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Urban Tribes

March 19th, 2004 · No Comments

Via David Weinberger’s reporting from the SXSW conference, I learned about author Ethan Watters and Urban Tribes:

Ethan Watters, author of Urban Tribes is talking about some anxieties he has about the current generation of youngsters. For example, this gen is delaying marriage longer than any in American history. They are, surveys show, more “out for themselves.” “They are freer,” Ethan says, “than any other generation”: Free from the commitments of their parents, freer from parental control, free of long-term commitments to jobs and places, freer in the available social options, free of commitment to national movements, free of a sense that they’ve been chosen from some higher mission.

From an interview on Urban Tribes the blog :

Ethan Watters: “Urban tribes” describes the social networks of friends we create in cities. While tribes can include married couples, they’re usually composed of those who have delayed marriage into their late twenties, thirties and forties. For a time, these tribes can replace our families as our primary social support system. We have inner-connected relationships with people in our tribes, we create rituals with them. Sometimes these rituals are as simple as eating dinner every week at the same restaurant or taking a Memorial Day hiking trip, but these repeated activities result in a sense of group history. Because of this shared history, urban tribes can lose members over time and gain new ones and still feel like the same group.

The formation of urban tribes seems completely predictable given the fracture of the family. People are social creatures. They want tribes. Need tribes. And when familes became broken into pieces, holiday celebrations involving stops with various stepfamilies, one could wonder why bother going home. Too much time and too much tension. The advent of choice has allowed people to choose their own families. Find with friends what you couldn’t have at home.

This is how I felt as a young adult. However I didn’t end up in an urban tribe, per se. I married young. My husband’s family lived nearby and we spent holidays with them. And for me spiritual community became a tribe as well. Those with whom I shared the same faith formed another family for me. To this day, almost a decade after moving away, I am close to many from that community. Without marriage or spirituality as a bonding force, I can see how urban tribe would become necessity.

Of course the big question with urban tribes is babies. How do children change the relationships?

From David Weinberger’s notes:

What happens when you get married? [He’s asking my question off the IRC!]

A: I’m married and we had a baby 5 months ago. [He shows a picture. The baby is in a hat. Can’t get much cuter than that :)] I felt I had to step away from role in my tribe to take the risk of relationship. You invest in the relationship. And then you can step back into the group in a new way. It’s unclear what that new role is. I won’t be the person who plans the trip, but I’ll be a participant. For the tribe relationship not to just disappear, people have to recognize it, and give a name to it. [So, how many nights a week is Ethan thinking he’ll be away from his family? Just curious.] .

I think that there are two answers to this question of children and tribe.

1. You can still be tribe with kids.

On Ethan Watters blog I enjoyed an article titled My Best Ex-friends from the New York Times. Bob Morris described how he and a friend used to get together and make music, jamming piano with trombone or mandolin, but after she got married and had kids, he stopped seeing her.

When she married and moved in with a nice, stable real estate developer, we abandoned our routine. She was busy, and I, single New Yorker that I am, wasn’t interested in getting to know someone with whom I couldn’t network or play duets.

I had many other friends to fill the void. They didn’t come with spouses attached, let alone children to distract from our fun.

It’s not that I don’t like having friends. It’s just that like so many urban dwellers who have avoided settling down until the last possible moment, I have so many friends to choose from. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to plan spontaneous evenings with people who don’t have baby sitter issues or dull spouses. When married couples get together, the talk of children and schools can make a single person feel sadly out of the loop.


The other day, when I arrived to see my old neighbor and playmate in her big new town house and big new life, I thought I’d just meet and greet the kids, deliver some presents and high-tail it out of there, never to return. She opened the door looking eclectically chic in a little pencil skirt and sherpa boots. She was thrilled to see me, even if one of her children was cranky, the other covered in baby food and her kitchen under renovation. Within minutes, we were making music together just as we used to.

The kids danced around us. They loved it. “Bob is a lot of fun,” she told them.

I’ll definitely be back soon for another play date. I love a captive audience.

I loved how he discovered that children didn’t change the joy of the relationship. They only added to it! Ted and I experienced this as some of our friends had children before we did, and we’ve had fun introducing our kids to our “old” friends. The kids have helped draw us closer together.

2. Children create their own tribes.

If you want to meet people, all you have to do is have a baby. Walking around with a pregnant belly is an invitation to conversation. Pushing a stroller provides more opportunities to engage strangers in dialogue. Through our children we’ve formed relationships with many people we wouldn’t have met otherwise. Sure it takes more time and intention to make friendships during the baby years. I’ve had to cancel playdates due to various fevers and infections. Finding time for the phone can be difficult. But if both children and parents click, then the relationship is golden, precious and prized. It forms its own tribe. I’ve heard of many childbirth classes that have stuck together for years after the babies were born, the mothers and fathers forming long relationships, sharing life together. There are playgroups that endure well into elementary school.

The family unit forms the first tribe. It is its own tribe. But that doesn’t mean that all other relationships die. Or that this smaller unit can’t join into larger ones. The tribes just get bigger and better with babies.

Tags: family