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Where does a city’s culture come from?

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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
bigsuit 1I 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.

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