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Where does a city’s culture come from?

I always loved the Talking Heads, mostly because of the complex rhythms in songs like, “Burning Down the House.” The mainspring and front man, David Byrne, always exuded a quirky intelligence. You knew there was a mind at work, hidden behind the stage persona.   In his new book, Bicycle Di…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
I always loved the Talking Heads, mostly because of the complex rhythms in songs like, “Burning Down the House.” The mainspring and front man, David Byrne, always exuded a quirky intelligence. You knew there was a mind at work, hidden behind the stage persona.
In his new book, Bicycle Diaries, you can see his mind at work. Here’s a fascinating excerpt about city culture:
I had been marveling at the rate of destruction of anything having
to do with social pleasures and civic interaction in Hong Kong – funky
markets, parks, waterfront promenades, bike lanes (of course) – I was
amazed how anything designed for the common good is quickly bulldozed,
privatized, or replaced by a condo or office tower. According to my
friend civic life is just not part of the culture. So in this case at
least, the city is an accurate and physical reflection of how that
culture views itself. The city is a 3-D manifestation of the social,
and personal – and I’m suggesting that, in turn, a city, its physical
being, reinforces those ethics and re-creates them in successive
generations and in those who have immigrated to the city. Cities
self-perpetuate the mind-set that made them.

Maybe every city
has a unique sensibility but we don’t have names for what they are or
haven’t identified them all. We can’t pinpoint exactly what makes each
city’s people unique yet. How long does one have to be a resident
before one starts to behave and think like a local? And where does this
psychological city start? Is there a spot on the map where attitudes
change? And is the inverse true? Is there a place where New Yorkers
suddenly become Long Islanders? Will there be freeway signs with a
picture of Billy Joel that alert motorists “attention, entering New
York state of mind”?

Does living in New York City foster a
hard-as-nails, no nonsense attitude? Is that how one would describe the
New York state of mind? I’ve heard recently that Cariocas (residents of
Rio) have a similar “okay, okay, get to the point” sensibility. Is that
a legacy of the layers of historical happenstance that make up a
particular city? Is that where it comes from? Is it a constantly
morphing and slowly evolving worldview? Do the repercussions of local
politics and the local laws foster how we view each other? Does it come
from the socioeconomic-ethnic mix; are the proportions in the urban
stew critical, like in a recipe? Does the evanescence of fame and
glamour lie upon all of L.A. like whipped cream? Do the Latin and Asian
populations that are fenced off from the celebrity playgrounds get
mixed into this stew, resulting in a unique kind of social
psychological fusion? Does that, and the way the hazy light looks on
skin, make certain kinds of work and leisure activities more
appropriate there?

Maybe this is all a bit of a myth, a willful
desire to give each place its own unique aura. But doesn’t any
collective belief eventually become a kind of truth? If enough people
act as if something is true, isn’t it indeed “true,” not objectively,
but in the sense that it will determine how they will behave? The myth
of unique urban character and unique sensibilities in different cities
exists because we want it to exist.

Comments (2)

  • Interesting thoughts from an interesting guy. Growing up in Dallas, it seemed to me that when the old TV show “Dallas” was on, the city’s culture got remarkably more materialistic. I’m not sure if it did – or I just got more aware of its presence, but it is without a doubt, a very materialistic city (as are many others).

    Is that a case of collective belief eventually becoming a truth?

    And what happens if enough people in an urban center become collectively convinced they are to live out the Kingdom of God in that area? Sandtown, Baltimore is 20 years into the experiment … and has become a national leader among urban neighborhoods of its type in terms of indicators of recovery. My spiritual father’s son was one of the founders of this work as just a young guy – white, suburban, middle class. Teamed up with equally committed black friends, they moved their families into Sandtown with an attitude of servanthood and repentance – and began restoring community, shalom, bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth, if you will. I know there are many other works like it… God bless those who are challenging the collective beliefs of oppressed, downtrodden neighborhoods and redeeming them through Christ.

  • Interesting guy, I like the way he thinks. Behavioural therapy says exactly that – if you do it and you repeat it so it becomes a habit, it becomes true. Essential therefore to choose what you do and what you repeat.

    I still smile reading Steve Turner’s poem Creed at the lines towards that end that read:

    “We believe that man is essentially good.
    It’s only his behaviour that lets him down.
    This is the fault of society.
    Society is the fault of conditions.
    Conditions are the fault of society.

    We believe that each man must find the truth
    that is right for him.
    Reality will adapt accordingly.
    The universe will readjust. History will alter.
    We believe that there is no absolute truth
    excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.”

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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