Sunday, June 1, 2008

On being a great city

An interesting, if lengthy, commentary on the character of cities, which posits that every great city has a singular message which shapes those who live there:
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.
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. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. 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.
The author gives numerous examples - New York tells its inhabitants to be richer, L.A. to be more famous, etc. What message does Atlanta send? Does Atlanta even send a message?

I'm not entirely convinced that Atlanta has a message, but if it does I think it tells people to get ahead on their own terms. Everyone seems to be an entrepreneur, or is planning to be one some day. Even the East Atlanta slackers seem to run their own businesses, whether it's a tattoo parlor, repair shop, or graphic design company. Atlanta tells folks, "hey, if we can con the world into giving us the Olympics, surely you can be a somebody, too."

Atlanta probably doesn't qualify as a "great city" on the scale of NY, Boston, or Chicago, although the author uses localities like Berkeley and Cambridge, and from my experience Ann Arbor would certainly fit in. We are talking about cities that "speak to you." I wrote this post before I left for Ann Arbor, and I am updating it from the Michigan library, where my login still works two and a half years later. I am sure that some of my feelings come from my time living here, but Ann Arbor has always spoken to me, from the first day I came to visit as a high school senior.

Being in Ann Arbor reminded me of what Atlanta lacks. I walked around Ann Arbor for a solid two hours on Friday, taking in the architecture, the people, the general scene. I can't think of the last time I did that in Atlanta. I'm not sure where you could do that - there are plenty of places worth walking around, but you'd have to get in the car and drive somewhere in between them. It's not seamless, like it is in Ann Arbor. Atlanta still speaks to me, but I'm not sure if it would had I not been born here.

I wonder - if the message a city sends is a function of both the physical environment and collection of people living in that environment, what happens when your physical environment encourages isolation and discourages community? Can you be a great city without a distinctive urban environment, or without a message?

It's always mildly depressing to be reminded just how much urban character Atlanta truly lacks. Sometimes I get so caught up in boosterism that it is easy to forget how far Atlanta has to go to be a truly great city.

h/t: Richard Florida

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you, I don't think Atlanta has a message. There is no palpable vibe like in NYC or LA, or even Athens, GA. Atlanta is a generic city with an affordable cost of living, to me that is Atlanta's main attraction. Maybe that's the message? "Come to Atlanta, it ain't great but it's affordable and there's some things to do."

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