Urban Terrapsychology and Creative Placemaking (6)

My post of last week described Robert Sardello's advice to Saint Paul City government leaders in 1991: pursue culture, not civilization.  That is, allow cultural creativity to flourish without interference from other spheres of human activity that seek to dominate the cultural realm.  In particular, don't regard culture as a means to the end of economic profit.  Instead, cherish cultural activity as a pillar of what Lewis Hyde calls the Gift Economy which expects no return on investment, but paradoxically yields prosperity so long as such prosperity does not become the goal of the gift.

There was an additional twist to Sardello's advice, however - one expressed to me privately, not in his official communications to the City.  One might expect that his views on culture and civilization might translate into a privileging of neighborhoods above "downtown" or its equivalent.  After all, neighborhoods seem to be where grassroots creativity can flourish, whereas urban downtowns are typically places where power concentrates and seeks hegemony over the rest of the community, as well as over other cities.  But Sardello's startling observation regarding Saint Paul was that our city had a strong soul, but a weak spirit - manifest in its strong neighborhoods and weak downtown.  This he found to be a startling contrast to Dallas - and even to our neighbor Minneapolis.  His advice to me, then, was to work toward a better balance between soul/neighoborhoods and spirit/downtown in my community - perhaps by seeking a path that could infuse downtown itself with the soul/culture energy of the city's neighborhoods.

I wish I could report that over the next few years I had been able to work with Robert Sardello on such a task.  But as is often the case, there was a "two steps forward, one step backward" dimension to my work with the Dallas Institute after 1991.  Robert had hoped to be hired to direct an anthroposophical organization in the Twin Cities that year, but the organization was not able to raise the needed resources to make that possible.  Instead, he moved to North Carolina to establish the School of Spiritual Psychology which continues today.  And the publication of Sardello's Facing the World with Soul had an unfortunate side effect with my risk-averse City government bosses.  When my own boss started reading the book, he panicked at what he thought were extreme New Age ideas that would set us up for ridicule if we continued to associate openly with them.  So as 1991 drew to a close, so did the Sardello chapter in the history of the City of Saint Paul.

But two steps forward had already been taken, and this was only one step back.  I had established a good connection not only with Robert Sardello, but with several of his colleagues at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture - all of whom shared similar ideas about soul in the city, but with a mode of expression that was a bit more mainstream.  Work with these people - particularly Mary Ellen Degnan and Gail Thomas - would yield great benefits to my city in 1992 and 1993.  Next week's post will continue this story.

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Comment by Patricia Damery on November 9, 2014 at 2:10pm

I continue to be appreciative of this story you tell. What an analysis!  ... that the neighborhoods had a strong soul but the city itself a weak spirit, witnessed by a weak downtown. So many of our cities demonstrate this. A lot to ponder. 

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