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.



  • I for one think it's awesome that forty-somethings are out skateboarding. I hope to be skateboarding (and not crashing too much) when I'm forty-something.

    I guess I'm thirty-something. Hm, I'd rather go skateboarding than clubbing, though, I'm doomed for another decade of clubbing?


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:38 PM  

  • Great link, although twice as long as it needed to be. I'm not a twitter user, but I'm more of the wikipedia mindset, that with a few references to expanded concepts, you really ought to be able to get just about any concept across thoroughly within a couple pages.

    If anything, the message of Arcata is the opposite of what you said, it is 'you can be a hippie forever', which is perhaps why you left. I see it a bit differently I see Arcata as sending a message of tolerance: 'Do no harm and you will be accepted'. It isn't really about the hippies, it is just that you have to find your own drive; none will be provided for you.

    The message of my home town of Mammoth would be 'get out more'. I think it probably has at least twice as many dogs as humans, and is built like a playground for adults (but not in that Las Vegas way).

    By Anonymous Steel Phoenix, at 10:00 PM  

  • I think you are absolutely right, Arcata say you CAN be a hippie forever (just that I couldn't). DItto with the drive. Without an internal force, you can just sit and stagnate, and I think we have all watched that happen to people.

    By Blogger Yen, at 9:07 AM  

  • I thought LA's message was: Bleach your teeth. Ha!

    As far as SF goes, I mostly agree with your assessment of its message, but I feel there a bit of Silicon Valley's message that creeps in too: "Use technology. It will make you better." I feel like I'm being told to accomplish more too, which I like since it's something I've been telling myself for a while (but I just won't listen).

    Montreal's message: Don't work too hard and enjoy life. Speak French correctly though.

    Toronto: Work harder.


    By Blogger Rubix, at 1:31 PM  

  • Here's my take from where I've spent time:

    Cambridge - Be smarter (or at least more well-read given that they have the largest number of bookstores in the smallest square mileage)

    Boston - Be more cultured. Not the same as above.

    Dublin - Be independent and earn your own way.

    San Francisco - Be more tolerant. Although I think that hipness is more important in SF than in NYC.

    Savannah - Increase your status (generally). Be more creative (at least in my circle of acquaintances.)

    By Anonymous Kate Fafa, at 7:55 AM  

  • My favorite quote from someone when I first arrived in SF was "Do what you love and eventually you'll get paid for it". I'm not sure that SF is about never growing up, but rather not growing old. And there is a difference. Never growing up leaves an impression of lack of responsibility and goals. Rather, many I know in SF refuse to close down their dreams for an imposed reality and instead - through determination - create their reality.

    The saying goes, you are only as old as you feel, or it could also be said that you are always as young as you let yourself be.

    By Blogger Adam, at 11:06 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home