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For me, living in the city was a means to kind of connect with people in an everyday, ordinary way without it having to be pretentious, to feel part of something and belong.
Source: VOA

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This is probably a ‘wild’ quotation, one taken from an unscripted interview, so although the subject is a highly-educated professional you should expect to encounter colloquial rather than formal use.

Although pretentious in formal use generally has the meaning Nico gives, “affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed”, in colloquial use it often means merely “involving pretence”. In this case I think that without it having to be pretentious is an expansion on in an everyday, ordinary way—the speaker feels that urban interactions allow to be who he really is, without having to affect an unnaturally formal style.

The colloquialism involved in part is syntactic. In the formal register we have more opportunity to get the prepositions right and say “feel part of and belong to something”, both prepositions taking something as their object. Here, the speaker’s thought runs a little faster than his ability to consruct his phrases.

There is another ellipsis at this point, which is formally acceptable: You feel part of something represents You feel that you are part of something.

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Google says that pretentious means:

pretentious /prɪˈtɛnʃəs/

adjective

1. attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed.

"pretentious art films"

synonyms: affected, ostentatious, chichi, showy, flashy, tinselly, conspicuous, flaunty, tasteless, kitschy;

Thus, I understand the expression without it having to be pretentious means that living in the city is a way to connect with people for which one wouldn't expect to be given any undue credit or merit.

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