The character of cities

lifestyle design — By on June 30, 2008 at 12:35 pm

I’ve always been intrigued by the character of different cities. Every urban environment, it seems, has a different vibe, a unique feel. The coffeehouses of Seattle, the universities of Boston, the Latin beat of Miami. Each place has such unique traits that it’s not possible to mistake one for another, and individuals who love one city may actually feel somewhat off kilter in a different environment.

Therefore, I read with interest this recent essay that I stumbled across by Paul Graham, titled “Cities and Ambition,” in which he discusses the characters and ambitions of various cities. An excerpt:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

That’s not quite the same message New York sends. Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents. What matters in Silicon Valley is how much effect you have on the world. The reason people there care about Larry and Sergey is not their wealth but the fact that they control Google, which affects practically everyone…

The big thing in LA seems to be fame. There’s an A List of people who are most in demand right now, and what’s most admired is to be on it, or friends with those who are. Beneath that the message is much like New York’s, though perhaps with more emphasis on physical attractiveness.

In DC the message seems to be that the most important thing is who you know. You want to be an insider. In practice this seems to work much as in LA. There’s an A List and you want to be on it or close to those who are. The only difference is how the A List is selected.

O.K., so cities have different characters. Does it matter, though, where you live? Well, it depends. According to Graham, it could matter a lot.

How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment…But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time…

No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do…

Even when a city is still a live center of ambition, you won’t know for sure whether its message will resonate with you till you hear it. When I moved to New York, I was very excited at first. It’s an exciting place. So it took me quite a while to realize I just wasn’t like the people there…You’ll probably have to figure out where to live by trial and error. You’ll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have.

What do you think?

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