Yeninko of the Umlaut

Monday, March 23, 2009

What Cities Tell You

Stanza recently forwarded me a fascinating article about cities and the messages they send. The author asserts a lot that I don't necessarily agree with but be sparks an interesting discussion. The premise being that cities attract a type of person by sending a message about what you should be (I highly recommend the article linked above else a lot of what I'm going to say will sound disconnected).

Some of his examples;

New York tells you, above all: you should make more money.
Boston (or rather Cambridge) is: you should be smarter.
Silicon Valley is: how much effect you have on the world?

So I started talking to Stanza who I have lived with in Boston and Arcata and we discussed what cities were telling us.

While I spent most of my life in LA I feel like I can say the least about it, so much of LA is tied into growing up and discovery that it is hard to disconnect that from its essence. If I were to take a stab at LA, I would say its message is: there are a lot of us. Just due to its sheer size LA feels like it goes on forever. And all of that forever is populated, and by so many different types of people that is speaks to the size of the world and all the people in it. I am always fascinated arriving by jet at LAX. The sheer number of different people, coming from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, Australia, it feels like the whole world passes though that airport, and the city is the same. There is no ethnic food I feel you can’t find in LA, because it feels like there is no ethnicity without an embassy, a ghetto of it’s own there, hunkering down with the rest of us and reminding us we are all in this together.

Arcata, where I attended college seemed to say: You can't be a hippy forever. It's mostly an anti-message, a demonstration of what happens when you try to hold on to a concept or ideal to long. It is a message of not changing, of holding on. I've always felt for myself, that staying in Arcata would have been a cop out for me, the path of least resistance, the path more traveled. I'm not entirely sure it is a fair judgment on the city but ultimately these are all very subjective insights.

Boston was also a tough one for me since I spent so little time there and I had such a hard time making friends. I would say that Boston says: You should be in school. With 100 universities and over a quarter million students in the city of Boston and Cambridge alone, I felt like everyone was related to one another through the universities they attended, or the schools they taught in or worked at. The fact that I worked a 9-5 always seemed so abnormal in comparison to most of the people I met there, regardless of age.

San Francisco's message is so clear in my mind that I'm curious what anyone else might say. I can't imagine anything other than: you don't have to grow up. SF is Neverland, a city with the apocryphal fact that there are more dogs than children, because no one has children as they delay adulthood. Where clubs are filled with thirty somethings, and forty somethings organize skateboard outings. Where no one grows up and buys a house because there isn't an affordable house in the city.

Ultimately I thought it was a fascinating question and I’d be interest in what you think the cities you have lived in have told you about themselves.