Georg Simmel, who has written extensively about the nature of social interaction in urban space, argued at the beginning of the 20th century that modern cities are experienced largely through changing relations of proximity and distance.
For Simmel, these relations hold the key to how life in the modern world is experienced and lived. The context for Simmel’s writings is Berlin city life at the end of the nineteenth century, from which he drew much of his insight and inspiration (Allen 58).
Simmel adopted the figure of the stranger to explain the contradictory experience of what it means to interact socially with someone who is both near in a spatial sense, but at the same time distant in a social sense. The stranger implies a specific form of interaction. In urban life one may feel that he or she belongs to the city, but states at the same time his or her difference from others (Simmel 402-403).
The tension between nearness and distance is an important characteristic of urban life. In the case of the Maroccan bakery, proximity between the heterogeneous public of customers, that are mostly strangers to each other, is due to (limited) space. A certain distance between strangers can be considered as a necessary attitude in the often fast pace of urban life. The strategy for people to coop with the fast urban rhythm is to create a certain distance between themselves, others and events in the city. Simmel argues that this reserve or social distancing is due to the development of a mature money economy that caused the objectification of social relations and a culture of calculation. At the same time, this heightened form of impersonality allows one to walk a street without feeling obliged to talk to everyone along the way. Since it is simply impossible to negotiate the city in all its trappings, movements and differences, the cultivation of a social reserve forms an essential ingredient of urban life (Allen 61).
Allen, John. “On George Simmel. Proximity, Distance and Movement” In: Crank, Mike and Thrift, Nigel. Thinking Space. London: Routledge, 2000.
Simmel, Georg. ‘The Stranger’ in Wolff, K.H. (ed.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: The Free Press, 1950 .