a photo of San Francisco tourists posing before the city's iconic skyline.
Tourists pose before the iconic skyline of San Francisco. Not seen: the city's soul. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

What do we mean when we say that the “soul of the city” is under threat? Often, it’s really about politics, nostalgia, and the fear of community change.

Here’s a pop quiz. What do each of these have in common? The New York Yankees winning the 1977 World Series. A public art project in Enid, Oklahoma. The “bush-clad hills” around Canberra, Australia. The Champions League final in Spain. “Hyper-gentrification” in New York City.

Each one of these things is a “battle for the soul” of its city.

Once you notice it, you’ll see the phrase everywhere—from alt-weeklies to the New York Times. Often, it’s old European cities, besieged by tourists or real estate speculators or ugly new buildings, that are said to be engaged in such spiritual struggles; Paris and London and Venice are frequent soul-battlegrounds. In the United States, you’ll find battles for the souls of the Hamptons, Brooklyn, the Six Corners neighborhood of Chicago, Ann Arbor, the Minneapolis park board, New Orleans, Dallas, Austin, the Heights neighborhood in Houston, Seattle, Portland, Portland, Portland, Berkeley, Mountain View, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco’s Chinatown, San Francisco’s Mission District, San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, and San Francisco.

Since I live in the Bay Area, a region whose soul seems to be under constant threat, I’ve become very familiar with the expression. But it still strikes me as odd. Americans live in a more-or-less secular society; lots of us don’t particularly believe that humans have souls. Why would cities have them—even metaphorically? Is it some premodern affectation, a relic of the era when trees and mountains were imbued with watchful spirits? Or does reflect something else entirely—the lure of nostalgia and the anxieties of longtime residents facing demographic and economic change?

The city-with-a-soul metaphor goes way, way back: In the Republic, Plato famously analogized the souls of people to the soul of cities. But I didn’t really start seeing it tossed around San Francisco in earnest until the beginning of the decade, as locals began fretting about how the most recent tech industry boom could reshape the city’s culture. David Talbot, founder of the online magazine Salon, warned of this phenomenon in 2012. “That first San Francisco tech bubble popped more than a decade ago,” he wrote. “But the new one, despite the recent dips of Facebook and Zynga shares, promises to be even fatter—and potentially more damaging to the soul of the city.”

Talbot is unusually fond of the phrase. In his 2012 history of San Francisco, he wrote that “cities, like people, have souls.” But he doesn’t explain what that means. Do cities get judged after death? Do they contain some invisible force that organizes their growth? Maybe. It’s not clear. But he does say that the soul of San Francisco has something to do with the music of the 1960s, the 49ers’ 1989 Super Bowl championship, and the opposition to a plan to extend a freeway through the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The city’s soul is also invoked in articles advocating for local politicians, bitching about Stanford, and defending sanctuary city policies.

Talbot is only one of many Bay Area writers who have reflected on this question. Rebecca Solnit told SF Weekly that when the Sierra Club moved its office from San Francisco to Oakland, “it was really a big piece of the city’s soul that decamped.” (It’s not clear what the move did for the soul of Oakland, where I live.) Tim Redmond, editor of the now-defunct San Francisco Bay Guardian, often used the phrase, as he did when the Guardian called the candidates they endorsed in the 2016 elections “our best hope for the first round in the next fight for the soul of the city.”

San Francisco’s elected officials use it a lot, too—often to fend off desperately-needed new housing. One argued for a moratorium on new construction in the neighborhood he represented by saying, “We’re fighting for the soul of San Francisco.” Another, running for mayor, said, “You can’t take the soul of the city away from the city by just building all over the place.” A third ran a campaign ad that proclaimed, “it’s a fight for the soul of the city.” Apparently, the city’s immortal essence is imperiled by market-rate housing.

Typically, whatever a person claims the soul of a city is, it coincides with that person’s political or aesthetic preferences. It’s a synecdoche that picks out some element of urban life, something of emotional importance that is seen as under threat, and inflates it to become the city as a whole. This is important to me, therefore it is the soul.

There’s a strain of populism at work in the Bay Area’s version of this. On one side are tech workers, plutocrats, developers, corporate drones, gentrifiers, and bankersthe much-despised shock troops of San Francisco’s modern boom. On the other side is what Talbot calls “its artistic ferment, its social diversity, its trailblazing progressive consciousness.” The battle between these two forces is one between good and evil, or as Uri Friedman wrote in his Atlantic dissection of populism, “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other”

That’s the thing about struggles for souls: They aren’t disagreements that can be negotiated among stakeholders, each of whom can claim legitimacy. They’re holy wars, zero-sum games that one side must utterly lose. Plato was no populist, but his version of the just city also followed this model. He didn’t want political parties and interest groups jockeying for power and hashing out deals. Instead, the ideal city was ruled harmoniously, rationally, and absolutely, without conflict or compromises.

But that’s not at all how real cities function. They’re dense with human friction, from the neighborhood level on up. And that pluralism is as it should be. Justice can’t be found in harmony, but rather in the institutions and procedures that normalize conflict. “Neither in a social order nor in the experience of an individual is a state of conflict the sign of a vice, or a defect, or a malfunctioning,” as the Oxford philosopher Stuart Hampshire pointed out. “It is not a deviation from the normal state of a city.”

Is there a way for us to save something here? Could we talk about a more pluralist soul of the city? I think so.

In 1905, the English novelist and poet Ford Madox Ford, broke and needing a hit, penned a slim book titled The Soul of London, an impressionistic tour of his native city. Forget a bird’s eyes view of the place, he writes, as if you could fly above it and see it all at once. Instead, take the view of “a bird that is close to the ground.” Hop over here and see one thing. Hop over there and see something else. Each perspective differs; each is true. There’s no beginning to the soul of London, no end. No plan. No harmony. The houses, built in different centuries, don’t fit together. The people, drawn from all over the world, don’t either. That’s OK. It doesn’t have to.

And don’t worry about those weird new buildings taking away London’s soul, said Ford. Give them some time:

Tall blocks of office buildings are crushing out the associations of the Westminster courts, alleys, and squares. We see terracotta ornamental excrescences, meaning nothing to us; heavy masses that, to those of us who care about architectural proportions, are repulsive, because, for us, they have no associations. The Memoirists have not yet written them up. But to our great grandchildren these excrescences will have meanings and associations, these heavinesses will be suggestive, because we, their ancestors, lived amongst these things our pathetic, petty, and futile lives.

Good news—those great grandchildren are us.

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