As I sit at my desk in the cubicle-like confines of my room in a Manhattan apartment, I feel a kind of stifling comfort. It’s a peaceful claustrophobia, the smallness of the space at once intimate and anxiety-inducing. It’s like being tucked under a thousand blankets, simultaneously cozy from their warmth while also struggling to breathe under the soft weight of layered fleece. Thankfully, a park-facing window permits flooding natural light, and pivotal access to a fire escape affords me a reprieve whenever I need it—a deep gulp of Upper West Side air anytime I feel overwhelmed. As I jut my neck out the window, my eyes blinking furiously as they adjust to the swelling midday sun, I hear the rusty and raucous warble of an afternoon saxophone lesson emanating from an open window a few floors below. Pulling my head back inside with an exasperated huff, my ears are met with the sounds of intermittent thudding and slight moans from the poorly insulated drywall to my left. I jam my AirPods into the sides of my head and turn the volume all the way up, attempting to drown out the sound of my neighbors’ afternoon delight with David Bowie’s glittery voice. As I try not to think about what my middle-aged floormates look like without clothes on, I realize I don’t even have a frame of reference—I’ve never actually seen them. I’ve heard their pillow talk, but I wouldn’t be able to point them out on the street. Sax or sex, the fragmented illustrations and vignettes my mind has created of these people are like out-of-focus images, an aberration that is enduringly blurry and decidedly distant.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Before moving to New York, before residing in an environment ironically saturated with both abundance and anonymity, I lived in provincial suburbia—a place where knowing your neighbor is almost as important as knowing the hottest gossip about them. Unlike life in a bustling cityscape, my time in the suburbs was essentially defined by cultivating close relationships with those proximally near me. This was due in part to my family’s large size—from the oldest to the youngest, our social circles are inflated and interwoven—as well as the fact that my parents have always prided themselves on their open-porch policy. What’s more, the neighbors who live next door and across the street from us are all very close family friends. Just a few weeks ago, after spending some time at home to celebrate my birthday with family, I was saddled with an inordinate amount of Italian pastries, bouquets, and miscellaneous Hallmark cards from caring neighbors as I left to return to New York. An extension of affection from a small New Jersey town, the suburbs where I grew up were both charming and wholly devoid of privacy. And for the most part, I didn’t mind. Sure, there were times when an unexpected peer in the window from a neighbor looking to borrow a hammer, at the exact moment when I emerged topless from the laundry room, made me consider the advantages of becoming a hermit. But inadvertent nip slips aside, surprise drop-bys from neighbors were always gentle and pleasant reminders of the many friendships my family had formed over the years.
A city like New York, however, doesn’t merely encourage intermingling, it mandates it. If you want to be able to flaunt the fact that you live there, you need to accept the total lack of privacy—not only from your neighbors but from everyone—that is part and parcel of inhabiting it. Cramped subway cars teeming with New Yorkers packed together like canned sardines; Ubers and taxis, ridden and driven by complete strangers; the unbroken refrain of ambulance sirens mingling with your virtual thesis proposal on cognitive behavior in fruit flies.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 mystery thriller film Rear Window offers a temporally dated yet topical as ever cinematic exploration of the banes and boons of privacy (or lack thereof) in urban landscapes. James Stuart plays L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, a professional photographer living in Greenwich Village, Manhattan during an intense summer heatwave. Confined to his apartment as the result of a broken leg, Jeff passes the time by gazing out the rear window of his apartment into a shared courtyard. Driven by an incessant penchant for watching his neighbors, Jeff eventually becomes embroiled in a murder that has occurred in a neighboring apartment. The film’s exploration of voyeurism, striking set design, and portentous camera movement are notable Hitchcockian film techniques, but they’re also stark reminders of the way urban spaces are shared spaces, both in practice and in theory, by everyone they contain. The film also emphasizes the ways in which privacy is largely impossible in a place where we are constantly seeing and being seen, whether we are aware of it or not.
Like the casual comfort engendered by suburban settings, privacy is also often unattainable in cities; however, the key difference lies in how well we know the people who are encroaching on our lives and vice versa. The mysterious intrigue of city-neighbors, of knowing people mainly from the sound of their orgasms as opposed to the size of their dog’s poop on your meticulously manicured lawn, compels us to be simultaneously more aloof and nosy than we’ve ever been anywhere else we’ve lived. A far cry from the colloquialism of clothesline conversations in my suburban hometown, hearing the happenings from the wall to my left in Manhattan has proven to be both an exceptionally private and non-private experience.
Despite having first-hand exposure to neighborhood communities in northeast suburbs and cities, I remain ignorant to many of those elsewhere in America. From snow-capped mountain ranges in Wyoming, to lush tropical beaches in Hawaii, to sprawling cornfields in the Midwest, I have only ever envisioned and understood the appeal of these places from the ephemeral vantage point of a two-week tourist. But I have a sneaking suspicion that no matter where you live, the uncanniness that underpins neighbors remains—the feeling of comforting strangeness that surrounds the quasi-liminal spaces and stereotypes they occupy is constant. Intrusive gossip, half-formed friends, potential serial killers, mortal enemies, narcissists, book-club buddies—these are the people who exist in flux with our own lives more than anyone else, as our neighbors interact with our personal privacy in especially overt and subtle ways.
Neighbors embody a familiar uneasiness. Their existence is suffused with irony, as the people who are geographically closest to us while also figuratively the most distant. Like the feeling of walking barefoot over hot asphalt in the summertime or the taste of bright pink bubblegum, our neighbors don’t enter our minds until they directly confront us, forcing the experience of interacting with them upon us. Until they show up at our front door with a blueberry pie or develop a propensity for mowing the lawn at 5 AM every morning, our neighbors sit idle in our brains, waiting to be plucked from oblivion and invited over for a cold beer. Perhaps we should let them live rent-free in our heads. But I guess that would be a conflict of interest.
By Gabriella Ferrigine