Is it possible to live a consciously slow, self-paced, and simple life in New York City, the epicenter of adrenaline and work-life overload? William Powers tries to do just that in his thought-provoking new memoir New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City (public library).
A Year-Long Experiment in Manhattan
Powers begins his quest after taking a hard look at his daily choices. Like many New Yorkers, work had become the center of his life. He took on too many work commitments, worked until 2:00am on writing assignments, and responded to emails at all hours “in order to stay in a loop that never seemed to close.” He and his new wife Melissa’s schedules were so jam-packed that they took separate honeymoons.
In his previous book, Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin, Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream, Powers chronicled his time in a tiny off-the-grid cabin in rural North Carolina. Now back in city and “caught up in the prevailing turbo-capitalist ethos,” he wondered what had happened to one of the big lessons he learned while in the 12 x 12 cabin: “the need to balance my constant doing with the joy of simply being — a kind of Leisure Ethic.”
He and his wife Melissa decided to downsize from their spacious Queens home to a 350-square-foot apartment in Greenwich Village. This move began their year-long experiment to create a sustainable lifestyle in the world’s fastest city,”the most difficult place on the planet — the hot core of global capitalism, Manhattan.”
Embracing Slowness in the City
The word “slow” conjures up inefficiency and dullness, the very qualities New Yorkers despise. So what does Slow Living mean for a city-dweller? Powers offers a clarifying definition:
Slow means cultivating positive qualities – being receptive, intuitive, patient, reflective, and valuing quality over quantity – instead of the fast qualities so common today: being busy, controlling, impatient, agitated, acquisitive.
In order to create his new Slow Life, Powers set out to:
- Embrace minimalism by downsizing living space and personal belongings
- Work a maximum of two days per week, freeing up time for a “leisure-rich” life
- Spend time in urban nature, cultivate a regular yoga practice, and foster daily mindfulness of the beauty of New York City
Living the Leisure Ethic in the West Village
Powers ask the salient question: Can only the rich can afford to go slow in Manhattan? He then encounters and deftly describes a colorful array of New York Characters — from the musicians in Washington Square Park’s daily acoustic jam session to pigeon aficionados to Rockaway Beach night swimmers — who are living lives of leisure.
Many “work 24/7: 24 hours a week, 7 months a year.” He describes how they work for time as much as for money. They an earn that time by “living smaller, simpler, and smarter.”
Slow is about taking the necessary time to create a new economy centered on self-paced living.
Power delves into Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto and the historical vilification of leisure time. He talks with John de Graaf from the Take Back Your Time project about how the US is a”no-vacation nation.” He describes Vicky Robin’s joy-to-stuff ratio: The time a person has to enjoy life versus the time a person spends accumulating material goods.
Powers created a two-day work week by limiting his daily costs, having a healthy savings, and working more efficiently. He used Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the amount of time available to accomplish it) to his advantage and worked a focused but limited amount of time.
Even though he was successful at this “self-paced work day,” over the course of New Slow City Powers went from working two days to a full five days a week. He struggled as new opportunities and his own ambition thwarted his goal for a leisure-rich life.
Slow City Practices
Powers and his wife used these techniques to develop a slow mindset :
- Cultivate anticipation and savor experiences
- Live at the third story: pay attention to what is happening above the street to rise out of the “buy-o-sphere and into the biosphere”
- Seek out urban sanctuaries
Powers described his surprise and delight at discovering the natural city, whether it was urban sanctuaries like my own personal favorite St. Luke’s Gardens, exploring the wilderness accessible from MetroNorth like Bear Mountain, Doodletown, and Harriman State Park, or spending time at “Tar Beach” – their own rooftop in the West Village.
I feel that spending time in urban nature is incredibly important to living the slow life in the city and I enjoyed reading about Powers’s nature experiences and discoveries in NYC.
A Memoir, Not a How-To Guide
New Slow City is a memoir — not a guide to creating your own urban slow life. You may feel like Powers, a freelance writer and sustainable development expert, has a life that doesn’t resemble your own and therefore his life choices seem out of reach.
But I think New Slow City is a worthwhile read. It inspired me to ask new questions about my own habits, to embrace my own leisure ethic in the city, and to read further.
If you find yourself on another bleary morning commute, listening to your inner Tyler Durden rant about how you are working a job you hate to buy stuff you don’t need, consider reading New Slow City.