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Are cities — not provinces or country — the place we identify with most?

July 19th, 2011 · 9 Comments

In Italy, as my trip and some voluminous reading about it revealed, people don’t see themselves as Italian. Nor do they see themselves that much as Tuscan or Umbrian or Piedmontese.

Instead, their first loyalty is to their city. That’s a legacy of the hundreds of years when Italy was not a country at all, but a collection of powerful city-states that grouped together in shifting coalitions.

Italy, like Canada, is a country that was created in the burst of mid-19th-century nationalism that temporarily reigned. While Canada was created out of a bunch of colonial politicians bargaining for a railroad here, a chunk of money or land there, to cobble together a kind of not-the-U.S. nation, Italy also was pulled together out of a heap of separate states that found themselves almost by accident tied up as a single country.

As a result, there are many in Italy who think the south — a place closer to Africa than central Europe — should really be a separate nation (Quebec, anyone?) and a tendency still to cling to their city identity rather than any “Italian” one. They are Sienese or Florentines or Romans first. The place they want to come back to always is the town or village where their family is from originally. (It’s one of the reasons real-estate prices in even relatively minor Italian towns are so crazy: all the kids want to buy apartments or houses close to where their parents are, which creates huge pressure on prices as they bid against each other plus bands of roving ex-pats who are eager to buy up a crumbling villa or cool apartment in some medieval city.)

Which, of course, makes me think about the mental maps we have in Canada and whether we identify more with our cities than our provinces or country.

Certainly we see our mayors as the embodiment of our cities’ personalities in a way we don’t with our premiers or prime ministers. No one thinks of Stephen Harper as representing the essence of Canadianness. He’s simply a politician who’s who the skill to manoeuvre his way to the top of the political system. And I doubt that people see (or saw) Gordon Campbell or Christy Clark as representing some kind of distilled BC’ness.

But mayors are seen as representing the collective personality of their residents: Gregor, young, good-looking and green, is the embodiment to pop psychologists and media types of hip, Lululemon-wearing Vancouver. Naheed Nenshi’s election in Calgary instantly broadcast a new image for that city: multicultural and cool. Rob Ford turned our picture of Toronto into one of angry, tax-hating suburbanites. Dianne Watts succeeds in Surrey because she epitomizes what Surrey longs to be: somewhat conservative but compassionate; attractive but business-focused, urban but not Vancouver.

Mayors who do reflect their city’s particular demographics can win huge loyalty from people who see themselves reflected in a way they like. But that attempt to mirror the city can also be a tricky trap, because voters may not match the stereotype in the end. Or, because they judge the mayor on such a personal basis, because she or he is judged so strongly on being a good symbol of the city, perceived failings are hugely magnified.

It’s all part of our city-state thinking, where we are constantly trying to understand our own, very local identity and find the person who will broadcast it to the world for us.








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