We don’t often read academic works and Daniel A Bell and Avner de-Shalit say they don’t normally write left-field (academia-wise) books like The Spirit of the Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age. It meant we were going to be a perfect match with our respective passions for global cities.
The authors argue that contemporary thinkers haven’t given cities their due. States and nationalism, yes, but oddly not the urban centres where most of us live, which are the greenest and most sustainable places to live, have a disproportionate influence on all our lives and are just, well, so huge. An independent London, as we all know, would be the fifteenth largest economy in the world. With other global cities it offers an exciting alternative to globalization (immigration as the lifeblood of economic, social and cultural progress of course excluded). As states become more uniform and the free market diminishes the role of particular cultures and values, creating a single culture of consumerism, cities are the last bastion of pluralism and diversity of cultural ideas and alternatives.
So the authors set out to discover the ethoses of different cities they were familiar with and, in the process, find a defining theme in each. From Jerusalem (religion), Montreal (language), Singapore (nation building), Hong Kong (materialism) and Beijing (political power) to Oxford (learning), Berlin (tolerance and intolerance), Paris (romance) and New York (ambition), the themes are perhaps unsurprising but the mixture of personal and political detail is fascinating.
Avner de-Shalit’s Jerusalem – he teaches at the city’s Hebrew University– brings out movingly the religious conflicts down the ages but also the faith that makes it a strange beacon in the modern world. Montreal as trodden by Daniel A Bell is seen as a city that has eventually found a way ahead from its linguistic divide – and has founded a new kind of tolerance. Berlin his created an oasis of uber-liberal diversity and alternative living by refusing to hide its nightmare past while New York is just New York in all its teeming Big Appleness (and is the chapter which most successfully uses the wealth of literary writing about the city to evoke its ethos). Singapore didn’t convince as an interesting city but the reader was left with many insights into both its successes and failures as a global city. Beijing and Hong Kong were seen as representing two sides of modern China in terms of power politics and family-oriented capitalism. Paris somehow seemed more clichéd than the other cities but perhaps Paris has become too much its own stereotype, while Oxford came across as rather smug and annoying and liking to keep its poor well-ghettoised.
The authors apologise for their ‘impressionistic’ flaneur ways of recording their experiences but there are rich and suggestive ideas in plenty. For this city lover their book was a passionate, profound and inspiring journey to the heart of the contemporary urban experience. In the future expect to hear less about national patriotism and more about urban pride – ‘civicism’ as the authors suggest is so the most civilised way ahead.