Soul Searching

Does your hometown have a soul? If you can define the character of your town, maybe you can keep it intact.

| January/February 2001 Issue

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.

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