July 20, 2019

Do American Cities Have a "Soul?"

“Here’s a pop quiz. What do each of these have in common? The New York Yankees winning the 1977 World Series. A public art project in Enid, Oklahoma. The “bush-clad hills” around Canberra, Australia. The Champions League final in Spain. “Hyper-gentrification” in New York City.

Each one of these things is a “battle for the soul” of its city.

Once you notice it, you’ll see the phrase everywhere—from alt-weeklies to the New York Times. Often, it’s old European cities, besieged by tourists or real estate speculators or ugly new buildings, that are said to be engaged in such spiritual struggles; Paris and London and Venice are frequent soul-battlegrounds. In the United States, you’ll find battles for the souls of the Hamptons, Brooklyn, the Six Corners neighborhood of Chicago, Ann Arbor, the Minneapolis park board, New Orleans, Dallas, Austin, the Heights neighborhood in Houston, Seattle, Portland, Portland, Portland, Berkeley, Mountain View, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco’s Chinatown, San Francisco’s Mission District, San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, and San Francisco.

Since I live in the Bay Area, a region whose soul seems to be under constant threat, I’ve become very familiar with the expression. But it still strikes me as odd. Americans live in a more-or-less secular society; lots of us don’t particularly believe that humans have souls. Why would cities have them—even metaphorically? Is it some premodern affectation, a relic of the era when trees and mountains were imbued with watchful spirits? Or does reflect something else entirely—the lure of nostalgia and the anxieties of longtime residents facing demographic and economic change?”

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