Cities have a tremendous power to shape the world. They affect how things function locally and globally. They affect politics, economics, spirituality, race relations, culture, education, and media. Ultimately, cities shape the lives and outlooks their citizens. Which leads to the question; how should our cities shape our identities?
The Identity of a City Dweller
Rebekah Lyons is the author of the book, Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaning. Alongside her husband, Gabe, she co-leads Q Ideas, a nonprofit organization which helps Christian leaders engage culture. Her book chronicles her heart-wrenching move from Atlanta, GA to the New York City. She describes her emotional imprisonment, one constructed of anxiety, depression, and cultural pressures. Her story is one of discovery as she ultimately finds a restored sense of calling. She calls it her journey of “Risk. Surrender. Rescue.”
In a recent blog post, Lyons recounted her wrestling with the idea of “home”. By this point, she had fully embraced her move to Manhattan. New York City had since become her love, a sentiment with which any true urbanite could identify. This was made manifest in being part of a thriving, urban church family and experiencing community when she met up with her girlfriends for coffee in Tribeca. She had become a New Yorker. New York City had become home, yet an unnamed fear remained.
One night, she awoke to God’s whisper naming her fear. Identity. Who was she really?
As she reflected on this revelation, she realized her identity had been shaped by the city. Aside from the iconic urban context, NYC was the place where she had found her voice, her healing, and her freedom. But, by listening to the whisper of God she was reminded that her identity was given by Him. Identity by any other source or means would lead to despair, if not idolatry.
So, the Lyons family, with their identity secure, has decided to answer the call again with a move to Nashville. They are no longer defined as New Yorkers or urbanites…necessarily. Do you remember that journey from Atlanta to Manhattan? Remember how tough it was? Well, it’s amazing how a sense of calling and identity can change things.
The Identity of a City
While people are shaped by the cities in which they live, cities themselves have identities. Daniel Bell and Avner de-Shalit explore this idea in their book, The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age.
Modern political theory would argue that cities are shaped by global ideas such as nation-states, identity groups, and concepts like justice and freedom. The nationalism expressed at the 2014 World Cup might be a case study for this ethos. However, Bell and de-Shalit craft a more classical argument, “the idea that a city expresses its own distinctive ethos or values which then shapes the identities of its citizens”.
Bell and de-Shalit look at nine modern cities and the prevailing ethos that distinguishes each one. Jerusalem is identified as the City of Religion and Montreal as the City of Language(s). Singapore is called the City of Nation Building and Hong Kong, the City of Materialism. Beijing is described as the City of Political Power and Oxford, the City of Learning. Berlin is painted as the City of (In)Tolerance and Paris, the City of Romance. New York City rounds out this global identity tour as the City of Ambition.
Bell and de-Shalit formulate these conclusions by adopting the approaches of historians, anthropologists, cultural observers, and even tourists. They were informed by each city’s history books, literary works, tourist guides, architectural critics, as well as their own personal reflections. This book is not driven by data, but by stories.
Their conclusions tell how the stories of each city are expressed in political, cultural, and economic life, and how civic pride “can oppose the homogenizing tendencies of globalization and curb the excesses of nationalism”.
Just think of the terms that express identity drawn from a city; Angelenos, New Yorkers, Londoners, Parisians, or Berliners. Civic identity is a real thing; for good or for bad.
Stories in the City
I live in Long Beach, CA. It has been described as a “waterfront metropolis”, a progressive city of 462,000 inhabitants. Strategically, it has easy access to both Downtown Los Angeles and Orange County. In terms of personality, it was once described to me as “more authentic than Orange County yet more chill than LA”.
My family just moved to Long Beach six months ago. It’s very different from where we lived before in suburban Rancho Cucamonga, CA. While many of the newer parts of Long Beach are suburban, I live in the Belmont Heights neighborhood which is much more urban. I love it.
Almost acting in the same way as Bell and de-Shalit, I’ve assumed the role of an urban observer. I love frequenting the eclectic, independent coffee shops, trying out the local restaurants, exploring its diverse neighborhoods, and meeting a lot of new people. I would never attempt to say that the people I’ve met to date represent an accurate snapshot of who Long Beach is as a whole, but I can at least reflect on what I’ve learned so far. Here are the stories of some people I’ve met.
Several weeks back, I attended an open-mic night at a local coffee-house. I really didn’t have a chance to meet or chat with anybody but I was able to see a lot of really great talent. One of the things that struck me though, these artists, aside from being very gifted, were also very transparent and authentic. They openly shared, through their craft, their deepest hurts, anger, and pain.
Several days later, I attended my first poetry slam event. Again, these artists were very talented yet not one of them shared a happy story. They painted verbal images of all types of pain and of events which shaped their desires, dreams, and realities. Again, these were authentic stories of pain and brutal accounts of their past. In a sense, this community offered a safe place to express their hurts, yet I was struck by an absolute lack of an answer, an offering of hope.
At the same event, a young man asked if the seat next to me was available. Joined by a young woman, we soon struck up a conversation. I recognized him from the open mic night the other night. He described himself as a poet who found inspiration for his craft in his continual search for meaning in the midst of his troubled past. We talked about poetry, school, and why he chose to Long Beach. He used words like authenticity and diversity.
The Urban Gentleman
The next morning, I went to a coffee shop to do some reading. Sipping and reflecting. I ran into a new pastor friend of mine, but I also struck up a conversation with another patron. I had overheard him talking to the barista about the author C.S. Lewis and about the use of term “urban gentleman”. It caught my attention because my wife designs bow ties for the “urban gentleman” demographic, so I introduced myself.
We talked about bow ties, fashion, interior design, architecture, urbanism, and then about faith and different faith communities. Come to find out, he previously served as a staff of a church but has since “strayed”. He said he hated that term “strayed” because it is so spiritually charged, but it accurately described his journey. He said his has given into his doubts of faith which describes that he is on a real search for truth and meaning. We agreed to stay in touch for a variety of reasons.
A Broken City
As I explore my city and meet my fellow residents, I am reminded that we are all broken. Yes, there are many great things about Long Beach, but like any city, it is also a broken city filled with broken people with broken stories. Broken stories beget broken identities.
We are all on a quest for healing, love, and restored stories. We may have been deceived to think that the first act of our lives have determined our next or last acts. We don’t want to believe that we are destined for a sad ending written in permanent ink. There has to be the hope that our future story has been written in pencil which can be erased and rewritten.
I don’t know where you look to discover that narrative of hope. Frankly, I don’t even know if you have a faith background. But for me, I have found that hope, that faith, and that love in one place. Jesus Christ.
Don’t stop reading this post just because I have expressed my allegiance and desperate dependence on a biblical figure. Hear me out.
Whether we grow up in the church or not, I believe that we are all the same. We all need Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When He created humanity and the world as we know it, He had the story all written out. We were to enjoy a relationship with Him, live in a utopian environment created just for us, and we would live forever. Sounds like a fairy tale.
But, we messed up that story. I may be dating myself, but I grew up reading stories where we could choose the ending. Well, we chose to rewrite our story and took a different path. We thought our own alternative ending was better, but it wasn’t. Because of our choice, we were faced with its consequences; a life without a relationship with God. We experienced new emotions such as fear, pain, anger, jealousy, and even hatred.
A Restored City
God didn’t want it to end that way. He wrote a new story, His story. It is one of restoration, healing, and love. He came back into this world in the form of a man to offer a new way. As Jesus Christ, He took upon himself the pain, blame, and death so that we would live happily, ever after.
You see, His story is not about condemnation. It’s about salvation, healing, love, and forgiveness. He doesn’t ask us for the details, He just asks for our commitment. And when the dwellers of cities begin to experience a divine restoration and a renewed sense of identity, so do our cities.
These are stories of cities re-made.
NYC Photo: Raphael Concepcion
London Photo: Nobuyuki Taguchi
This article was previously posted on UrbaSmyth.