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Personification of Place

by Mark Peres

May 6,2007

HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

So begins Chicago by Carl Sandburg. The poem is the first in a series of fifty-five that appeared in his book Chicago Poems, published in 1916, that personified the city, giving voice to its landscape, and defining Chicago ever since. In muscular free verse, the poems celebrate the fierce and laughing industrial terrain of the city. Sandburg speaks of the city as “a tall bold slugger,” and how “by night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars and has a soul.”

Sandburg’s meditations on his city of “lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning,” have become part of city lore, giving Chicagoans an origin myth and guidebook on how to behave. Every Chicagoan worth his or her salt weathers the cold and leans into the wind. Every Chicagoan gives nod to grit, toughness and sinewy strength. No effete dandies there. Sandburg’s elegies are in a long tradition of citizens giving personality to place. We see in the city a face and intent. We see in it identity as unique as our own. We speak of its disposition, struggles and achievements, giving cities characteristics of humanity.

The ancient Greeks believed that every place has its own “Tyche” or “consciousness of place” given form in a city-god or goddess. The Tyche of a city was its presiding deity and focus of civic loyalty. During the Hellenistic era, Tyche was tangible to the common touch, impressed on local coins with turreted crown, symbolizing the walls of the city and local feelings of security, welfare and happiness. The cult of the city-god or goddess brought pride of place to the polis. Capturing the complexity of local pride, Tyche was connected with both Nemesis and Agathos Daimon – the vexing and good spirits of interpersonal exchange. Tyche were of different age, gender, temperament and dress, reflecting the different personality of city-states. In medieval art, Tyche were depicted carrying cornucopias, a ship’s rudder, and a wheel of fortune, presiding over the entire course of local fate.

We see personification of place again in Rudyard Kipling’s The Song of the Cities, in which the British imperialist has 19th century Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Halifax and other cities speak of their own qualities as tribute to the British realm. Cape Town dreams a dream of one land under empire “From Lion’s Head to Line.” With no sense of irony, each city is its own person, singing lyrics of colonial aspiration and acclaim, all finding glory as individual subjects of Queen Victoria.

We personify what we are in relationship with and we are connected to where we live as much as any other aspect of our lives. Place determines who we know and what we do, and therefore, to a large extent, who we are.

Hundreds of popular songs are sung today about the cities we live in, from Randy Newman’s Baltimore to Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia. In L.A. Woman, The Doors personify the city of angels and embrace her in dark magical tension,

I see your hair is burnin; Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you; You know they are a liar
Drivin down your freeways; Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars, the topless bars; Never saw a woman so alone

We can imagine Jim Morrison in the night and heat of Sunset Boulevard, and imagine ourselves too in love with the searing, yearning embrace of Los Angeles. We can imagine the flirtation of Hollywood, the beckoning of Santa Monica, the lies of Brentwood. We can imagine the city as nubile starlet, reigning star, and aged movie queen ready for her all-too-strange and harrowing close-up.

In all these instances, the city lives. It breathes, hurts, and offers salve. It churns, congests, and absorbs our confidences upon its warm asphalt skin. It asks for toil, seduces desire, and in the words of Radiohead, leaves us let down. Therein is the angst and promise of place – mirroring our imperfections and all that we are.

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