Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The myth of the city: sustaining the mystique by Sue Tilden


We have just explored Paris, one of the great cities of the world, in terms of its myth of itself. Many of the problems of Paris, as in other places, has been due to a kind of falling asleep behind the myth, allowing the image of what it once was or aspired to be to fall from reality. Is Paris still beautiful, graceful, witty and charming – or dangerous, clamorous and degraded? There are remedies however; someone finally took a good look at the Champs Elysees and decided that despite its ‘myth’ as one of the legendary’ streets of the earth, it had deteriorated sadly and needed help, and so it has just been renewed at great expense. No expense may be too great, however, to maintain such an emblem of the city, such a component of the myth, rescuing it from loss.

I’ve been interested in special places for quite some time. In 1991, I put together a panel discussion at the American national planning conference which was entitled: “Sustainable Tourism: Discovering, Expressing and Protecting the Spirit of Place.” Most of the panelists presented projects which had been done to help keep special places special, such as the Napa Valley of California, the Florida Keys and the design of a new ‘nature’ theme park in Chiba, Japan. With our conference here, we’re taking a step further back into the ‘discovery’ phase, trying to root out just what it is that defines the spirit of a place, of a city or a region. We are trying to understand ‘myth’ for the purpose of planning places that are more suited to the humans that inhabit them.

So what is Myth? Myth is participatory, not learned per se, but exchanged, handled, passed between and the other with embellishments and personalizations. Myth is a shorthand to understanding our relationship with our place, an encoded message, but one which is known and felt by the members of a culture. And Myth is about ourselves – quite human. Whether about our city, our leaders, our sports teams, our cuisine, myth is at the basis of that current catch-word ‘sustainability’, because our myths to sustain us. They inform and direct us and even, conversely, blind us to encroaching reality. We say ‘it’s just a myth’. However, myths are quite powerful; they shape our lives by response and expectation.

Joseph Campbell, an eminent mythologist of our time, in a published TV interview with journalist Bill Moyers entitled “The Power of Myth” makes the point that we need to create new myths that will carry us through to the future. He says that we  must deal with the stuff of myth, which he terms “the maturation of the individual from birth to exist and how to relate to society and nature.” He calls for a ‘bigger’ myth, based on an overview which is both regional and global, capable of sustaining and informing and informing the vision needed to establish goals for a future in which we can survive.

Survival is a real issue. Moyers commented that “Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that television has made a global village of the world – but he didn’t know the global village would be Beirut.” Campbell got to the heart of one of the relationships of myth to violence when he responded: “It says to me that they don’t know how to apply their religious ideas to contemporary life, and to human beings rather than to just their own community. It’s a terrible example of the failure of religion to meet the modern world. These three mythologies are fighting it out. They have disqualified themselves for the future.”

Crete has so many myths. Which ones could it chose to emphasize and use to renew itself? Paradoxically, even those with a negative connotation can be very helpful. As we prepared to come here I was told over and again that this is an island of GUNS; Cretan people are likely to be volatile and even dangerous. An example I have used many times comes from a place that has much the same reputation in the USA. In Texas, public service advertising campaigns have utilized this myth of proud threat to institute one of the most successful anti-litter campaigns ever launched.

Having identified the group with the highest incidence of littering as being young men from ages approximately 15 to 28, it was decided that an appeal to beautification would not suffice. In order to allow the target group to retain its certain mythical self-image of machismo, a tougher tack was taken, with the slogan: “Don’t mess with Texas!” From bumper stickers to billboards and TV spots, the message was spread and the myth grew – Texas is tough enough to clean itself up and to make you clean up, too.

Also like Crete, Texans pride themselves on hospitality – a great and competitive myth among peoples of the world. So, on most roads, signs are posted by the state highway department saying “Drive Friendly”. It’s not a specific traffic law, but certainly one that gives an appropriate instruction to most driving situations and is enforced by the wish of most Texans to see themselves, in accord with legendary and mythical beliefs about who they are, as being a race large-hearted enough to be friendly and gracious – even on the road.

Texas is filled with myth, still believes in it and feeds itself regularly on the benefits of maintaining such a legendary stance. Texas have been shrewd enough to harness the positive power of myth to improve society in a myriad of ways, not only for shallowly conceived commercial gain, but to help solve some of the problems of society such as those described above.

In the USA, we have always believed that people can shape the future. And we created and employed myth to enable this. Immigrants who came to America were largely pursuing myth. Deconstructionist scholarship in recent years has exposed much of this myth as being based on faulty perceptions, pointing out that for many the myth was empty. I’m not here to discuss deconstructionism, but I make this comment because I want to emphasize the power of positive myths and the desolation of life without them. When heroes are debunked, it is human nature to create new ones, which may be appropriate to cohesive society or not. I believe that we must be careful not to take apart and expose the truth of something if we do not intend to receate a new and better thing with the parts.

Sailors know you can’t plot the course without a destination in mind. Myth can be used to define goals which in turn define means. A standard practice in the planned revitalization of places is the participatory determination of a vision, which enables the setting of goals, which result in plans and actions intended to improve the economic, aesthetic, cultural etc. aspects of a given locale. Currently there are even specialists in “visioning” who consult with governmental and citizens groups to, essentially, define the myth from which an imagine can be crafted.

Myth is extremely important to growth and development strategies. If you believe in the local myth that a certain locale is cultured and artsy, upscale and lively, a pleasant and safe place to be, then you’ll probably go ahead and invest in a restaurant, bookstore, or shop there. You could decide to open a branch of your bank or corporation in the area. Municipalities and chambers of commerce invest in public amenities such as street furniture and trees in order to provide an attractive place – attractive in the aesthetic meaning and also in the economic one of ‘attracting’ shoppers and spenders and investors. Festivals may be held to enhance the desired perception, to pump up the myth.

The negative is also the case, anything which might harm the commercial myth is guarded against. I remember a few years ago when I was eagerly watching news coverage of Hurricane Andrew in Miami. It was very rare after the first couple of hours of coverage to see any shots of downtown Miami, Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne, or Miami Beach – any of the showy tourist-oriented areas. Most of the scenes were set far south around Homestead Air Base, admittedly the worst hit area, but also one which wouldn’t have the economic repercussions of an adverse touristic impression being formed. Photos I later received from friends showed a wild scene with extreme loss of vegetation and havoc among the boats in marinas, and so on. Damage control was definitely being exercised by the authorities of Miami regarding their image as well as actual physical destruction. Whether this was recognized as protecting a myth is unclear, however the mystique of a place is well understood to ‘sell’. It’s too bad that the underlying cultural identity of a place is not so well defended.

In a very recent book by Douglas Coupland, micro serfs, the accelerating commercial value of culture and myth is well described: “Las Vegas: it’s like the sub-consciousness of the culture exploded and made municipal…Las Vegas hotels are similar to video games – games and hotels both plunder extinct or mythical cultures in pursuit of a franchisable myth with graphic potential: Egypt – Camelot – the Jolly Roger. We found ourselves feeling a little sorry for hotels that couldn’t afford to lavishly re-create mythical archetypes, or were simply too stupid to realize that the lack of a theme made them indistinguishable. It was as if the boring hotels couldn’t figure out what was going on in the bigger scheme of Western culture. Hotels in Las Vagas need special effects, rides, simulators, morphings…today’s hotel must have fantasy systems in place, or it will perish.” We have come to a Disneyization of cultural experience – prompted by an attempt to cash in on the very real human need to be connected with place and past.

So many places have lost themselves in a blind and desperate race to follow the latest growth strategy, while allowing the chips to fall where they may on questions of livability, environment and cultural cohesion. Crete must seek its solutions through a thorough understanding and acceptance of itself. A key part of the task ahead is to sift its very rich culture in order to chart a future course that is grounded in solid and sustainable reality.

The tourism industry here provides a case in point. What we see around us is a generic brand of sun, sand and wine with a little honky-tonk archaeology thrown in for ‘local color’. It could be so much better. In fact, it may soon have to become much better quality in order to compete. An article that appeared last week in the International Herald Tribune was entitled: “Spain changes its Image”. “Spain’s tourist industry is undergoing a major remodeling as the country begins to shed its image as a mecca for the sun-seeking, but penny-pinching package tourist and attract wealthier, more sophisticated vacationers, the country’s tourist officials say…It may be too late to salvage the great stretches of Spanish coastline eaten by postwar tourist developments – towering concrete hotels, apartment blocks and entertainment centers – but Spain is trying. In the past 12 years, 3,000 buildings have been demolished and coastal protection legislation has been passed in an attempt to develop ‘sustainable tourism’. It goes on to describe the development of rural and cultural holidays and a jump in tourist flows to the cities, where Spanish culture is emphasized.

When we discuss regional integration strategies, we don’t have to be talking exclusively about high tech or industrial development. We need to think in terms of a coherent and complementary mode, but this could be applied to the development of a ‘cultural place’ that then becomes its own powerful attractor. As a place becomes more livable and desirable for its inhabitants, it naturally becomes more attractive to outside interests. But these must not be allowed to ‘drive’ the region, they must be required to fit into the regional picture.

Santa Fe, New Mexico in the American Southwest is a supreme example of a culturally integrated place that lives its myth very successfully. Santa Fe is the state capital and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the USA. Culture IS the industry. Lifestyle IS the point. The Santa Fe and surrounding art markets rank in the top five for annual gross sales, along with New York, London and Paris. The vernacular architecture of the area is adobe, rather like Greek island style, only tan colored. No other building style is allowed in Santa Fe, despite the desires or pressures of commercial and residential developers. Paradoxically, this has become the keynote of the region, with development in nearby cities using Santa Fe-type architecture as the pre-eminent building style of choice. This insistence on maintaining cultural continuity with Indian, Spanish and pioneer roots empowered a cultural identity that has been exported worldwide in the form of ‘southwest style’ art, cuisine, home furnishing, Indian jewelry and accessories.

New Mexico’s state motto is “Land of Enchantment” and it is so enchanting that it is projected as a place that will continue to experience its current explosive growth into the new century. Due in large part to the highly desirable lifestyle and culture of the place, corporations are locating in the area. Regional infrastructure has included an excellent continentally-linked transportation network, medical and research facilities, and educational institutions that range from university and high tech through community colleges focused on ethnic populations and institutions for crafts and the arts. The place has become a ‘pull’ attractor. Having successfully kept life in the myth, the task will now be to preserve authenticity and human scale in the face of a tidal wave of growth.

Restoring power to myth works both ways, for this can only be done by participation in the myth by the citizens and not imposed bureaucratically or as marketing window dressing. There are of course many necessary roles for government. But for any direction to be taken, whether it’s the integrated regional model Phil Cooke described or another, requires the will of the human beings involved. The myth which is accepted, “brought into”, by people is what will occur.

This is truly where the personal meets the collective. The questions to be answered are: how do we see ourselves, our city, our region, our relationship to the world? Where would we like to be going? People, not governments, must get there.


End Notes

  1. Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers, ed. Betty Sue Flowers, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday,…) p. 24.
  2. Coupland, Douglas, micro serfs, (New York: Reganbooks: Harper Collings Publisher, Inc. 1995), p. 339 – 353


Additional Reading

Hiss, Tony, The Experience of Place, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)

Hough, Michael, Out of Place, Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1990)

Jackson, John Brinkerhoff, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1984)

Jackson, John Brinkerhoff, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994)

Krutilla, John V. and Anthony C. Fisher, The Economics of Natural Environments: Studies in the Valuation of Commodity and Amenity Resources (Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Furture, 1975 and 1985)

Murphy, Peter E., Tourism, A Community Approach (New York & London, Routledge, 1985)

Swan, James A., Sacred Places. How the Living Earth Seeks Our Friendship (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear & Company Publishing, 1990)

Tuan, Yi-Fu, Landscapes of Fear (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979)

Further Comments

1. An article form the Athens News discusses the upcoming symposium entitled “Revelation and the Environment” to be held in Patmos, under the auspices of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. This can be noted as an attempt by a major world religion to apply its religious ideas to contemporary life. The symposium, which will take place on board a cruise ship which will sail from Piraeus to Istanbul and be attended by world scientific and political leaders, will focus on seas and oceans as the paradigm through which to explore the broader issue of the dramatic deterioration of man’s relationship with his environment.

2. The mythical figures of the Wild West, cowboys, pioneers, explorers have lent inspiration to generations of Americans and contribution to our so-called “can do” attitude of self-reliance and inventiveness. The myth has always been one of a white male cowboy or pioneer – a Marlboro man, now an international mythical figure. But the reality, far from needing to be debunked and scorned, instead enables the myth to be expanded so that it could empower a far greater modern population profile. Over 40% of cowboys were black, Latino, or American Indian – and of course, many cowboys were cowgirls.




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