Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Loving the low-cachet city

Though I've never been to Detroit, Frank Bruni's column yesterday ("Detroit: A Love Song") resonated with me. I live in a small and unglamorous Rust Belt city and will be spending my sabbatical in a large and unglamorous one (a place that exists, in the mind of most Northeasterners, mainly as a punchline). Both are terrific cities with lots to love, but increasingly I love the fact that they're cities that aren't all about themselves.

As Bruni writes,

The people there don't tether their identities to the luster or mythology of their surroundings. Their self-image isn't tied to their ZIP codes.

[. . . . ]

[I]f you inhabit the gilded precincts favored by those of us who fancy ourselves power brokers or opinion makers or players of one kind or another, it's a remarkable thing--and a welcome one.

The political operative in Washington, the financial whiz or magazine editor in New York, the studio executive in Los Angeles, the Internet impresario in Seattle or San Francisco: all are creatures not just of a profession but of a profession that blooms and struts in a given self-regarding place. Many have egos nourished by that terrain, which feeds a hyperawareness of status, a persistent jockeying for position.

Now, I grew up in Seattle and spent six years in Manhattan, and I love a world-class city at least as much as the next person. If I got a job offer in one of those places--or in Chicago or San Francisco, Boston or Austin--I probably wouldn't turn it down. But I find the geographically limited worldview of my creative-class peers both tedious and sad.

Certainly, there are industries that are centered around a single region, and it makes sense--it may even be necessary--for many people to live in-or-around D.C., L.A., or New York. But deriving your sense of hipness or glamor or self-consequence from where you live (or once lived) strikes me as a tragic kind of overcompensation. And I've got no time for transplants who can't forgive their current location for not being New York or San Francisco. Each of those cities? There's exactly one of. Move back, or get over it.

I wouldn't have moved here if I hadn't gotten this job, but I'd be thrilled to be here for another decade. Indeed, the fact that it's not hip and not a place that people move to means there's no anxiety about keeping up (cool new bars or restaurants open at the rate of about one per year) and no unusual cachet to doing so (at almost any venue you're equally as likely to run into your dentist, your tattoo artist, and some random meathead from your gym).

It's not that there's no tribal signalling of one's hipness and aesthetic and intellectual sensibility here, but it's not foregrounded in the same way. And thank goodness.


Anonymous said...

My complaints with my current place of residence mainly stem from its ongoing war on women, and a bit from its desire to have a large underclass of poor people who somehow don't deserve the basic necessities that blue states manage to provide their folks. Just sayin'.

Flavia said...


I didn't say there are no valid reasons to dislike the city one winds up in; of course there are. And even a city that other people love or would love to live in aren't for everyone. I have friends who dislike our current city for reasons that I recognize and sympathize with as valid-for-them: the weather, the difficulty they've had dating, etc.

My point is that there's life outside of New York and San Francisco, and that I find those who say they could never live annnnnywhere else to be tedious poseurs overly invested in externals--which is to say, the ways those cities operate to signal their own taste or status or specialness.

Jeff said...

Flavia, what you're describing is similar to my experience growing up in central Jersey in the '70s and '80s. We had no TV or statewide radio stations of our own, our schools were modest and our neighborhoods plain, New Yorkers viewed us with contempt, and our entire state was an easy punch line.

Sometimes it was disorienting to live in a place with no identity, but it was also liberating. If you stayed, contentment was a real possibility; if you left, you took with you a well-calibrated B.S. detector that helped compensate for certain educational or cultural disadvantages—and which heightened one's ability to look around, especially in a city like D.C., and see how weirdly unhappy the status-seekers seem to be...

Anonymous said...

If my reasons are valid, then why aren't the reasons of my friends who only want to live in NYC valid? I don't particularly understand their love of the East coast, but there's a reason a lot of people live in NYC.

We're all allowed to have different preferences. I don't judge my friends who have preferred metro areas. I have colleagues who love the rural wilderness and don't care about politics and they're happier here than in the cities they've lived before. More power to them.

Flavia said...


I think you've entirely misunderstood my post and Bruni's column. The point isn't that there's anything wrong with preferring to live in NYC. (Would I love a job there? Of course I would!) It's that:

a) if you prefer to live there, then live there--and if you can't, then don't complain endlessly that St. Louis (or wherever) isn't NYC because literally no other city in the country is NYC or like NYC;

b) residence in a given city doesn't automatically make you cool. I think many people use their residence in a place like NYC as a lazy form of self-esteem: you're cool or important because you live in NYC or a particular neighborhood of NYC. This is actually a thing that is widely available to anyone who wants to or can move there, and is not a sign of your exquisite and unique sensibility.

But most fundamentally,

c) there are a lot of cool or potentially cool places, if you look for them, beyond the usual suspects.

I will repeat: this does not mean you have to like any place you wind up needing to live. It does not mean you can't prefer to live somewhere else, or that you can't miss the place you used to live. I'm merely inveighing against parochialism--for there's a big-city, creative-class parochialism as much as there's a small-town one.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I have lived in NYC for decades--supposedly one of these egregiously self-regarding cities--and I have never seen anyone "blooming and strutting" about it. People tend to become affectionate about where they live, and to convince themselves they live in the best place.

Bruni's problem is that he associates with far too many fatuous media NY-DC Beltway Villager shittebagges and reacts by glorifying the supposed salt of the Earth people of other regions and their humble regard. The problem is that Bruni needs to find some new friends who aren't pompous fuckebagges, not that there is some kind of epidemic of "blooming and strutting" in big coastal cities.

Flavia said...


Where one sees this most is not so much in NYC or when those who live there are talking about NYC (or D.C. or Portland or wherever), but in their assessment of/relationship to other cities. It may even be non-residents, or former residents, or wishful residents, who do it the most. I myself see it in people who used to live in big coastal cities, and believe that everything would be better and cooler if they still did.

As for your critique of Bruni: OF COURSE he's talking about a particular class of people--call them "fatuous media people," if you like--rather than every single person who lives in a given city, or even the majority of the people who live in a given city. That's clear from the column. I agree that he's surely overstating or romanticizing Detroit and its residents a little, but I'd hardly say he's "glorifying" them (and I'm not aware that Detroiters are traditionally lumped in with those categorized as "salt of the earth").

Anonymous said...

"Where one sees this most is not so much in NYC or when those who live there are talking about NYC (or D.C. or Portland or wherever), but in their assessment of/relationship to other cities. It may even be non-residents, or former residents, or wishful residents, who do it the most."

Seriously. I went to grad school in a tiny town in upstate NY and I got quite tired of the students from NYC who complained that Tiny Town was not NYC. I actually liked Tiny Town, but I'm from a mid-size city in another east coast state. Eventually I would openly laugh at them when they complained because they just became absurd. "What was your first clue that tiny town is not NYC?" I would ask. Please, if you want to live in NYC (or any other place) live there. I just wish to be spared from the complaints.

Withywindle said...

For a reverse pathology ... I may have mentioned that, saying I come from New York City, a remarkable number of people say, "oh, I'd never live there" or "I'd hate to raise children there"--remarkable, unprompted rudeness that I would never dream about saying about other places. (People from LA, I've noticed, get this too.) And much of this from middle-aged people you'd think had learned not to say nasty things about other people's homes as the first piece of idle chit-chat. Then there is the unprompted cringe--"you must not think much of this place"--which, if not offensive, is not a conversation starter. The former, at any rate, bespeaks a certain self-regarding parochialism of its own.

This is not to deny a certain self-regardingness in my home town, which doubtless I've shared with the world on occasion.

Flavia said...


Oh, no doubt. There's definitely an anti-NYC discourse out there, which I suspect is the lens through which CPP is (in my opinion, erroneously) reading Bruni's column and my post. But NYC has at least as many fans as detractors, and probably many more. (And even those who wouldn't care to live there recognize that it's a place of status and consequence.) The same isn't true of Detroit, et al.

I don't brook sneering at anyone's hometown or adopted hometown. But the kind of grief that New Yorkers and Los Angelenos get is nothing compared to living somewhere whose only public reputation is a negative one.

Again, I haven't lived in Detroit, but I've lived in two cities that people from elsewhere regard as, at best, a punchline (in the case of the place I'm spending the coming year), and at worst as a ghetto warzone (the city of my alma mater). My current city actually isn't sufficiently on anyone's radar screen for there to be a stock attitude toward it--but I still encounter the kind of shit here that livingacademically describes so well.

(All that said--I'm sure that I too have copped the occasional attitude as a result of being--currently or formerly--a Seattlite or New Yorker.)

Historiann said...

I like this post, but maybe it's because I've lived in a lot of "second cities" in my lifetime: Philly, not NYC; Baltimore, not Washington; Providence, not Boston; Somerville, not Cambridge; etc. I've managed to avoid living in the "cooler" cities or towns all of my life. Plus, I'm from a town that's a punchline, and I regularly visit family who live near Detroit, so I'm well familiar with the particular baggage people lay on where you live.

When it comes to academic careers especially, it really helps to be able to bloom where you're planted. A lot of those folks who can't live annnnyyyywhere but Cambridge, New York, or Berkeley, for example, either have to leave academia or they have to be comfortable adjuncting for the rest of their lives.

An issue your post raises implicitly is that if one can't live annnnyyyyywhere but in X town or y state or province, you don't really get to know what you really like about where you live, or what you might come to really like about living somewhere else.

I never thought I'd get used to the wide open spaces of the high plains desert. I really, really missed canopies of trees growing like weeds on the highways when I first moved from Ohio to Colorado. Now when I'm back east, I miss seeing 50-150 miles in each direction and I feel almost claustrophobic amongst all of those winding highways, rolling hills, and wild trees everywhere. (You can't see someone sneaking up on you in that kind of a landscape!)

Canuck Down South said...

I can really sympathize with this post. I'm going to grad school in one of those punchline cities, and invariably the first question I get from people when I tell them where I live (or from locals when I open my mouth, as my accent makes it obvious I'm not local), is "Why?," always said with great astonishment. The locals often are proud to hear my explanation that the private research university I attend gives out nice gobs of money to grad students, much more than I could easily get in Canada--one of the nicer thing I've discovered about people in punchline cities: they love to hear about the advantages of their city, even when they don't benefit at all from those advantages. The New Yorkers/Torontonians etc. are only slightly less puzzled when they hear my explanation. For these people, apparently "a grad school with real financial support" still isn't reason enough to leave one of those self-esteem-boosting cities.

Flavia said...


[I}f one can't live annnnyyyyywhere but in X town or y state or province, you don't really get to know what you really like about where you live, or what you might come to really like about living somewhere else.

This strikes me as so important: maybe the things you love about Brooklyn can actually be found in Louisville, more affordably--along with a lot of other things you didn't know you'd value!

For many people, the sense of needing to be in a particular place is a complicated and emotional thing: the place could be their home region, but for many creative-class types it seems more often to be the first place they came into their own professionally, or the first place they felt at home after fleeing the place they grew up.

That's not something I'm inclined to dismiss or make fun of, but sometimes the attachment has less to do with the place's uniqueness (or special opportunities or amenities) than with the fact that it's bound up with the individual's biography and sense of self. And it can be productive to see this for what it is, especially if one is in a profession, like academia, that will rarely let you stay where you want to stay.

I admit I felt some of that about New York [insert long boring story that for the present I'll spare you]--but, perhaps because I moved across the country when I was 18, and had experienced life in four very different places by the time I was 23, it was easier for me to imagine that I'd find things to like in a whole lot of the regions or places I might wind up.

Anonymous said...

Au contraire! Your city is very glamorous and hip--if on a slightly smaller scale. And the summers are sublime!

I don't understand the poster who says he's never encountered the snobby NYC attitude. I cannot count the number of times I told someone in NYC or DC that I was from Cha-Cha City, only to be met with a pitying, condoling expression--as though I had just told them I was orphaned at a young age.

Spanish prof said...

Amen to the post... Would I love a well-paid job in NYC? Absolutely...But I also fell in love with the mid sized city where I got the job (very close to where Historiann used to work), and I hate condescending comments of "Poor you, living in a place that has no (insert different artsy stuff), is conservative..." in fact, my place has most of the artsy stuff that people assume it doesn't. The county went for Obama in both elections - first time it went Democratic in a national election since 1964 (the nearby counties are a different story).

I had some of the same prejudices when I moved here. I grew up in Buenos Aires, 12 million people and growing. My summers were spent watching French and Italian cinema retrospectives (I know it sounds pretentious, but it was pretty much all you could do if you were stucked in the city). Through the years I've been living in my current city, I learned not just to adjust, but to actually appreciate and consider myself lucky of having landed a job in this city. And as much as I love Buenos Aires, now I find it too noisy for my taste.

Worst incident with an educated West Coaster: I was telling this person, who lives in San Francisco, is very liberal and cosmopolitan, that I had celebrated my wedding anniversary that year at a sushi restaurant. Her answer: "There are sushi restaurants in (insert name of my city)? I didn't know". She wasn't being snotty or sarcastic. She really thought there were no sushi restaurants if you don't live in the Coasts. No wonder I developed a strange aversion to San Francisco (I do love Los Angeles, though)

Susan said...

Native New Yorker, now living in a small rural city, where the nearest Trader Joes (perhaps the best gage of hip?) is 40 miles away. So this resonates a lot.

For some years I lived and taught in a small city about 125 miles from NY. There, everyone said they wished they were in another city, about 50 miles closer to NY. I moved to that other small city - known for crime, poverty etc as well as a university - and the cool people all wished they lived in New York.

Now, when I meet people, I get kind of concerned questions about "What's it like to live in X place?" And I say, it's where I live. Sometimes I'd like more choice of restaurants, but I don't go out that much; and while its great to have museums and theatre and music, I didn't go all that often when I had it on my doorstep. Really, when I'm working 60 hours a week, I don't do much more if I'm in some cosmopolitan center than when I'm home. And much of this is dealt with by travel, which I do for work....

Historiann said...

"And much of this is dealt with by travel, which I do for work...."

Great point. I once lived in a very small college town, pop. 27,000 or so. It was pleasant and we had great neighbors and friends, but one of the key things about living there happily is that you got the heck out on a regular basis!

I live in a slightly bigger town now, and getting out occasionally is still a good strategy for happiness.

BTW, Spanish Prof. lives in what people in my old town thought was the "cool city." It has a very strong arts tradition--esp. on the music front, perhaps because it was founded by Germans.

Spanish prof said...

Historiann: you should tell that about the "cool city" to the locals, who have a weird inferiority complex and can't understand why somebody would actually like this city if you were not born here.

On the other hand, a blogger once told me in a private exchange that hir university (in another state) always put my university as the model of what they aspire to be, and I had the same incredulous reaction

Susan said...

I used to travel to Spanish Prof's city and it was *very cool*.

Spanish prof said...

Hooray for "cool city"! And by the way,the restaurant scene is amazing too...