Storied Cities


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.

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.

Read the rest of this piece at Comment.

Aaron M. Renn is a writer and researcher on urban policy and culture. He focuses on the cities of the American Midwest. A former Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and partner with the consulting firm Accenture, he is regularly featured and cited in the global media. He and his family currently reside in Indianapolis.