The Biography of a City

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City Courses in the Humanities Department at San Francisco State University

Originally published in Humanities Education, summer, 1990


Arthur Chandler



For the past 25 years, the Humanities Department at San Francisco State University has offered a remarkable variety of courses based on the art and thought found in some of the major cites of civilization: Beijing, Cairo, Hong Kong, Kyoto, Leningrad, Los Angeles, London, Mexico City, New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, San Francisco, Timbuktu, Tokyo and Vienna.  The success of these city courses has been one of the brightest achievements in the university’s general education program. And on a more pedestrian but very real economic note, the “Humanities of the City” classes often account for more than half of the department’s total enrollment each semester.

The very success of these courses has raised a number of questions. Should such classes be organized primarily by historical, geographical, or thematic concerns? What are the points of intersection with the interdisciplinary social sciences, which have long recognized the validity of urban studies? And finally, should we be content to teach only the masterworks of literature, the fine arts, philosophy and history, or should we be exploring larger perspectives concerning the overarching characteristics of each city?


Why Do Cities Courses Succeed?

Classes devoted to the study of particular cities seem to offer our students a more cogent and accessible focus for study than more traditional categories such as “The Baroque” or “Medieval Culture.” A city is an actual place, and provides a subject of study with definite physical boundaries that appeal to the logic of the eye. Many students have trouble imagining that they can enter the Medieval world; but they can be convinced that, for example, a study of the architecture and monuments of Paris will give them access to the Middle Ages in a way that literally makes sense to them.

City courses can  also revitalize subject matter that seemed ready to drop from the curriculum. A striking instance of such a resurrection occurred with our department’s course on Rome. Offered as a “Roman Culture” class within the Western civilization sequence, the course in recent times never drew more than ten or twelve students (and sometimes no more than five or six). The class seemed primed for deletion, since such low-enrollments meant the class had to be cancelled. Then, as a “Humanities of the City” class, “Biography of a City: Rome” attracted as many as 45-50 students every time it was offered. One significant difference between the older and newer Rome courses is that the previous class stayed exclusively in the time frame of classical Rome. The new Rome class covered not only the ancient city and empire, but also renaissance Rome and even, on occasion, with the Rome of Frederico Fellini. Now students can relate the Rome of Augustus to the Rome of Michelangelo and Fellini, and all of these incarnations of the city to a Rome they can actually visit today.


The City They Live In

By far the most successful application of the “Humanities of the City” concept at San Francisco State University has been the San Francisco course. At one point, the Humanities department offered between twenty and twenty-five sections a year (including summer and winter sessions), with a combined enrollment of over a thousand. It seems clear from their comments that many students, some of whom are first-generation Americans, regard this course as one of the most vital of their entire educational experience. Biography of a City: San Francisco apprentices them into the culture of their home city, one which gives them grounding in the heritage of local architecture, poetry, photography, park design — in short, some of the major humanistic endeavors in the city where they live.

Humanities programs at other universities might especially profit from the San Francisco example. At George Washington University, Professor Howard Gilette has been able to draw upon the rich architectural and social resources of the D.C. area for his class on Washington in his American Studies program. Similarly, a course at California State University, Northridge, offers an exploration of the culture of Los Angeles as depicted through films made in Hollywood — a clever mixture of urban autobiography and fantasy.

Organization of Class Material

Because the study of cities was so new to interdisciplinary humanistic study, no established methodology existed for the organization of class materials. Should the governing logic be historical? Geographic? Thematic? In practice, the basic structure of most city classes has been a blending of the historical and humanistic — that is, that important works should form the core of the study, and that such works should be presented in the most universally accessible format: a historical sequence.

There is a tendency, established by educational tradition, to treat literature as the core of all humanistic study (see, for example, A.S.P. Woohhouse’s essay in the Encyclopedia Britannica, linked here: In an interdisciplinary study of a city, however, architecture is a candidate to take the leading role. Specifically, every major city symbolized its most immediately accessible character in three architectural manifestations: 

        the public parks

        the city hall

        the signature building (or, over time, buildings).

In its parks, the city shows us how its inhabitants play. Charles Olsen (The City as a work of Art) believes that  “societies better reveal themselves at play than at work.” Even if we are unwilling to grant play this primacy, it is clear that the ways in which a municipality provides for the leisure of its citizens symbolize what the leaders of that city consider proper recreation for the soul. The nature and organization of plantings, the proportion of “culture space” (museums, sports arenas, etc.) to recreated nature reveal what the collective spirit of the city — or, at least, the will of the authorities — believes to be the proper relation of humanity to nature.

A city hall expresses an explicit statement about reverence for the past, the ambitions and pretensions of the populace when the building was designed and erected, and an intended beacon for the future. A city hall tells us of the historical core of the metropolis. Location, height, magnitude and arrangement of interior space, architectural ornamentation — all these elements express the inner and outer symbolism of the city as it moves through time. A city hall is therefore a formal announcement of the soul of the metropolis.

Every city has a signature building: a single structure that defines the skyline, and thereby sets the mood of the city’s character. In the early years of a city’s growth it is usually a religious building that dominate the landscape: the temple at Luxor, Notre Dame de Paris, Mission Dolores in San Francisco. 

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In the passage of time, massive palaces and ambitious public buildings may come to rival the temple’s dominion over the cityscape. In North American civilization, commercial buildings have grown from modest utilitarian structures to colossal hives of enterprise, lording it over their cities and symbolizing the paramount importance of business in the life of the metropolis. 


The Social Sciences and the Humanities

The social sciences have long recognized the validity of urban studies. Social scientists, however, generally have different goals in mind when they come to the study of cities. There are numerous points of overlap and contingency, of course; but social science urbanologists have as their focal points of study such issues as policy analysis, health care, public transportation, housing development, etc. As social scientists, they are interested in urban people in the  aggregate. 

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Humanists generally begin and end their enquiries with the study of individuals and their works: not “The Parisian Middle Class in the Nineteenth Century” but Charles Baudelaire and Honoré de Balzac; not “Publicly Accessible Land Use in New York” but Central Park. Individual works form the essential core of humanists’ study of cities, just as they do for all traditional categories of humanistic study.  Furthermore, the works are not examined solely with a view to understanding the city. The urban setting is also considered with a view to comprehending the experiences of individuals within it.


The Soul of the City

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(original image by

Though humanities classes emphasize the study of individual works, one approach to the courses might entail a search for an understanding of the city itself as an individual, an organism (in actuality, or as a metaphor) whose composite life consists of all the individuals who have lived and worked within its boundaries. Though many humanists are wary of drawing out such large-scale generalizations from history, including the history of cities, proposing such a “soul of the city” can assist the student in formulating that unique combination of outstanding, overall characteristics that differentiate Beijing from Tokyo, Los Angeles from San Francisco. Such an aggregate would bring to the forefront the question of style. And whether we borrow or invent a definition of that elusive term, we need some such principle to express the totality of significant attributes in the literature, fine arts, philosophy and history of the city under consideration.