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Q&A: What We Can Learn from 1 Million NYC Singletons

| February 17, 2012 4:00 AM
Author: Eric Klinenberg
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Publication Date: Feb. 2012

Eric Klinenberg is the author of “Going Solo,” a new book about the seismic social shift that’s taken place in the past 50 years as more people than ever are living alone rather than with family members or roommates. According to Klinenberg, Manhattan was only very recently replaced by Washington, D.C., as the most popular place to live alone in the U.S. MetroFocus spoke to Klinenberg about the facts of single life in New York City.

Q: In the past 50 years, the number of American adults living alone has tripled. What does that look like in New York City?

A: Today there are more than 1 million people living alone in New York City. In Manhattan, about one in two households are occupied by singletons. Some of the people who live alone are old, but they are a minority. The largest group of people living alone are between the ages of 35 and 65. Most of them have been married or lived with someone in the past but at some point they decided they needed a place of their own and the freedom to do what they want, when they want.

What’s surprising to me is that it’s more expensive to live alone. People are actually paying a premium to live alone.

Q: Why do singles choose New York?

A: If you can afford living alone in New York, you get a lot of luxuries that support your lifestyle. You can stay out late at thousands of bars and restaurants. There are laundromats where you can drop off and pick up your laundry. Some neighborhoods are particularly amenable to this, like Brooklyn Heights and Chelsea in Manhattan.

Raul Torres, 54, left, stands outside his one room apartment in a hallway of the Cecil Hotel in the Harlem section of New York in 1996. Eric Klinenberg says that single room occupancies and hotel residences like this one are declining in New York. AP/Bebeto Matthews

Q: What about those for whom single living isn’t a choice? For example, people who live in single room occupancies (SRO’s) because they can’t afford anything else…

A: The housing stock available for relatively poor people to live alone has shrunk not just in Manhattan but everywhere. That world of SRO’s and of hotel residences was bulldozed over by developers. Look at the Bowery — that area is now synonymous with hipster hotels and swanky restaurants. In the book I do write about Common Ground, a pioneering organization trying to design beautiful places for poor people to live alone, but also have companionship.

Q: In the book you describe early 20th century Greenwich Village as a crucible for the solo lifestyle…

A: People usually think of the Village as a gay man’s neighborhood but there were also large numbers of people, especially women, who came to the Village to get a taste of urban freedom. In the book I document the incredible transformation of the residents and also the housing stock in the Village. Within a few decades it becomes a living laboratory for going solo. By 1930, half of all men in the Village were single and 40 percent of women. It’s taken the rest of the country a long time to catch up.

Q: So is it still just the bohemians, gay people and working women living solo?

A: No. Now everybody does it. From young adults to the oldest of the old to lefties and culturally conservative Christians. It’s completely mundane and yet we haven’t really named or identified it as a way of life.

Q: Do you think that singles are stigmatized?

A: There are a number of myths that are damaging and add to the stigma of singletons. We have a tendency to characterize big social changes as social problems. We have this story that we tell ourselves about the decline of our communities and the end of collective life. But I don’t see things that way. While more and more people are living alone, we’re finding new ways to connect with each other. It seems to me it’s a problem of over-connection, of online social networks reinforcing these superficial ties.

That being said, I’m not advocating for going solo. This is not a case against marriage; I myself am married with two children.

From left, actresses Kim Cattrall, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon pose for photographers as they arrive for the premiere of "Sex and the City 2" in 2010. Television programs and films tend to glamorize single life but the committed relationships that the four main characters in "Sex and the City" settle into are more reflective of real-life statistics. Most singletons were married or lived with a partner at some point in their lives before going solo. AP/Shizuo Kambayashi

Q: Television shows like “Sex and the City” paint an idealized picture of the fiercely independent urban woman. Are Carrie and her female friends reflected in the statistics?

A: Popular culture tends to exaggerate and glamorize the experience but most people who live alone are not quite so fabulous. The show does reflect the reality in that there are enormous numbers of women single in the city and they are supporting each other in powerful ways. But once they hit the big screen, all four women shot off towards marriage in their own trajectories, which disappointed a lot of people who followed the television show. The reality is that most people do get married at some point, but they are doing it later than ever before. And people can get out of it and instead of moving back in with family or friends, they’re getting places of their own.

Q: For some seniors, living alone can be dangerous. What did you learn about how the city can improve the lives of seniors living in New York City?

A: We know what helps. Homecare helps. Daily Meals on Wheels delivery helps. Specialized transportation for those with impaired mobility helps. Living in a densely populated neighborhood with a rich commercial life helps. Unfortunately, with the economic recession, the city has cut back on a number of programs for the elderly. I think that’s a shame.

Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University and the editor of the journal Public Culture. “Heat Wave,” his first book, examines how a blistering heat wave in Chicago in 1995 revealed deeply-rooted social problems. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

He will appear in New York at book events on Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. at the NYU Wagner School and on Mar. 6 at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, hosted by n+1 magazine.

This interview, which was conducted by MetroFocus Production Coordinator Daniel T. Allen, has been edited and condensed.

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