I’ve long noted that the civic identity or culture of many places seems to be a cipher. What is our identity as a city? is a question frequently asked. And one that needs to be. Cities will succeed best when they undertake policies that are true to the place. To most successfully build or rebuild a place, it’s important to articulate that civic identity and work with it, not against it.
Of course some of that happens by the very fact that the people who live in a place are steeped in its culture. But a lack of self-awareness can be a big liability. As the Greek oracle noted, the first call is to “Know Thyself.”
But this is hard to do, both for people and places. It’s hard to give a succinct description of the culture of say Cleveland, Columbus, or Cincinnati, but visitors to those cities will be instantly struck by how starkly different they are.
To unearth and understand the culture and identity of a place requires going on an anthropological or archeological mission deep into the soil of a city, with a proper balance of affection and detachment. This takes time to do, and a lot of my own writing on various places would certainly be much better if I had time to embed in them and understand them more deeply.
One big advantage larger cities have is that they have a much larger supply of journalists and writers than smaller ones, and these are the very people who are most likely to investigate, unearth, and articulate that culture.
New York in an embarrassment of riches in this regard. Practically every day someone is writing something interesting about the city. Just today, for example, City Journal published a piece about the layers of New York history represented in Straus Park. And Urban Omnibus had one about finding New York in West Side Story.
Back when the mega-bookstore chains were still going strong, I always liked to visit one when I came to a city, and go to the “local interest” section. In too many places, the titles on offer were pathetic. A number of large cities don’t even seem to have one high quality history on offer.
The biggest cities, by contrast, had sections that were disproportionately large even relative to their larger population. There have been a massive number of great books written about Chicago, for example, and the Chicago section in the old downtown Borders was correspondingly huge.
You can learn a lot about a city just by taking a look at the local interest section in a bookstore.
Unfortunately, just when this kind of writing is greatly needed, the number of people who might be writing it have been shrinking. Nieman Lab just published an article talking about the increasing concentration of media in New York, DC, and Los Angeles, noting, “[T]he increase in concentration is unmistakable. Journalism jobs are leaving the middle of the country and heading for the coasts.”
What reporting remains is often done by inexperienced reporters with little tie to a community. Chains like Gannett seem to deliberately practice rotating reporters and even columnists from city to city, preventing them from really getting a place. Few of them have any real knowledge of even fairly recent history.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you do go looking for books about smaller (but often still sizable) places, you can sometimes find books that are collections of pieces from long gone columnists.
There has been a ton of money and effort poured in supporting artists and other “creative class” type endeavors in cities, but remarkably little financing of high quality writing about cities, their past, and their culture.
By its very nature this work is often very time consuming and with limited, highly localized market appeal. It can require a ton of research. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the best of it is produced by writers who take it on as a side project while doing their “day job.” Writers are often almost compelled to write, after all. For example, my college Stephen Eide typically writes studies about municipal finance, but also wrote an essay about the Lorelei fountain commemorating Heinrich Heine in the Bronx.
Cities without a large resident base of writers are at a disdvantage here. And it appears to be growing by the day, yet another example of the bifurcation of society.
This particularly local concern that is highly unlikely to be produced by the market is one local philanthropists will need to take on if they wish to fill this gap. It is perhaps hyperbole so that that there are no more writers in these cities, but there certainly aren’t enough of them.
from Aaron M. Renn