I recently found this simple quote by Aristotle, one that struck a chord in me as a long-time urbanite: “A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one.”
A first-time trip to the ‘Windy City’ of Chicago, coupled with the discovery of Aristotle’s words, left a deep impression on me. Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out the formula for a remarkable metropolis. This eventually boiled itself down to two observations, gathered during past travels, and some lessons along the way.
Culture is a city’s personality. Without it, there would be no record of our history and no dialogue pushing society forward. Cities fostering this breed a more sophisticated populace, giving its people the courage to think critically and empathetically about the world around them and the part they play in it.
It’s the convergence of all things that make us the most intelligent and enlightened species. We possess the ability to compose music arrangements, write plays and classic literature, craft dishes from seemingly disparate ingredients and pick up paintbrushes to create artwork. The results are the little legacies and stories we leave behind to show we existed. Perhaps it’s the writer in me that perpetually yearns for those rich narratives. And it’s the curious child still inside that never seems to stop asking the ’why’ questions of what’s before me.
On a work trip to Washington, DC, I was floored that I didn’t have to pay an admission fee for the National Museum of Natural History – and by the sheer number of children on school trips excitedly roaming through the exhibits, absorbing all they could. Watching their cultural interactions showed me that the state of child-like wonderment is something no one should bury with the idiosyncrasies of adulthood.
In Chicago, at a free orchestra concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry, I observed a man sitting one row in front of me follow the symphony with sheets of music, turning the pages like a book as each movement transitioned on stage. I somehow felt changed, knowing I was in a city that fostered intimate moments like this. Watching a stranger cocooned in a love affair with culture and performance, it dawned on me that there’s no shame in who witnesses your interactions with the world, with the things that fill your soul. That marching to the beat of your drum, despite who’s watching, is an honour.
In that moment, I saw how culture shapes your personal understanding of the world, answering the question of why you still carry a sonnet, painting, chord or place inside you, long after you’ve left it behind.
People and communities are the heartbeat of a city. We’re a tribal society; our reliance on the people around us goes beyond the social, political and economic. We crave each other for a sense of belonging, for the feeling that we’re not alone in this equally beautiful and cold world, for building things together, for believing what we do and how we live is for something beyond one person. Without connection, wonder and curiosity, community and shared moments, a city has no heart, and neither do we.
The enthusiasm I witnessed during a Chicago architecture boat tour, guided by docents who volunteer their time, was nothing short of a humble love for their city and its buildings. I believe that love, like all love, is given to something greater than oneself. That love shows itself in the communities springing up around us, whether it’s the passionate bunch from Vancouver’s fitness tribes Tight Club or Distrikt or creatives working with local brands to create experiential moments for others, the way Here There Studio recently paired with candle company Woodlot on a project blending scent and film.
Often, these communities work with each other on even bigger collaborations, and it’s in those close-knit interactions when inspiration and creativity surface, bouncing between one person to another. When we share our hearts and fears, nurture our collective knowledge and applaud each other’s unique talents, we encourage creation of the very things that build our pillars of culture – and we elevate together as humans.
It’s in those symbiotic moments with those of like-mind where I’ve felt nothing but what we humans truly desire most: respect, belonging, acceptance and a heart understood.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Chicago, Washington, DC or Vancouver but when a city truly lives up to its greatness, we can find our own within it. Hey Aristotle, I think you were right.
About the Hello Friend series.