A recent article in Project Syndicate by professor and author Daniel Bell entitled Self and the City, expounds upon the idea that a city can embody a persona, and within that persona the more temporary lives of the people that live there can be influenced. He makes the points that in 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived within an urban environment, the result of 12,800 years (give or take) of gradually perfecting and improving upon the city; man’s habitat, as it were. However, by 2025 China will have 15 mega cities of over 25 million people apiece. In fact, urbanization has already risen to nearly 80%, and is likely to climb much higher in the next two decades. Urban environments provide people with a number of benefits, many seen, some unseen, and we have become to adept at organizing and running them that there’s little drawback to living in one.
One of those unseen benefits is being a part of the city’s persona, being a blood cell in the big manufactured beast and owning a small part of its being. Boston is a perfect example of this, a lovingly cultivated city with all of the modern amenities of any major metropolis, and one jealous of its history. It is an old city, by American standards, and the people are possessive of that history. However, the further you drive from The Green, the most you will understand that Boston is a hard laborer in a three-piece suit. The harbors, the small cramped neighborhoods, the harsh bite of the Boston American accent; all serve to show that Boston is still a hardscrabble city that has come by its success honestly.
Professor Bell elaborates on the persona of Paris, one of the most famously emotive cities in the world. Parisians, however, understand that the romance of the city is not some flowery adolescent version kissing beneath the Eiffel Tower. It’s the romance of art, beauty, and liberty, and the immense sacrifice that the city made in pursuit of them. As Bell describes, “Their idea of romance centers on its opposition to staid values and predictability of bourgeois life.”
Finally, I’d like to attempt to personify my own city. Omaha, Nebraska is no a romantic, historic, or even well-branded city. We’ve no grand claims to major history, nor are we known for any great achievements or cultural attractions. However, we have earned a place in the Midwest as a kind of oasis of finer culture among the plains and big Midwestern sky. To travel through the city is to see a conflict of old traditional Midwestern values and the burgeoning of a modern metropolitan arena. The city was born from railroad tracks and slaughterhouses, and though it has marched willingly into the 21st century, it struggle to marry the emerging liberal metropolitan culture to the staid rural conservatism of its beginning.
A city with a strong persona has the ability to empower people within their communities, and to lift society up to mutual respect and greater challenges than what we could tackle alone. We feel the pride of living within that community, owning that persona, and the ability of humanity to come together to face a common challenge has always been our greatest strength.