Finding the soul of the city

You might say that Alan Blum – seated in his office overlooking Bloor Street – has his finger not simply on Toronto’s pulse but its soul.

Left: Alan Blum

A professor of sociology at York University, Blum is now entering his fifth year as the director of the Culture of Cities project, a major research endeavour that explores the “essential rhythms” unique to different cities. The Culture of Cities research centre, located in the vibrant, bustling Annex neighbourhood of downtown Toronto, provides the perfect vantage point for Blum’s own work within this larger project.

“When we talk about the culture of a city,” says Blum, the noise of traffic audible just outside, “we usually mean its food, fashion, music, architecture – its art. But a city has a rhythm – an identity – that goes deeper than the aesthetic surfaces of a culture. A city has a ‘soul’ – even a heart of darkness – and this is something researchers can discover because a soul quite palpably marks a city the way a scar or stigma points to its own specific peculiarity, its physiognomy.”

But according to Blum, the desire of world cities to look the same drives them all into a spiral where each seeks to distinguish itself by adding whatever every other city has, thus intensifying the very uniformity that each tries to avoid. This results in a kind of dialectical whirlpool where all cities look the same and yet aspire to be special.

Blum also points out that globalization has brought the soul of many cities into sharp relief. Different urban communities, for example, have different thresholds to change, congestion, civility, innovation and trust. New initiatives can push a community’s buttons, exposing these thresholds.

“Open a McDonalds or a Starbucks in a seemingly quiet neighbourhood,” says Blum, “and you’ll quickly learn a lot about that neighbourhood because reactions provide openings for case studies.”

Blum is quick to point out that a city’s silence does not mean that nothing is going on, but rather that resentment or discordance is deferred until change challenges long-standing agreements and provokes residents to work through their assumptions – about what they tolerate, about what they believe in.

Right: The underlying consciousness of the urban neighbourhoods of today’s cities will be studied in the Culture of the Cities research project.

“This goes beyond tepid notions of culture,” says Blum, “and has to do with a neighbourhood’s underlying consciousness, its unstated and inarticulate manner.”

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Culture of Cities project is a five-year interdisciplinary endeavour bringing together eminent scholars from across Canada. Their fields of study include economics, sociology, urbanology, anthropology, philosophy, law, literature and the visual arts. Focusing on Toronto, Montreal, Dublin and Berlin, the research will ultimately be released in a six-volume series of books, beginning with a comparison of the societies of Toronto and Montreal. Studies will also be gradually released at conferences, in special issues of academic journals, as well as in various film and video projects.

This collaborative and interdisciplinary project is producing important scholarly work such as Blum’s recent book, The Imaginative Structure of the City. It is also yielding relevant and immediate benefits to the local community. “Our centre contains a fully-equipped tech lab,” says Blum, “and also welcomes visitors for weekly events, including lectures, conferences and film screenings.”

Blum is currently completing his new book The Symbolic Order and Imaginative Structure of Modern Society that includes a series of case studies on the “Collective Unconscious of Modernity”. The book will be published later this year.

Jason Guriel, a second-year York graduate student in English who writes about research at York University, sent this article to YFile.