Many friends have said to me that they love New York now in a way they never did before, and their love, I've noticed, takes for its object all the things that used to exasperate them--the curious combination of freedom, self-made fences, and paralyzing preoccupation that the city provides.

I don't know what the author means when he says "curious combination of freedom, self-made fences, and paralyzing preoccupation that the city provides."

  • 1
    I interpret the statement as NY offering many opportunities and options (freedom), together with strong community and demographic boundaries and socioeconomic partitioning (self-made fences). The paralyzing preoccupation I am less certain about, though it's a nice contrast of terms. I would say this refers to the endless motion and business of the place, which makes it hard to just stand still and do nothing. – Martin Krzywinski Mar 3 '15 at 20:17
  • You might want to look up "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '15 at 22:27

I've actually given a speech titled "Freedom Needs Fences". Some think freedom means no rules, but a community with no rules would quickly develop them. The right mix of freedom and fences is achieved when people are happy, yet they don't feel overwhelmed by the rules. Rules like, "Don't kill someone," and, "Don't take someone else's stuff," are pretty common.

As we age, we start to set up fences for ourselves. "When I get in the car, I do things in this particular order; if I don't, I'll forget something." You may not realize it, but that's a rule you've set up, whether you're religious about keeping it or not. In some situations, such as a pilot preparing for take-off, the checklist is almost a ritual that must be followed in order to be successful.

When you find yourself in a large crowd of people, such as a convention, what do you do? Are you an introvert, avoiding contact with all but a handful of friends? Are you an extrovert, making contact with as many people as you can? Even as an extrovert, I expect you have certain groups of people to whom you're attracted. These are additional rules people tend to make for themselves.

Now you're in New York City. You've got the population of medieval Europe crammed into Andorra (in the Pyrenees between Spain and France). You can bet there are communities: some of them don't like each other and some of them are oblivious of the others around them.


I'm inclined to see the phrase

the curious combination of freedom, self-made fences, and paralyzing preoccupation that the city provides.

as engaging rhetoric that doesn't bear close analysis.

The city provides a combination of things. OK.

The combination is curious. OK, curious in the sense of interesting or peculiar.

What things? Freedom, OK.

Self-made fences? self? who is the self here? The city provides self-made fences? Is the city making them itself? Or is the inhabitant of the city making them? In which case how did the city "provide" that? Perhaps the city provides situations where the people need to make fences? Not sure that I really believe that.

Paralyzing Preoccupation? With what are we preoccupied and how is it paralyzing us. Again how does the city "provide" this. Could a city provide preoccupation of any kind? Thinking of New York if it provides anything that preoccupies it is those things that lead to anything but paralysis - pushing, shoving, trading, making money.

How does any of that lead to love of the City?

I can imagine building a speech or a sermon that starts from this phrase and builds and explains. But in isolation I don't see an obvious meaning. It suggests ideas, witness other answers, but don't think it has clear meaning.

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