The lost link between a city's forgotten history and its cultural potential.
Athens is the birthplace of Western culture, with the physical ruins of its classical age still visibly present as a perpetual reminder. Virgil composed his epic poem, The Aeneid, recounting the mythic flight of Aeneas from defeated Troy to Italy, becoming the forbear of Rome. New York sees itself as unique center of commerce, founded when the Dutch (not the English) bought Manhattan for beads in the city’s first hustle. Nashville needs no reminder that it’s the center of country music, nor Detroit that it is the Motor City. In Indianapolis and Louisville, the deep traditions and rituals associated with their marquee events, the Indianapolis 500 auto race and the Kentucky Derby horse race, embody and define local culture.
It’s been widely observed that there’s an increasing sameness to cities today, a sort of neoliberal urban monoculture that’s swept the globe. Visit any city in the world and see the same boutique hotels, swank restaurants, outposts of global luxury brands, and so on. The travel guides published by the über-swank magazine Wallpaper are great for the cosmopolitan traveller, but also eerily similar from place to place. At the website The Verge, Kyle Chayka has written about the rise of what he calls “AirSpace,” a sort of uniform global aesthetic promoted especially by AirBnB listings. In the United States, after visiting cities in all fifty states, journalist Orianna Schwindt wrote in New York magazine about the “unbearable sameness of cities,” in which every coffee shop seemed to feature the exact same décor, right down to their Ikea lights.
There is truth in this claim of uniformity. A global economy demands globally standardized products that can be graded and traded. It demands a frictionless environment for business that requires places to present themselves as familiar to whomever from around the globe happens to arrive in them.
There’s an increasing sameness to cities today, a sort of neoliberal urban monoculture that’s swept the globe.
Yet beneath this veneer of sameness, beyond the Edison bulbs and Emeco chairs, cities are actually very different from one another, even within the same region of the country. This is true even if it can be difficult to articulate exactly what makes them unique. Some cities—London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and many more—have larger-than-life identities that even people who’ve never visited them know about. But even places where the local identity is not top of mind, the reality of that uniqueness is still there. Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus are all in the state of Ohio. But even if people can’t articulate what their local identity is, anyone visiting these three places can’t help but be immediately struck by how radically different they all are from each other.
This unique identity or personality of a place emerges from roots deep in their past. For Old World cities whose foundations are in the dim mists of history, this can only be recapitulated as myth. In the case of Rome, this is a myth as we traditionally understand it, as in The Aeneid. But for other places, the civic myths are of different form and origin. For those in the New World, civic identity is often being forged during the foundation generations of a place, of which we often possess contemporary records and so can study them historically in a different way. Who settles and initially governs a place matters a great deal to what a city is long afterward, even when the initial settlers are no longer present. The way this is uncovered and presented often comes in the form of history, but it has a mythic component as well, one that sometimes self-consciously seeks to justify a particular conception of a city.
We see this in the origin in New York, where the initial founding and governance by the open-minded, tolerant, and commercially oriented Dutch established a character that still inhabits the city today, despite the near absence of anyone of Dutch ancestry. While the Italians, Jews, and many, many other immigrants to New York profoundly shaped the city over time, the original Dutch ethos of the city also shaped them in return.
Though urban cultures are often protean and dynamic, consistent threads often run through them for the long haul. Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell puts it like this: “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines. Or, as Freud was to teach us, our adult lives largely repeat the emotional and intellectual responses established in early childhood. So in history the formative experiences of civilizations set patterns which successful generations forever seem to follow.”
The local founding and history has not just cultural but economic consequences. In her seminal comparison of the Bay Area and Boston examining how Silicon Valley came to dominate the American high-tech industry, vanquishing the Route 128–corridor cluster that had been the early leader and its onetime rival, AnnaLee Saxenian alights on culture as the distinguishing factor. In her book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, she contrasts the hierarchical, autarkic, firm-based business culture of Boston with the network-based collaborative business culture of Silicon Valley. Boston’s business culture derived from hundreds of years of local culture extending back to the Puritans. Indeed, the founder of Route 128’s most important tech company was called “a modern-day Puritan.” But Silicon Valley’s business culture emerged from the group of transplants from elsewhere who arrived in California having rejected the old ways of doing business from where they came from back East.
And as researcher Sean Safford noted in his comparison of the different fortunes of the superficially similar communities of Allentown and Youngstown in the wake of their respective steel-industry collapses, “Culture does not determine one’s actions, but it may limit the possibilities.” In Allentown, the history of the community created civic relationships that gave local leaders the capability to organize themselves to respond to the crisis after economic networks collapsed. This was not the case in Youngstown. These differences extended back to the founding of these places.
Pure economic history plays a role as well. As sociologist Saskia Sassen, the leading global expert on global cities, points out,
The deep economic history of a place matters for the type of knowledge economy a city or a city-region winds up developing. This goes against the common view that globalization homogenizes economies. How much this deep economic history matters varies, partly depending on the particulars of a city’s or a region’s economy. But it matters more than is commonly assumed, and it matters in ways that are not generally recognized.
As she observes, if you want to trade steel internationally you go to Chicago not New York, because Chicago was the centre of the industrial economy of which steel was a part, giving it deeply specialized knowledge and expertise in steel and similar commodities.
How is this history, and thus so much of the identity, culture, and economy of a place, understood and communicated? Despite the importance of understanding local history and culture, especially that of the founding generations of cities, it is often little studied and little known. Thus so many cities struggle to even understand who they are. New York is unusual in that so much has been written about its history and culture, perhaps the result of it being the literary and media capital of the country. There are vastly more first-rate writers and journalists living in New York than anywhere else. As a result, there’s a surfeit of great books—along with magazines, movies, and other cultural products—on the city’s history, culture, and places, each mutually shaping and reinforcing its identity.
Journalist Russell Shorto titled his bestselling book The Island at the Center of the World, reflecting a true history but also a self-conscious civic conceit, a civic myth of sorts. This myth was most famously embodied in the famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue” cover of The New Yorker from 1976, in which the world beyond the Hudson river shrivels into near nothingness. This is a stereotype of a mindset to be sure, but also one at some level embraced by the people who live there—and also something of a reality as well. There’s a reason why every New Year’s Eve America tunes in to its televisions to watch a glowing ball drop on Times Square. It’s a ritual acknowledgement that, for Americans at least, New York is the centre of the world. And Shorto’s stress on the unique Dutch founding of New York emphasizes its difference from the rest of the country, telling a story of New York’s identity that today’s residents want very much to believe, as open-minded, multicultural, tolerant, global, and so on. New York’s history as a slaveholding city doesn’t factor in so much in this sort of self-congratulatory analysis.
But unlike New York or Chicago, where bookshelves groan with excellent titles about them, for most cities, there’s not that much written about them. As a researcher and writer who often profiles overlooked cities, I often try to read key local histories or other books about them for background. For most places, the pickings are slim. Not only do most cities have relatively few books written about them, what books do exist are often academic, published by local history enthusiasts on small presses, or official histories of various institutions. They are important works in many cases that have some of the only factual information about places available to people who don’t have endless days to trawl through archives. But they are rarely widely read and seldom capture the real feeling or identity of a place. So that route of civic self-understanding and myth-making is largely foreclosed to them.
But books and studies are not the only ways for local history, culture, and self-conception to be known and sustained. In some places, events or industries of great importance are so well known that books become secondary. Everyone in Detroit knows that it is the Motor City. Everyone knows of its rich musical heritage as Motown and more. Similarly, Nashville knows it is the capital of country music.
In other places, rituals and traditions can reflect or shape the local understanding of a community, even subconsciously. Consider the examples mentioned above of the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby. While both are premier global events, the differences between them illustrate well the very different cultures of the two cities, a gulf much vaster than the 110 miles that separates them.
The Derby is known for its glittering Millionaire’s Row, where the global elite and celebrities gather in their fancy clothes and hats. This is in keeping with horse racing’s status as “the sport of kings.” Actual local residents might patronize the infield, but more likely attend the Kentucky Oaks, a race held the day before and known as the race for the locals. The race reflects a two-tier society as historically the case in the more aristocratic South. But rather than a cause for resentment in the masses, the Derby’s Millionaire’s Row and other pastimes of the elite are a source of pride, something they see as reflecting well on their entire community, including themselves. As a result, wealthy Louisvillians are free to publicly engage in elite activities without shame.
Despite the importance of understanding local history and culture, especially that of the founding generations of cities, it is often little studied and little known. Thus so many cities struggle to even understand who they are.
Despite the glitter of auto racing internationally with Formula 1, the Indianapolis 500 is traditionally a more working-class event, attended by large numbers of locals. Until recently, the celebrities there have long been known more for local traditional appeal than contemporary star power. The beloved Jim Nabors, for example, sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the race for many years. The winner drinks milk not champagne. So we see in Indianapolis a more egalitarian, middle-class culture and social structure. The elite of the city are more down to earth. And the average resident would look skeptically at any who felt or acted in a way that suggested they were better than or different from anyone else.
Both Louisville and Indianapolis are great cities, but they each have their very distinct identities and personalities, each re-conveyed to themselves and the world once per year.
So there are many ways cities understand and internalize their own history and identity: through myth traditionally understood, through histories, through signatures elements so overwhelming they saturate the people and place, and through civic rituals and traditions. But in many places, this history and culture remains elusive. Because most cities don’t have that deep historical knowledge of themselves, they often fail to follow the ancient maxim “Know Thyself.” Because they don’t know themselves, they can’t express what they are even to themselves and often assume there must be nothing there. This is a mistake, because so many places do have a great history and a great identity. And a great city, like a great wine, must express its terroir.
When people in place don’t understand or believe that they do have a rich history and an identity worthy of embracing, that tragically leads them to try to imitate other places they think are worthy. This accounts for the curious fact that while every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, too many cities try their hardest to convince you that they are exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally cool. In that, they embrace and tout the trappings of unbearable sameness: bike lanes, microbreweries, coffee shops, and so on. These are all great parts of what today’s thriving cities have, but they fail to capture the magical uniqueness that makes each city a place of its own.
The American Midwest is perhaps the most tragic victim of this loss. The cities of this region were dealt a massive blow by deindustrialization and struggled to reinvent themselves for the knowledge economy in the way that coastal cities did. Their default response was one of shame, of shedding their agro-industrial heritage in a vain attempt to imitate the Portlands and Brooklyns of America.
But then what did we see embraced by those same coastal cities: artisanal pickles and other traditionally made foodstuffs, farm-to-table restaurants, urban agriculture, craft manufacturing, workwear-inspired clothing, and an embrace of working-class lagers like Pabst Blue Ribbon. These were all things that were native to the Midwest that the Midwest could have owned. A city like Columbus, Ohio, could have pioneered and owned the local food movement. But instead, places like it—terrified of being labeled a “cow town”—ended up reimporting their own heritage via Brooklyn’s reinterpretation.
Conversely, the cities of the South never stopped believing in themselves. Nashville kept country music front and centre, even when, perhaps, some civic leaders would have preferred to junk it. But they updated it for the twenty-first century. It’s now more Nashvegas than Hee-Haw, more Carrie Underwood than Minnie Pearle. They honour their past and see themselves as in continuity with it, but are doing something different today. Similarly, Lexington, Kentucky, is still all about bluegrass, bourbon, and basketball. Texas and its cities still have their swagger.
For those cities who don’t understand their identity or have failed to believe in its value, it’s probably not too late. In some cases industrial knowledge may have been lost. But the local culture is surely still there in some form, even if it may need to be updated for today’s realities. Today’s younger urban dwellers, who see these cities in a very different light than their parents and grandparents did, are ideally suited to this task. They missed the collapse of the urban-crisis era. In many cases their cities are now showing nascent signs of rebirth, setting the stage for the rediscovery of these places as cities on a potentially upward trajectory again. The generation who left Egypt was unable to enter the promised land. Sometimes it takes a new generation to look anew and see the possibilities of a place. They perhaps will be the ones to rediscover the identity of a place, to look again at its history, culture, its traditions and rituals, to embrace the uniqueness of their city as their own.Subscribe