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by William H. Benson

February 7, 2008

     Cities across the globe attract millions of new immigrants each year. Some of these new arrivals find a much better life than they could have experienced should they have stayed in their rural native hinterland. For others though, the city grinds them up, pushing them into urban poverty, into the ghetto, where life is “short, nasty, and brutish.” Some find hope; others are swallowed up in hopelessness and despair.

     The decisions that emanate from certain cities impact people’s lives around the globe. A rumor originating in Washington D.C. is magnified manifold until it is heard in Asia, Europe, South America, Africa, and the Middle East. All concerned U.S. citizens seem to develop an ear that is tuned to the machinations coming out of Washington. Art, the publishing business, and the garment industry all revolve around New York City. Hollywood, California boasts of the film industry.

     Certain people are associated with a particular city. Benjamin Franklin found his fortune in Philadelphia, and then could afford to live for years in London and Paris. Bill and Hillary Clinton were Little Rock, Arkansas residents until they changed their address to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. for eight years, and then they moved to New York City. Baghdad belonged to Saddam Hussein for decades, as did Moscow to Joseph Stalin.

     Think of Salt Lake City, and you think of Brigham Young. Harry Truman had Independence, Missouri. Jimmy Carter still lives in Plains, Georgia. Richard Nixon often escaped the Oval Office for San Clemente. After college, Ronald Reagan left his native Illinois and adopted Hollywood for his own.

     With the expansion of professional sports, we tend today to associate a city with their football, basketball, or baseball teams. Denver is the home of the Broncos and the Rockies. Los Angeles owns both the Raiders, formerly of Oakland, and also the Rams. Philadelphia claim the Eagles, Pittsburg the Steelers, and Green Bay the Packers. Boston has the Red Sox, but all of New England claims the Patriots.

     We know those cities’ coaches and players, those of today and of yesterday. Denver had Dan Reeves and John Elway. Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr found fame and fortune in a northern Wisconsin city called Greenbay, and Chicago had a Refrigerator.

     The name of a city can signify much more than a professional sports team though. One day the Greek mathematician Archimedes was absorbed in thought over a mathematical diagram he was sketching in the sand. So intent was he that he failed to hear the approach of a Roman soldier who told him to desist his drawing. Because he did not instantly obey, the Roman soldier killed Archimedes. That tale, true or not, encapsulates the difference between the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, between Athens and Rome.

     Athens represented the pursuit of the good life: beauty, art, sculpture, drama, literature, philosophy. Rome, on the other hand, represented political power: the sword, war, and brutally crushing any and all opposition. “Pay your taxes and keep the peace,” was Rome’s constant threat, “or else.”

     If Rome was to the far left of Athens, (both geographically and culturally) to the far right was Jerusalem, the home of the ancient Hebrews. In this city, the emphasis was upon worship, finding the proper form and duty, something that the ancient Greeks and Romans gave only occasional attention.

     Today’s world-class cities fascinate modern men and women: London, Tokyo, and New York City each have their own culture, their own aura. They excel at creating their own kind of citizen, a man or a woman who loves to live in such a megalopolis, capable above all else of riding the subways and fighting the crowds.

     Next Tuesday is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Save for his childhood and the Presidency, he lived his adult life in Springfield, Illinois. It was there in that town that he explored the ideas and then put them into the words that would propel him into national prominence and eventually put him into the White House in Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, a city.