately, and you should commit to a place.
The benefits of marriage (to a person)
Marriage is a special form of commitment. It cuts off optionality and restricts you in some ways—most people readily see that, and it’s why they’re hesitant to get married too young. But they should look at the other side of the ledger: commitment cuts off some options, but unlocks far greater benefits that are well worth it—cultivated love, a partner, a team player, and more. The relationship that you get from a marriage cannot be selected, only grown over time. You simply cannot have it without long-term commitment. Further:
You gain the benefits of having a large part of your life decided—you are no longer looking for a spouse, or incurring the cognitive overhead of trying to preserve your optionality in the dating market (and being subjected to everyone else treating you like a mere option in their own calculus).
You can reap the compounding returns of a good partnership growing together and closer over time.
It is simply easier to do many things with a husband or a wife, especially if you want to raise children.
“For richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.” You have gained a great support, and with it a special form of love and security. These are yours to give as well as to receive. A gained right, and a chosen responsibility.
An inability to commit to a relationship is not only a problem, but a serious personal flaw (whatever its provenance). The same can be said about commitment to where you live. In my (and about nine million other people’s) case, that means New York City.
The benefits of marriage (to your city)
Committing to where you live, with the same level of deliberation, seriousness, and wise constraint as a marriage, unlocks a whole host of good things:
You can more confidently put down roots, knowing that you will be around to nurture and grow them over the long term. This means investing in local groups and nearby schools, caring for the public domain, planting trees, and more. You can’t learn the best way to do these things until you’ve been around for a while, iterating over time. I’ve met people who have lived in places for more than a decade who still have no roots; they truly still think they might move somewhere else at any time, and it deeply affects their civic relationship. I was like this when I lived in Cambridge/Boston from 2010-2019. Being rootless is a fine life stage, and for very few a way of life, but for many it can become a pathology.
You also gain the benefit of these roots—finding community, being known and cared for, and accruing social and political capital. If you care at all about politics, or holding sway over what happens where you live, you need to stick around and invest yourself and your time, otherwise you will likely ricochet off the local political and civic apparatus.
There are many legitimate reasons to move cities, or to delay committing to one specifically; I don’t deny that. But many people have a fear of civic commitment that is pretty comparable to a fear of marriage, and it’s a problem for individuals and for cities.
These same people want to live in a place and consume it, but leave as soon as it becomes an imposition on them. They want to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s civic effort, but never apply their own. They want to retain optionality, and so forgo the real benefits of stable commitment.
But cities needed committed citizens to both reach their full potential, and to recover from devastation.
All of this applies to those who were born in a place as much as to those who adopt a place
People might think this essay is just an injunction to domestic or foreign immigrants—it is not.
It applies equally to people who were born in a place and never leave. In fact, the message is more urgent for them. It’s easy to think that just because you were born somewhere, you fully appreciate, understand, and contribute to it. This is manifestly untrue, both for New York City, and for the United States.
For those who live in New York City, the difference is not “those who moved here from somewhere else” and “those who were born here.” The difference is “those who love the city and help build it” and “those who don’t.” The difference is those who commit, and those who don’t. Those who marry their city (or at least seriously consider that path), and those who don’t. You’ll find immigrants and natives in both camps.
What is civic commitment, concretely?
First, do a mental exercise. Would you stand before an assembled crowd of your friends, who you invited to witness you, and declare your solemn intent to inhabit and build your city for the rest of your life (or at least the next decade)? Would you publish this promise on your social media accounts? Would you discuss the well-being of your city regularly with others? Would you happily contribute to it?
Putting aside the fact that our culture has no such script for a civic commitment, I think most people, if they do the exercise above, will quickly realize just how not committed they are to their city. And if you realize you aren’t that committed to your city, don’t you want to be? Don’t you want to love the place where you live that much?
Of course, getting to the point where you’re ready for such a commitment is hard, although relatively straightforward.
If I wanted to give you a bulleted list on how to do it, I would begin like this:
Learn how your government and law work (a basic test is asking yourself if you can draw a good map of the gov), and then dedicate yourself—in proportion to your time and resources—to making those things better. With this basic knowledge, you have the tools you need to gauge whether what you’re doing is good or bad, a waste or an investment.
Learn the history of your neighborhood, city, and state, and how they came to be. Learn some of the “great people” in that history, and how they did what they did.
Join a civic organization, and engage with it as consistently as possible. This could be a group to care for a park, to pick up trash, to write about the city’s problems and their corresponding solutions, to train young people in trade and virtue, and more.
Don’t think of civic engagement as something you have to do, or as something you only do to absolve yourself of some guilty feeling. It is a wonderful duty that we all have, and we should feel justifiably proud in acting in accordance with it.
Pay attention to whether you’re building things in the city (culturally, physically, etc), or just demanding that someone else build them. Are you helping the builders, who come from every walk of life and context?
Do not flee when the tough times come. Repel them, and lay the groundwork for restorative growth.
Of course, a full list would be much longer, would have more concrete detail, and would more fully describe how to know when to commit. It would wind up resembling a good guide to marriage. Instead of fully replicating that, I’m going to end this essay by presenting excerpts from an essay in the New York Times about the recently deceased Richard Ravitch—a man that many New Yorkers owe for their quality of life, and a man who was married to New York. I encourage you to read it in full. And if you want to marry New York, but don’t know how to pick out a ring, drop me a note.
From “The Life and Death of American Cities,” by Nicole Gelinas, quotes presented in the order in which they appear, published July 28, 2023:
Mr. Ravitch’s office is now empty, too. His absence is a stark reminder that New York’s post-Covid recovery needs new generations of people who are as physically anchored to a city as he was, and who understand that urban civics depends on people in business, finance, politics, policy and media just showing up, day after day, to make a little unglamorous progress.
Cities require successful people to have so much at stake — literally — in a particular place that they can’t walk away. Mr. Ravitch’s death was not just the end of an era in New York — it also laid bare the vacuum that American cities have to fill.
But he could not have saved New York City through personality alone, just as one man in an office cannot create an office culture. What about New York’s late-20th-century culture allowed Mr. Ravitch to succeed — and what do cities need today for new Mr. Ravitches to flourish?
In 1975, when New York City nearly went bankrupt, and in 2020, Mr. Ravitch did not see New York City as an asset class, easily traded for a different asset class when times got tough.
Multinational corporations owned by global investors have their place in cities; brands bring quality and consistency to everything from drugstores to building management companies. But in a systemic crisis, such as the changes to urban commuting patterns brought on by Covid, dispersed global investors will not save cities.
Successful cities also need moderately wealthy men and women — the small-scale developers, the mid-tier of corporate executives — who are motivated to engage in public service not because they want something like tax credits, but because they are fed up with their own quality of life.
Mr. Ravitch was wealthy, but his wealth was not so immense that it allowed him to separate himself from New York City’s day-to-day annoyances. “I take the subway at least twice a day,” Mr. Ravitch told reporters upon his 1979 appointment to the M.T.A. He saw for himself the conditions that were causing New Yorkers to leave.
Robust urban culture also depends on influential people who don’t fall for top-down, gimmicky solutions to complex problems.
The weaker a city’s broader civic infrastructure, the more vulnerable that city is to the flimflam man. Sometimes, the flimflam man’s proffered solution further weakens civic infrastructure.
Successful cities also need business leaders and other civic-minded individuals who understand state and local politics. In the early 1980s, Mr. Ravitch persuaded Republicans to raise taxes for the subways not by direct virtue of his money but by drawing on the respect he had earned by doing the work to intimately understand the city. He knew what he was talking about, and they knew it.
The center must hold not just in politics but also in policy. The apartments Mr. Ravitch built weren’t for the very poor, nor were they built on a free-market basis to command maximum rents. Mr. Ravitch understood that public policy aimed at the broad middle class was sometimes necessary, even if it produced complaints from those above and below. He persuaded Republicans to enact taxes for the subways, yes, but he also annoyed Democrats by raising the transit fare, with the disproportionate burden falling on poorer riders. Today, advocates who focus on utopia — free transit for all, a mass expansion of public housing — may please one another on Twitter, but they get nowhere in practical results.
The more acute question is: Does New York’s precarious balance of locally minded wealthy individuals, civically aware property owners, competitive state and local politics and nimble, smart policy advocates still exist to steer the city toward bread-and-butter solutions — fiscal soundness, decent transit, continuity of basic public services — rather than quick fixes? Does that balance exist at all in cities from Portland to Chicago?
When I discuss this topic with people who clearly feel guilty about not civically committing, they often fall back on the argument that “I pay taxes, so that counts as helping the city.” I don’t deny that paying taxes gives money to the government, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to helping. Government needs good citizen oversight to ensure that taxes are spent on good things with proper restraint, and good citizen oversight often only comes from those who commit to a place. There is simply no getting around the need for civic commitment, and for individuals to make that commitment. A related argument: “I patronize local businesses and support the arts and culture with my ticket purchases, so that counts as helping the city.” I agree that this does help the city, but if everyone thought they only have to buy things to make the city great, it wouldn’t be. More is required, and from more people. If someone refuses to commit to a personal relationship, I’d ask why. If someone bends themself into a pretzel to justify avoiding civic commitment, I also ask why. They might literally not know how.