On Sameness

This opinion piece was shared with me yesterday, and it’s one worth a few more words. Its author could have said a lot more about how short-sighted the original article is, and it’s been awhile since I have written anything here.

The original article: The Unbearable Sameness of Cities
Commentary op-ed: Tragically Hipster

Without sounding like too much of a jerk, I’m mildly surprised NY Magazine published Schwindt’s article, even online. I consider myself judgmental to a flaw (it’s something I’ve tried hard to change over the years, but progress is slow, and I think I will always have a Northeastern chip on my shoulder)… but this article is astounding in its lazy judgment and generalization of strangers.

I found the Commentary piece especially charming because one of the books I read (and loved) this past summer was Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. American cities as we know them today have come full circle, with incredible revival especially in downtown districts. And on a more simplistic level, Schwindt might have had less time to focus on the Ikea light fixtures if she had taken time to speak to business owners, chefs or even the ‘young and tattooed and bespectacled’ people behind the counters. What she might have found is that today’s cities, from Nashville to Portland to Austin to Milwaukee to Sacramento, are home to people who love those places and through their commitment to their cities, add many individual pieces of passion that the cities in Jacob’s books had lost through urban planning. Anyone looking into the past at cities like Atlanta, Austin, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Seattle and even Los Angeles and New York would see vastly different human landscapes, and it’s tough to think of many things more authentic than these cities having grown into what they are today.

Reading the original article made me wonder what its writer is really looking for, as I’m not sure what is more authentic than breweries popping up everywhere with their own unique offerings (I think back to being in Denver years ago and stopping into Trve Brewing, a metal brewery erected and much loved thanks to the city’s burgeoning metal scene). Jacobs hated that people couldn’t dine out where they lived; they couldn’t buy groceries in the same block they drank a beer or did their laundry. She explained in Death and Life that restaurant traffic at night, when people were home in the neighborhood, put feet on the ground and added extra vigilance, and crime was less likely when that foot traffic existed in residential spaces where people lived.

In the Western world, prosperity has a sort of look; I mentioned this regarding Prague, and the way it’s begun to look like any other Western European capital. I’ve wondered myself if this is a bad thing, or a dull thing, or a vapid one. Overall, it’s probably a wonderful thing. The sameness Schwindt saw was prosperity, and the ease of doing business: the social capital and societal wealth of the cities and communities within them. What you read in her words is the high level of societal wealth you need to be born into to bitch about having too many restaurants to choose from, and to take the history of cities in America for granted.

More than anything, her exposé on sameness is a display of how easy it is to accumulate hypotheses based on sight alone, and how moronic it is to simply look at someone and pass judgment. Not once in this article was the content of a conversation conveyed. She did not stop once to talk to anyone, to ask important questions: ‘what are you trying to do here?’ to someone who owns a restaurant; not ‘what makes this city special?’ or ‘why here?’ to practically anyone. The real tragedy of articles like this is that there is no expression of curiosity, no desire for a depth of understanding. She wants to see authenticity, without having any real understanding of what she’s looking for.

As someone who finds myself defending New York on a fairly regular basis, I understand this constant search for authenticity. I’ve said many times I prefer New York to Boston, which always felt small and sterile and overbearing to me. I like a city with some garbage on the street here and there, some traces of flawed, impulsive humanity. When I lived in Boston, I found the emptying of its downtown at night creepy and unnatural; as though it was closed for cleaning and would reopen for regular business hours. I think the disarray of many neighborhoods in New York are beautiful and convenient, and comforting to me: everything is chaotically smashed together, and operations churn eternally. I remember moving to Boston for college and thinking it was bullshit that last call at the bar was so early; Massachusetts felt like a nanny state to me, where New York you could get a vodka tonic at 4am and a breakfast sandwich at 11pm if that’s what you wanted. These differences in culture are largely explained in a very cool book I came across, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America: New York/New Jersey’s mercantile beginnings are at odds with the Puritan “community first” underpinnings of New England. In New York, enough people want eggs at midnight to have a diner open and serving. By contrast, in Boston it seemed to me someone decided me ordering a drink at 2am was not acceptable.

But I digress. The two books in this post are well worth the read, if you’re into that sort of thing. And the NY Magazine piece is a great example of how not to live your life steeped in superiority but lacking any desire to really connect or learn. It’s hard to dispute that Jacobs (who died in 2006) would be pleased by the beautiful public spaces that have popped up in Portland; the incredible path from grunge to tech hub that Seattle has taken; the dramatic drop in crime in New York, and growing vibrancy in cities like Minneapolis, Kansas City, Nashville and Austin, which were nondescript blips on a map when she wrote Life and Death. In my lifetime, we will likely see Detroit, Pittsburgh and others rise to those same heights; it’s a shame people in my generation will bitch and moan every step of the way, too caught up with their own supposed uniqueness and authenticity to bother to delve into anyone else’s.