My husband and I recently moved back to Washington, D.C., after a three-year assignment in Beijing. We lived an uncluttered life there, bringing only some kitchen essentials, clothes, and a few pieces of furniture. But now we’ve moved back home and unpacked our household items from where they had been stored—unneeded, unwanted, unnecessary—for three years. There are comforter sets we haven’t used in 15 years, pictures in cracked frames, and enough scented candles to light a church.
So the timing of William Powers’ new book, New Slow City, could not have been better. The book, a memoir of a time when Powers and his wife tried “living simply in the world’s fastest city” (New York, but that’s because he hasn’t seen Beijing), explains how the couple sold off, threw out, and gave away 80 percent of their possessions and moved to a “micro apartment” of 340 square feet. The place was so small that anyone who wanted to sit on the toilet had to leave the bathroom door open. The kitchen counter was four inches by eight inches.
Powers, a freelance writer, development worker, and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute who has lived in Latin America, Africa, and the U.S., is also the author of 2010's Twelve by Twelve, an account of living for two months in a tiny, off-the-grid North Carolina cabin. In New Slow City, he applies the minimalism to Manhattan, where he spends his time staring at fledgling pigeons on his building’s rooftop, sipping cappuccino (“dry and extra hot”) at his neighborhood café in Greenwich Village, taking yoga classes, and hopping the train to go hiking and camping in upstate New York while his wife works as a program specialist at the United Nations. Harsher critics might call it a life full of “stuff white people like.”
He says he wrote the second book as a response to the first, as many readers asked him how they were supposed to apply that kind of Walden-inspired living to their daily urban lives.
Powers spoke to CityLab about his eventual move to Bolivia with his wife and new daughter, living at the third story, and how some Google geeks in Cambridge impressed him.
How does this book apply to others? Not many people could imagine living in a micro apartment in Greenwich Village.
I don’t think it’s a prescriptive experiment that we did. If anything, I would say you should do something. In this era of climate crisis and all kinds of threats to the environment, do something, anything. This book is a memoir as a way of inspiring people to find their own answers.
Do you have any practical advice for decluttering?
Look at each thing and see if it sparks joy in you. I’ve just seen, from spending the last 15 years living around the world, how happily people live with much less than we do. Lots of Americans haven’t seen other options. They might have read about it in Walden, but [I] viscerally lived it in Ghana, where you see 10 people living in a small place, but who are happy. Kids play with a wheel by pushing it around all day. By giving yourself a little more hardship, you stimulate your creativity and it’s a way of making you feel more alive.
You talk a lot about the “leisure ethic.” What is that?
I just started to realize, especially after living in parts of the world where people value time and family and leisure and doing nothing, that out of the 21 industrialized countries, we [in the U.S.] work the most hours. We now work nine weeks more than the average European. Really? I recently read that 41 percent of Americans don’t take all of their annual vacation. So I started to think, "Is this the best life?" No. This is a life being dictated and programmed into us by a pure bottom line.
Another theme in the book is what you call “living at the third story.” Can you explain?
It’s a way of getting out of the craziness of life at street level. There’s a whole other area above your head where there is no human activity at all. There are gargoyles, hawks on the arch [of Washington Square Park], even the sky. It’s taking the time to notice fast-moving clouds. I think 95 percent of people walk around New York not noticing any of that.
You’ve been on a book tour recently. Has that been a bit of culture shock after your efforts at living a simple life?
Over the past few years, I feel like I’ve become a more resilient, happy person from all of these practices I’ve been talking about. It’s a way of not being overworked and stressed. So I can go on tour. It’s almost the same as being in a Bolivian village. There’s an incredible flow to it. You’re working but you’re in a flow state of work.
Do you think American culture is improving or getting worse?
Maybe I’m a philosophical pessimist and a pragmatic optimist. On a day-to-day level, optimism is the only philosophy, although we’re going in the wrong direction on a lot of issues. So I don’t think the overall culture is developing a leisure ethic. There’s no change in the corporate purchase of Washington. Militarism is extreme. On the other hand, there are amazing pockets of resistance, this great turning from the eco-cidal culture to a culture of life.
It even happens when you least expect it. I was at Google in Cambridge giving a talk. There were all these techies. But it turned out that MIT folks and people at Google are rebels, and they responded to me as another nonconformist. These are the absolute winners in our society, who have some of the most competitive jobs you could have, but they are open to any ideas that will increase their well-being.
What do you mean when you talk about the smart city?
A smart city should have three things: First, nature. It should re-nature itself through parks and estuaries. The second is that it should be ecologically sustainable. And the third is having more of these work-life balance policies in the city. New York, for example, slowed down the speed limit. The maximum speed is now 25 [miles per hour]. And activists say it should be 15!
What’s your take on the "Slow Movement"?
Most people are familiar with the "slow-food" movement. There are conviviums, where groups prepare local food together. It’s a reaction to fast food.... [P]eople complain that nobody has time to prepare meals together. So you have to look at public-policy things like taking back our time. It would be better to have a mandatory six weeks of vacation a year.
You, your wife, Melissa, and your new baby daughter Clea just moved from New York to a village in Bolivia. How did that come about?
It was a conundrum. I found so many tools and practices for living well in New York, so many reasons to stay. But my wife and I both had been doing development and conservation work in Bolivia, and we have such a community there. And my first daughter Amaya lives in Santa Cruz, about two hours from where we are. We see her at least once every three weeks.
So we built a house, experimenting and using environmental materials. We did everything out of adobe that we found on the land, so we don’t need heating or cooling. The mass of bricks keeps it 22 degrees Celsius all year long. The water is all recycled. It has only one bedroom and a loft over the kitchen. So it’s not the micro apartment, but it’s not huge.