The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age

February 2, 2012

Jerusalem, Montreal, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Berlin, Paris, New York, Oxford...Oxford? Looking at this line-up of major international cities, Oxford strikes immediately as a very odd choice. But then again, if one asked any number of people to name nine world cities through which one could illustrate the quest for "the spirit of cities", it is a fair bet that few would name Montreal, Singapore or Jerusalem among them, either.

The reason for this eclectic mix is in the very personal approach that the authors, the Montreal-born Canadian Daniel Bell and the Jerusalem-born Israeli Avner de-Shalit, have taken in their quest to engage with cities and with the question of whether they contain a deeper meaning or ethos that distinguishes them in a world that appears to be more and more homogenised. The cities they chose are those where they were born and grew up, where they studied and where they later worked. As such, they are way stations on the route of globally operating academics - places of culture, knowledge or power rather than places of industry, informality or decline.

As Bell and de-Shalit are looking for the "personalities" of these cities - or, in a series of apparently interchangeable alternatives, their "spirit", "ethos", "characteristic" or "ideology" - it makes sense to approach these cities through very personal journeys. And although one can perceive an imbalance in the book between the portrayal of cities that the authors know very intimately and those that they know only from shorter yet repeated visits, it is here where The Spirit of Cities is most successful and enticing.

It is in the very personal selection of spatial moments and social situations, spiced with sometimes unexpected historical and political cross-references, through which the selected cities are portrayed. The affinity and intimacy recalled here inevitably evoke memories of and comparisons to one's own city experiences. The scholarly knowledge is often enlightening and instils the urge to go deeper into many of the urban histories that the authors place in front of the reader.

One is also inclined to go along with the authors' methodology of meandering, both literally and figuratively, their way through cities: stumbling across the unexpected and revisiting old familiar places, reporting on chance and planned encounters. After reading their city portraits, one is inclined to "stroll" through one's own city with newly opened eyes, ready for surprises and the unravelling of hidden historic layers. One wants to travel, to experience Jerusalem as an atheist, to find romance through (or in?) an unpasteurised French cheese, or cheer Montreal's beloved Canadiens to a long-overdue ice-hockey victory in the Stanley Cup.

But where this book is probably least successful is in its declared aim, namely to answer the question why the identity of cities matters in a global age. For whom does it matter? Who needs it and why? And yet maybe the problem of the book begins with the very premise of reducing a city to one dominant ethos, thereby reducing the multilayered reading and understanding of cities. Cities are complex beasts - and that is largely their beauty.

Bell and de-Shalit claim that they are pursuing the idea of the ethos in order to counter the "homogenizing tendencies of globalization". Yet by defining cities through one supposedly dominant ethos, the authors fall into the very trap of "homogenizing" their view of, and understanding of, the cities they deal with. Elements that do not fit are reduced and even distorted in their meaning or ignored altogether.

By following an ethos that may well be cherished by the majority of a city's population, one disregards the fact that other minority groups (separated by age, ethnicity or social characteristics) might associate a completely different ethos with the city. And what about the millions of people who, through economic necessity, have to live in these cities and for whom, to quote Cedric Price, cities are "the only key to survival"? Is the notion of an ethos or spirit really relevant to them?

The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age

By Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit. Princeton University Press 352pp, £24.95.ISBN 9780691151441.Published 19 October 2011

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