Book review: ‘New Slow City,’ by William Powers
Special to the Daily
The recent desire to live “tiny” is all the rage, as there is a common consensus that Americans, in particular, have taken the square footage of homes to unsustainable dimensions. The pendulum is now swinging in the opposite direction, and small homes have become the new chic. The mainstream version of downsizing has people giving up a bedroom or two or the coveted great room with its arched ceilings, but there are those on the fringe of the movement who have gone straight to a Lilliputian scale, choosing to make homes out of what amount to little more than very chic gypsy caravans.
As a caravan implies, these tiny houses are often portable, or at the very least, they tend to be situated in a fairly rural setting. What happens, though, when the desire to live small meets the confines of New York City, the quintessential urban setting?
Author William Powers explores just that in his recent book “New Slow City,” in which he examines the practicality and plausibility of living green and remaining happy while sharing a 320-square-foot “micro-apartment” in the heart of Greenwich Village with his new wife. This wasn’t Powers’ first venture into the world of tiny living; rather, this second adventure stemmed from a challenge to himself after his first book, “Twelve by Twelve,” garnered some criticism, as many thought his rural, off-the-grid experiment was impractical and unrealistic.
Clearly not one to shy away from a challenge, Powers argues that a city like New York is the perfect environment in which to experiment with making less of a footprint on the planet. First, he says, with population growth on course to hit 10 billion by 2050, and with nearly three-quarters of those people destined to be living in cities, finding a way to live simply in an urban setting is imperative.
Adopting a ‘Leisure Ethic’
Living in a smaller physical space was just one component of his yearlong experiment; adopting a “leisure ethic,” in general, was the second goal. “Slow is not Luddite. It means cultivating positive qualities,” according to the author or, in other words, avoiding the standard traps of modern life — overworking, anxiety, sleepless nights and the endless, frantic effort to acquire the latest gadgets.
Even for someone who happily spent a year living in a 144-square-foot cabin in the forests of North Carolina, the first impression of the couple’s Greenwich Village third-floor walk-up is overwhelming, and the doubt threatens to push him and his wife and their too many boxes right back to the curb. Instead, they pare down their already diminished belongings, keeping only what truly has a use, and they get down to the business of living.
For his wife that means continuing her well-placed job at the UN, and for the author it means tackling the next obstacle on his list of changes. A self-described “work junkie,” he sets his mind to restricting his work time to no more than two days per week. The rest of his time, he plans to spend “being” rather than “doing,” and he decides the peaceful green spaces of the city are going to be crucial components of his experiment. Of course, as far as urban sanctuaries go, New York has one of the best — Central Park — but for the author, that is just one of the many parks that become his regular haunts.
One of his “slow year” goals is to keep a notebook with all his thoughts and doubts. Americans have all been trained to feel guilt when they are not working and punching the time clock, and he wanted to make himself open to those feelings of self-reproach and to ponder them when they came over him. As his self-condemnation begins to fade, so too does the sense of confinement in their small apartment. He discovers that the world outside their four walls has expanded, as his days are spent exploring the city and meeting interesting people, and their downtime is spent on their newly discovered — and technically off-limits — apartment building roof, which they dub “Tar Beach.”
A Routine out of doing Nothing
As he steps back from his former daily routine, he quickly realizes that it is possible to build a routine out of doing nothing. So, he forces himself to mix things up, heading out of the city on occasion to explore the natural beauty upriver. Access to nature, he knows, is vital to the slow lifestyle. Vast tracts of land are not required; a shady tree or a patch of grass can go a long way to creating calm. Simple pleasures from nature can be found anywhere, he insists, even in the tall canyons of the Big Apple.
Even as he tries to shake things up for himself, life throws a few curveballs of its own into the mix when he is offered a decent teaching job and his wife becomes pregnant. Everything shifts again, and he acknowledges the challenges these large life changes can inflict upon one’s intent to live deliberately and with slow consideration. He does not abandon his project, nor does he forgo his plans even when Hurricane Sandy roars ashore.
After his “slow” year, which still manages to have the inevitable tumultuous moments that are a part of living, he concludes that a leisure ethic “cures affluenza, not poverty and inequality.” Deliberate living can work for everyone, but the challenges are real.
The main goal is the intention, the mindfulness of purpose, the attention to every breath taken, every mouthful eaten and each engagement with others as one goes through life.