Shadow of bicyclist against a wall
Brian Snyder/Reuters

This week: Stories about the sort-of-secrets of the city.  

In a town hall last week, Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, was asked about the Obama-era internet privacy regulations that he had voted to strike down. The 2016 FCC rules prevented service providers such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from selling your browsing history to advertisers without your consent. Or, they would have, starting in December, if they’d been allowed to take effect, which they weren’t. “You know, nobody’s got to use the internet,” Sensenbrenner told his aggrieved constituent.

True enough! But people on the internet still objected to this formulation, noting that a great many working adults would find it very difficult indeed to find jobs or navigate their daily lives without internet access. Just 13 percent of American adults are taking Sensenbrenner’s advice these days, according to Pew Research Center. Most are, like the 73-year-old congressman, older—41 percent of those 65 and up say they never go online. Rural Americans are twice as likely to be internet non-users than urban or suburban dwellers; the phenomenon is also correlated with low income and educational attainment. The vast majority are not staying offline to avoid the prying eyes of the Man: Only 3 percent cite privacy concerns. Most just say they’re not interested, or it’s too expensive or difficult to learn. Along with pristine blank-slate browsing histories and minds unclouded by meme exposure, those who have sworn off online interactions also have the opportunity to preserve the mystery and awe of the pre-web world, a time when finding stuff out involved opening books, making phone calls, and physically leaving your immediate surroundings.

It’s tempting to romanticize this era, but there was a lot of schlepping involved. I belong to that sliver of the Gen X population that began its working years before widespread web access, and while intellectually I realize that I am the same person doing the same basic job, the poky rhythms of life before the Information Superhighway moved in now feel very alien indeed. Huge amounts of time and energy were once poured into the pursuit of questions that are now answered in the time it takes to type them.

I worked at alternative weeklies and city magazines, where the bills got paid with gala annual “Best of...” issues that often promised to reveal the “Secrets of the City.” These issues live on, of course, though the sense of occasion has diminished now that a session on Yelp can yield a similar, if not objectively better, set of results. Back, then, though, we took these responsibilities at least semi-seriously, since sussing out the Best Bar to Play Darts required phone calls and shoe leather and luck. (However, it was harder for readers of yore to angrily complain that you’d gotten it wrong.) The un-Googleable city was a fortress of secrets. And, once you’d penetrated it and determined (as I once did) where the best hole-in-the-wall Caribbean carry-out or Urban Fishing Hole was, you were likely to claim, righteously, that you’d discovered the place.

It’s a bit harder to make these statements now, though many still do. The city has no more secrets; everything and (almost) everyone is online, somewhere. We all became curators, not discoverers. But there’s still a value is surfacing these curios and artifacts and exposing them to new eyes.

This week, CityLab will be looking around for these not-quite-secrets and talking about why cities remain the best places to find them. Even the indexed, mapped, and fully searchable cities of the online age harbor their obscure corners and gnomic rituals, from speakeasies and private social clubs to forgotten landmarks and hidden infrastructure. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that the density and clamor of the urban environment provides just the camouflage that a true privacy-seeker requires today to truly get lost, online or off.

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