The Soul of the City

Public Square, Cleveland

Public Square | Cleveland, OH

The Soul of the City — Does A City Have A Soul?

A reoccurring theme that often shows up in ramblings of my mind is the “urban soul,” or “soul of the city.” Yesterday was no different. The rambling usually centers on the dual question, what are the essential ingredients of the soul, and can one create soul?

I started to say “within the city,” but that would imply that the “soul” is one of many separate aspects of the city. Celtic Christianity taught that the human and what they called the soul (nuirt) were one and the same; not melded together, but inherently the same. In this view, it was the nuirt that gave “human” definition. This is what I mean when I speak of the “soul of the city.”

For whatever reason, yesterday, my contemplation rambled about far more than usual. So much so, that my mind was chock-full of random, disconnected, fragments of thinking. Giving up trying to forge something coherent out of the mish-mash I turned to painting the porch, thinking that change of pace might help. However, the evening was no better; time to get lost in a good mystery, I thought.

Settling in to read P. D. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, right off I was presented with a vibrant vision of the hustle and bustle – complete with window shoppers and narrow streets full of traffic – of early morning Oxford. This was followed several pages later by a reference to the detecting wisdom of C.I.D Superintendent Dalgliesh, “Look at the whole scene inside and out; then make your deductions. Ask yourself what you saw, not what you expected to see, or what you hoped to see, but what you saw?” In less than one hundred pages of reading my previously disconnected fragments were beginning to cohere.

The Ah! Ha! Moment arrived on page 84 with these questions put into the mind of our heroine, Cordelia Gray, as she took in the stunning architecture of King’s College Chapel on the Cambridge University campus:

Could a non-believer have planned and executed this superb interior? Was there an essential unity between motive and creation?

Perhaps it was the connection between belief and creation that brought it all together, for after all, even though we are not speaking of the soul in strict religious sense, there is still something spiritual – sacramental – about the soul of the city.†


For a place – whatever or wherever – to have soul there must exist a unity between the motive and the creation. If this unity does not exist, or if it is broken, the soul is non-existent and the spirit of the place becomes grotesque.* The creator must believe in what he is creating; in the experience of the what that is being created. In so doing, the creator forms a bit of his own image, the soul, the humanness, if you will, in the creation.

Again we are drawn back to the “theology” of ancient Celtic Christians. At the very core of their belief was the premise, which found its most coherent expression in the words of John Scotus Eriugena, “It is more proper to say that God recreated himself in creation, than it is to say that God created creation apart from himself.”

To discover the soul of the city, one must become part and parcel, the city. The city, now, has become something other than bricks and mortar; it has become a living, ever-evolving entity. The soul is experienced in the experience. Or, to put slightly differently, when there exists an essential unity between our experience and that of the city, we become the City. To become the City, it follows a posteriori that we must first believe in the City, just as the creator must believe in what he is creating.


In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman Cordelia takes us on a tour of the gardens and cottage where the deceased, Mark Callender, lived for four weeks before his death. During the tour we come across an intriguing confliction: The rear garden is sublime in its beauty, the front garden is not. We find rear garden cleaned of debris and tenderly cared for. The front garden, on the other hand, we find is neglected, overgrown and engulfed in a shroud of abandonment and disconnect. There is grotesqueness to it — Yet, there is still beauty to be found in it.

On the surface this is an example of what can happen – abandonment – when there is disconnect between the essential unity of motive and the creation; in this case the cottage dweller and the front garden. However, if we dig deeper …

First there is Superintendent Dalgliesh’s perspective to be considered: After we look at the whole what do we really see beyond what we expected, or hoped to see? If we enter from through the overgrown front garden would we not expect to see the same in the rear garden? Or, conversely, if we entered through the groomed rear garden would we not expect to see the same in the front garden, perhaps even more so, as the front is the public persona?

The point here, I think, is that we will never find the soul of the city when we enter either expecting not to, or with a breezy la-di-da attitude that all is well. To expect not to, is to miss the beauty hidden within the grotesque. To enter breezily is to see only a surface, and often false, sense of wellness. We must not forget, that although Mark supposedly committed suicide inside the house, there is no indication of death on the outside. Likewise, while the grotesquely shrouded front yard forebears a sense of disaster, it is through the real, the sublime, yard that death entered. Like the Super suggests we need to look at the scene inside and out before making any deductions. We might just find the soul of the city in the most unlikely of places.


William Blake in The Marriage Between Heaven and Hell (a work frequently referenced by James in An Unsuitable Job) writes that there is a “way to hell from the gates of heaven.” The difference between grotesque and sublime is but a flick of thought— heaven to hell. As we have noted, there is no question that if the creator does not become one with the creation, the results can be grotesque. However, there is also something sinister at work here. In the book, obviously the death, but suppose, just for a moment, that the grotesqueness here is the motive of the cottage-dweller. If this were the case, (and in the story it is not) then the essential unity between motive and creation is made perverse from the start; the result, a soul-less creation. Consider, for example, a building designed solely as a monument to its creator, how often the end result is grotesquely situated to the point of often being avoided.

Remember the description of the front garden? While Cordelia noted its grotesque quality, she also noted its beauty. There is, indeed, beauty waiting to be “redeemed” within the grotesque.

Here is where our definition of the soul of a city becomes all-important. If soul and human are inherently one and the same, if it is true that soul is created when we give ourselves to the city, then it is we who through our involvement create the experience we call soul. It is we who through our involvement that redeem the beauty within the grotesque. It is we who through our involvement give soul to the experience we call City.

*I am not talking about the grotesque in art or literature, but the grotesque in the sacramental sense. See “The Grotesque & Errant,” March 10, 2008

†On June 2 Urban Paradoxes will introduce a new page, The Soul of the City to explore the sacramental and theological nature of the urban soul. The URL is available to bookmark, or to subscribe to, now if you wish to do so.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


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