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The Spirit of Cities

Posted by Josh Rothman  July 3, 2012 12:47 PM

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Boston vs. New York, Paris vs. London, L.A. vs. San Francisco: These sorts of city vs. city arguments are usually just fun and games. What if we took them seriously? That's what the political scientists Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit do in The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age. Cities, they write, really are very different; they embody distinct facets of human experience in a way that's worthy of detailed study. In fact, in a globalized world, in which global trade and media are making nations more and more similar, the uniqueness of the world's best cities is more important than ever. Everybody may be watching The Office in their native language, but it's still the case that different great cities explore different facets of experience: "Jerusalem (religion), Montreal (language), Singapore (nation building), Hong Kong (materialism), Beijing (political power), Oxford (learning), Berlin (tolerance and intolerance), Paris (romance), and New York (ambition)." In fact, cities may now be more distinct and interesting than the countries that house them.

The idea that different cities represent or embody different aspects of life goes back, they point out, to the ancient world. Back then, Athens "represented democracy and faith in the judgment of ordinary people"; Sparta offered a "more disciplined" vision of life, holding up the ideal of the "citizen-soldier." Jerusalem embodied the religious aspects of life. In China, cities pursued different approaches to development and governance -- commercial, militaristic, and scholastic. It seemed natural and obvious that different cities would develop different cultures and ways of living -- that was just part of the point of living in a city.

The same, they think, is true today: Just as Athens and Sparta differed, so do Beijing and Shanghai, or Berlin and Paris. A modern city can possess an ethos which is just as distinct and interesting as any ancient city's. They even break down the ingredients necessary for a truly meaningful urban ethos. First of all, you have to have a relatively integrated population, without unbridgeable socioeconomic or ethnic gaps -- that way, everyone in your city can share in a single way of life. Once that's in place, it helps to have a healthy rivalry with another city. Your ethos will be even more defined if, in some way, your city has to struggle to maintain its way of life (think of people in Montreal, fighting to keep their French-speaking heritage); it also helps to have a strong central executive in charge, like New York mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, along with strong-willed city planners. Finally, your ethos really takes shape when you have a powerful public-relations campaign, either an official one (like "I Love New York") or a more diffuse cultural agreement, like the sense that Paris is for lovers.

Once these conditions are met, Bell and de-Shalit argue, the stage is set for your city to become truly distinctive. All cities, of course, have their own character -- but it's surprising, they argue, just how deeply a city's ethos can penetrate into its culture and architecture. Using a combination of statistics, history, interviews, social theory, and their own personal experiences as city residents, Bell and de-Shalit chart the ways in which an ethos can manifest itself in different, ramifying, self-reinforcing ways. Take New York, which early on established itself as a city of strivers. Everything about the city speaks to its ambition-centered ethos, from its public schools, which use competitive admissions tests, to its flashy fashion culture. Even its grid-based street layout, they show, arose from the sense that New Yorkers were ambitious regular folks: It allowed for quick, cheap building and fast expansion, which made building lucrative, and it created pedestrian-friendly streets perfect for people too poor to avoid their own horses and carriages. (Conversely, think of the way that houses in upper-crust Boston neighborhoods like Back Bay and Beacon Hill have back entrances and alleyways for servants.)

This sort of holistic organization, they write, is neither an accident of history nor an artifact of the way we think about our cities. It's actually the case that, over time, the architecture, geography, and culture of a city reinforce one another, often around a set of core values. Over time, cities come to embody both the positive and negative aspects of those values. So New York is a city of strivers -- but it's also characterized by a tough, callous, and sometimes hubristic sense of individualism; that's why, today, it's a center for modern finance and for disastrous financial over-reach. Jerusalem has neighborhoods built around the highest, most admirable aspects of religious faith -- but it also has neighborhoods which embody, in their demographics and architecture, the most atavistic and violent aspects of religion.

Bell and de-Shalit acknowledge that their account of urban ethos is woefully incomplete: It'll be up to other authors, they write, to do the same work for their own cities (perhaps highlighting "sports in Green Bay, dissent in Berkeley, environmentalism in Portland"). Boston, unfortunately, didn't make their list, which gives us all something to think about. In the meantime, their book suggests, it can be productive and valuable to think of your own city in terms of its ethos. The strengths in civic life that allow an ethos to flourish are often beneficial in other ways, too.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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