These books – Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle, and David Bruno’s The 100 Things Challenge, to name a few – are so compelling because they answer the question of, What if I actually? What if I actually lived as sustainable as possible in NYC? What if I actually moved to Appalachia and earnestly tried to grow my own food? What if I really did donate almost everything I own? Would I be happier? What would I have to sacrifice? Is it even possible? They give us information, opening a door onto a path we haven’t yet decided whether to take. And, if I’m being honest, they allow me to pick and choose aspects of their extreme lifestyle to incorporate into my more normal lifestyle.
It is with this attitude I dug into New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, by William Powers, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct faculty member at New York University. The book is a followup to Twelve by Twelve, his account of living in a 12-by-12 foot cabin in the woods and how that changed his outlook. I hadn’t heard of the original, but obviously the sequel interested me more anyway, being a New Yorker.
In this book, Powers and his wife give up their 2,000-square-foot apartment in Queens and move into a tiny, 350-square-foot apartment in the West Village. Not only that, he seriously draws down his freelance working hours to just two days a week – with the help of some savings and his wife, who keeps her full-time job. Then he challenges himself to find peace and tranquility in the middle of the city that never sleeps.
Obviously, not everyone can choose to work only two days a week for a year, so his experience is innately a privileged one. And Powers is not the best writer in the world – his attempts to write romantic descriptions as if he were a novelist fall short. But despite this, I still found what I was looking for: inspiration, a critical look at the status quo, and actionable steps I could take to slow down a bit. Powers shares his “urban sanctuary” method, where he finds little pockets of peace throughout the city he can visit often. He and his wife walk around looking up to the third story of the city, which is much more peaceful and interesting than what is happening on the dirty sidewalks. And there are other valuable strategies inside.
Most importantly, he shifted my view of the city and my role in it. I found myself telling several people about the book as I was reading it, sharing his theories and ideas gleaned from indigenous cultures and the sustainable lifestyle movement. I’ve also found myself incorporating his strategies into my life. One day I was at a boat party, and the sun was setting as we rounded the tip of Manhattan. I walked to edge of the boat, leaned on the railing, and spent a good 20 minutes watching Governor’s Island and Brooklyn slide by, grabbing a few moments of peace and beauty and letting the music provide the perfect backdrop. Several friends checked on me to make sure I was OK, but I was great. Those 20 minutes are the only part of the boat party I really remember.
I also related to his inner crisis that comes partway through the book, when he becomes utterly discouraged by the way society operates. I’ve felt that way too, even if I would never do what he did, which was jumping into what is probably a hugely filthy creek into the Bronx and floating suspended and depressed in the murky water. In fact, there are several moments like that when I thought, “This guy can’t be serious.” Powers takes the slow lifestyle to the extreme, testing the boundaries of what polite society will allow in Manhattan. Sure, I would never spend hours listening to a band in Washington Square Park, or dangle my feet into the Hudson River off a pier. But in doing so, he shows us what we can realistically do to improve our mental hygiene and live as if we are out in the countryside, even if we don’t have that option available to us.
If you’re a New Yorker, a Chicagoan, or San Franciscan, I highly recommend you get this book and take it with you as you navigate the city. We could all use a little mental detox, and New Slow City will do the trick.