My latest piece is a long essay in the current edition of Comment magazine. It’s called “Storied Cities” and is about the myths, histories, cultures, and rituals that make cities unique. Here is an excerpt:
How is this history, and thus so much of the identity, culture, and economy of a place, understood and communicated? Despite the importance of understanding local history and culture, especially that of the founding generations of cities, it is often little studied and little known. Thus so many cities struggle to even understand who they are. New York is unusual in that so much has been written about its history and culture, perhaps the result of it being the literary and media capital of the country. There are vastly more first-rate writers and journalists living in New York than anywhere else. As a result, there’s a surfeit of great books—along with magazines, movies, and other cultural products—on the city’s history, culture, and places, each mutually shaping and reinforcing its identity.
Journalist Russell Shorto titled his bestselling book The Island at the Center of the World, reflecting a true history but also a self-conscious civic conceit, a civic myth of sorts. This myth was most famously embodied in the famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue” cover of The New Yorker from 1976, in which the world beyond the Hudson river shrivels into near nothingness. This is a stereotype of a mindset to be sure, but also one at some level embraced by the people who live there—and also something of a reality as well. There’s a reason why every New Year’s Eve America tunes in to its televisions to watch a glowing ball drop on Times Square. It’s a ritual acknowledgement that, for Americans at least, New York is the centre of the world. And Shorto’s stress on the unique Dutch founding of New York emphasizes its difference from the rest of the country, telling a story of New York’s identity that today’s residents want very much to believe, as open-minded, multicultural, tolerant, global, and so on. New York’s history as a slaveholding city doesn’t factor in so much in this sort of self-congratulatory analysis.
But unlike New York or Chicago, where bookshelves groan with excellent titles about them, for most cities, there’s not that much written about them. As a researcher and writer who often profiles overlooked cities, I often try to read key local histories or other books about them for background. For most places, the pickings are slim. Not only do most cities have relatively few books written about them, what books do exist are often academic, published by local history enthusiasts on small presses, or official histories of various institutions. They are important works in many cases that have some of the only factual information about places available to people who don’t have endless days to trawl through archives. But they are rarely widely read and seldom capture the real feeling or identity of a place. So that route of civic self-understanding and myth-making is largely foreclosed to them.
Click through to read the whole thing.