How to uncover—and nurture—the unique spirit of your hometown
I was the proverbial small-town girl, raised in Oak Grove, Missouri. While my friends looked forward to marriage and career, I yearned for big cities. It was a dream that cast my fate and, since leaving home 30 years ago, I have lived in or near five American cities. As much as any intimate tie to friend or family, each of these places has shaped my character. To Kansas City and St. Louis I owe my ability to stay grounded; to San Francisco, my impulse to seek out life’s edge; to Santa Fe, my reliance on imagination.
But it is to Washington, D.C., the metropolis where I finally settled 14 years ago, that I owe a part of my soul. Transplanted from the subtle-hued desert of Santa Fe to the highly charged atmosphere of the nation’s capital, I felt turmoil within myself and dreamed of going mad. With time, however, the special charm of the place—the poetry of the passing seasons and the spirit of American history that sighs invisibly through the air—opened my heart. "As soon as man has stopped wandering and stood still and looked about him," wrote the American author Eudora Welty, "he found a God in that place." And I did, too.
The idea that cities possess a soul was common among the ancients. The Romans spoke of "genius loci," meaning the special spirit of a place. Indeed, until the 18th-century Enlightenment, when the sacred was severed from the secular in Western culture, cities were often built on foundations of myth and religion, and were thought to be watched over by gods and goddesses, nature spirits, saints, and angels. Belief in a city’s mysteriously personal character lives on in the colorful images that arise when we think of certain places: Los Angeles is the city of angels and dreams of stardom. New Orleans is jazz and black magic. Boulder is breathtaking mountain views and spiritual exploration. Boston, founded by austere Puritans, is symbolized by the lowly bean. Even when they’re repeated ad nauseam in travel brochures, these images connect us with the underground wells of myth that water a city’s soul.
But does anyone today really care about the souls of our cities? Like giant urban gods fallen from their pedestals, they lie dying of neglect, buried beneath asphalt and artless architecture, crushed by the weight of overwhelming social problems, their inhabitants often blind to the fact that their own souls are shaped, for better or worse, within the city’s larger reality. We ignore the magic of a place—hidden beyond the real estate deals, the political squabbles, and numbing commutes—at our own peril.
I embarked on my own quest to uncover the soul of Washington, D.C., as a way to quell my distress after moving here. It dawned on me recently that if I can succeed in a city renowned for its hollow-hearted power-mongering and inside-the-beltway narcissism, then anyone anywhere could do the same. Here are a few methods to help unearth the soul of your hometown, based on my own exploration and conversations with thinkers around the country as well as with Washington historians, artists, mapmakers, poets, and activists. Some may sound deceptively simple, but beware: As your perceptions are transformed, you may find yourself living in a city wholly transformed.
Unearth the original landscape.
The essence of a place is closely tied to its landscape. According to Gail Thomas, director of the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture, who studies the connection between soul and cities, settlers initially were attracted to a site by some remarkable natural feature—the way the wind blows, or the abundance of good underground water. Kansas City, for example, was founded on the high bluffs overlooking the Missouri River that explorers Lewis and Clark trumpeted as an ideal location for a fort. But even though a city’s topography may have been obscured by development, maps and history books may offer a vivid image of how it once looked.
I was inspired to learn from a mapmaker how Washington’s landscape resembled the very principle of unity out of diversity that is the city’s—and the nation’s—foundation. It is a geographical crossroads where the flora and fauna of the North and the South intermingle, maples growing alongside magnolias. Most surprising to me was learning that Washington, so often described as a swamp, is predominantly a city of river terraces and hills. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman, who has thought deeply about the ties between soul and city for more than two decades, sees significance in the way the swamp image has found its way into Washington’s cultural imagination. He calls it a psychologically apt metaphor that captures the way our politicians’ ideals inevitably become bogged down by less noble realities.
Steep yourself in history.
Thomas Moore, author of The Care of the Soul, writes that reflecting on the past is an important part of retrieving your soul. Just as individuals in therapy or on a spiritual search discern new patterns of meaning by revisiting what they’ve experienced, so, too, does a city’s history reveal something of its intrinsic nature.
To know that the poet Walt Whitman once walked the streets of Capitol Hill after tending wounded Civil War soldiers housed in the Patent Office Building, and that the banks of the Anacostia River were lined for 3,000 years with settlements of the Nacotchtank Indians, opened my heart to the ghosts of the past still haunting its modern spaces.
Stoke your imagination.
In some way, great cities are created by the artists who render them immortal as much as by the planners, construction workers, and business leaders who build them. Think of James Joyce’s Dublin, impressionist painter Camille Pissarro’s Paris, or even Bruce Springsteen’s Asbury Park. Washington came magically alive when I saw it through the eyes of artist Renee Butler, who showed me slides of the city’s trees printed on large screens to express the way their lacy-leafed branches evoke the sacred. Delving into the works of local poets, fiction writers, columnists, memoirists, painters, photographers, folk artists, and songwriters deepens how we experience our home, imbuing commonplace reality with awareness, appreciation, and perhaps wonder.
Find the heart of town.
Ask your friends this question: Where do you go to find the true heart of the city? In Seattle, many would say Pike’s Place Market. In Chicago, Wrigley Field. In Madison, the lakeside beer garden at the University of Wisconsin student union. Most of the people I interviewed in Washington, D.C., located the city’s soul not in the famous monuments and museums but in neighborhood streets, cafés, bookstores. John Johnson, founder of Process WorkD.C.–a multicultural group that meets to discuss race and class issues–took me on a tour of his favorite spots: a tucked-away Cheers-style café near Capitol Hill that is frequented by activists, a baseball field where Hispanic families gather on Sundays for games and picnics. Others cited Kramer’s Books and Afterwords, the popular Dupont Circle hangout, or ethnic restaurants with atmosphere and inexpensive menus.
Nearly everyone finds at least a slice of the city’s soul in Washington’s surprising wealth of parks and natural areas. I expect you’d find the same in San Francisco, where many people connect with their city’s soul in Golden Gate Park or on the winding trails of Mount Tamalpais, the gentle mountain rising up out of the ocean mists north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Discover the civic wound that needs healing.
All cities have problems, though they are often unacknowledged. While it’s usually difficult and politically risky to draw attention to shortcomings, especially in a place that prides itself on being a city that "works," ignoring them perpetuates a state of soullessness. In Santa Fe, for example, conflicts arise between the economic bonanza of tourism and its rich historic, Hispanic character. The influx of wealthy Anglos purchasing vacation homes has come at the expense of indigenous residents—the Native Americans and Spanish—who can no longer afford to live where their grandparents and great-grandparents lived.
Race, of course, is an issue affecting most American cities. Almost every person I’ve talked with in Washington mourns the racial divide between blacks and whites; some people describe it as a city of "two souls." To drive past abandoned buildings with the U.S. Capitol looming in the background, to see how dramatically the pollution-choked Anacostia River contrasts with the cleaner, suburban Potomac River, is to witness a visible tear in the city’s soul.
Volunteering at a shelter for the homeless, throwing yourself into a political reform movement, getting to know down-and-out neighborhoods, speaking out about community ills all can help you find the soul of your hometown, as well as contribute to healing it.
Find where people come together.
The polis, wrote Hannah Arendt, arises out of people acting and speaking together in a "sharing of words and deeds." Thus the living force of a city’s soul is most palpable in those large physical spaces—the commons—where the people of a city come together to celebrate, to protest, or simply to enjoy a Sunday afternoon. As a veteran of the anti-war movement, I fondly recall the boisterous rallies held in Kansas City’s Volker Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The first place I ever felt the true beat of Washington, D.C., was at the Georgetown Flea Market, an open-air bazaar where people from every corner of the city come each Sunday to barter with vendors for produce and craftwork.
Washington, of course, is the city where the rest of the country comes to make its voice heard. The open rectangle of green grass on the Mall is one of the most powerful outdoor public spaces in the modern world. It’s where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech and the destination for protesters about abortion, gun control, foreign policy, and countless other causes. Yet I’ve also enjoyed spring days strolling along the Mall while my kids clamor to pet someone’s dog.
Take note of outdoor spaces where people gather to share in the ordinariness of life and, in being together, keep city life vibrant. More than the physical landscape or architectural design of a city, it is people, individually and collectively, who are the true force that enlivens and empowers a place.
Ironically, commitment to saving the souls of our cities might lead to greater protection of wilderness. As James Hillman has frequently pointed out, Americans tend to see their cities as the place where the innocent become corrupted and where soul is lost, rather than found. He has argued passionately on behalf of reversing this trend, thus protecting nature from too much human contact and reanimating our cities from within. For to seek soul only in nature, or within ourselves, is to miss the wondrous natural creation that is a city—a convergence of community, commerce, street life, history, nature, geography, politics, art, and people that offers a perpetually renewing source of life.
Pythia Peay is a writer based in Washington, D.C., where she receives regular doses of inspiration from the Georgetown Flea Market and the Potomac River. Her book on feminine spirituality, Soul Sisters: A Sacred Way for All Women, will be published this year by Tarcher/Putnam. Some of the material in this article is adapted from