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Why do humans congregate in big cities?

One of life’s mysteries for me is why country people have inevitably migrated to the cities in every civilization that I have studied. In the United States, where there has been little of the kind of violent upheavals that send third world countries into instability, the reasons for migration to cities seem especially specious to me. Some say we move because rural life is boring or stifling with puritanical overly-conservative life styles. Actually agrarian society has often been shockingly wide open as I tried to point out in Mother of All Arts. What happened to me just yesterday seems appropriate. I was parked along the edge of a country road jawing with a couple who were harvesting wheat. A very long-haired individual, naked to the waist, came flying by on a motorcycle, tresses trailing in the wind. Trying to be funny, I opined: “Well it must have been a man because it wasn’t wearing a bra.” One of the farmers replied, rolling her eyes: “That’s a dangerous conclusion to reach around here.”

Others move to town because they want to escape what they consider the hard work of farming. That is no longer all that true either and I wonder if it ever was. Millions of factory and construction workers perform harder physical work than most farmers do today or ever did. A friend likes to tell how thrilled he was to get off the farm 70 years ago because he had to work there every day milking cows, no weekends off. When he finally got a decent job in town, he found that, to get ahead, he still had to work on weekends.

Sometimes I think the ideal life occurred in Europe (probably other places too) before the two world wars wrecked the old agrarian life there. Unlike in America, where farmers established themselves on homesteads dotted out all over the countryside some distance from each other, European farmers preferred to live in villages, and to go out daily to their farms around the village. There was little chance to feel isolated or bored and lonely because in the evenings they all gathered on doorsteps or street corners or more likely in the taverns, and enjoyed the camaraderie, true social security, pastimes and amusements of communal life. I’d vote for that any day and now of course we have that, in a way, on the Internet. My village community now extends to New Zealand and Australia which is just awesome.

The main reason country people move to town is because that’s where the money is, or so they have always been taught. At some point in every civilization’s history, money becomes the standard by which all things are reckoned, and after that the seemingly simple, laid-back pastoral life is no longer deemed possible. I have watched this happen first hand in our own Appalachia. In some parts of the world migration is physically forced on people by various forms of military or political or economic power. But the mountain people of Appalachia were not exactly forced to leave in most cases. I know personally quite a few of them. Some of them once worked for me when I was running a ditching machine. They claimed to love their mountains and would go back home into the hills every weekend, often hocking their spare tire for gas to make the trip. So why did they go north to the factories?

I think that in some cases, people leave rural homes for quite specific material reasons that are overlooked by economists. I have a theory about Appalachia which I have seen hinted at by only one other author, Richard C. Davids, in his excellent non-fiction book, The Man Who Moved A Mountain. The destruction of the vast forests of chestnut trees by blight in the Appalachians coincided roughly with the Great Depression when the great migration from the mountains to the cities got into full swing. The hill people depended on chestnuts as much as we depend today on corn and wheat. The end of the chestnut meant the end of the hill economy. Could that have been the real reason they left their independent life for the auto factories of Detroit?

I have heard scores of reasons for migration to cities, all creditable, most of them based on reactions to population pressure. But I am still left with an anomaly. If there are too many people living in the country, how do they improve their lot by moving where populations are even denser and competition for jobs even greater? If people are short on food, why would they move to a place where they can’t grow any of their own? Detroit, by the way, is making news today because of a large garden farm being established right in the center of what was once factory fantasyland.

All this migration to the cities seems especially crazy now that we live so much in an electronic world. People still flock to the city for jobs, but the jobs aren’t there anymore. I will probably be ridiculed up one side of Manhattan and down the other for writing this, but I say that the modern large city is a dinosaur, economically and environmentally, and people are slowly beginning to realize it. The extended village is the wave of the future. I look at those energy-sucking skyscrapers and I see very tall tombstones.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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