Fabulous Frivolity: What City Lists Really Tell Us

I love stupid city lists. My future roommate emailed me a link to an article today that covers the ten most "underrated" cities in the United States. It is, of course, completely subjective and almost entirely inane. That's why lists like this are so much fun: the audacious, unabashed pointlessness manages to entertain even while the nature of the content annoys the fuzz out of me. It's like watching Carlos Mencia...you don't laugh at his jokes...you laugh at the fact that he's dumb enough to think that they're funny.

At any rate, we have the following list:

1.) Baltimore
2.) Fort Lauderdale
3.) Houston
4.) Kansas City
5.) Louisville
6.) Minneapolis
7.) Pittsburgh
8.) Portland
9.) Providence
10.) Sacramento

There is no mention in this article of criteria, of course. That said, I do agree that many of these cities tend to be "underrated" by most people that I have talked to, with Minneapolis and Portland being the exceptions.

I was especially thrilled to see Pittsburgh on the list, since it's my favorite city and I think that it deserves all the press that it can get. Even the silly kind. But here is the entry on the city: Forget Pittsburgh's reputation for smokestacks and steel, because today the city is sparkling with pristine parks, architectural assets, and three rivers flowing into downtown's "Golden Triangle." Several museums — the Carnegie Museum of Art among them — are worth hitting, but don't miss the Andy Warhol Museum featuring over 12,000 of his works. A treasure trove of used books is found on the city's South Side, while nightlife is suddenly sizzling in neighborhoods like Oakland and the Strip District, thanks to thousands of college students from Carnegie Mellon (among others) and young professionals dancing and mingling in the bars and clubs.

The subtle problem here is that all the author is really focusing on is factual information (which, coincidentally, is largely erroneous.) In an article about how these ten cities are supposed to be unique alternatives to well-known urban destinations like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, there is nothing about what really makes Pittsburgh (or Sacramento, or Baltimore, or Louisville...) such a distinct place. All that the article's blurbs highlight are the miniaturized versions of what can already be found, likely in larger quantities (sometimes even in higher quality), in the bigger cities. Chicago's got the architecture. New York's got the museums. San Francisco's got the "pristine parks." Why visit Pittsburgh (or Sacramento, or Baltimore, or Louisville...) over one of the Big Guys when they (by the reading of this article) offer less of the same thing?

Pittsburgh is one of the most unique urban places in America. The neighborhoods, in terms of physical environments, are incredibly diverse; the sheer number and quality of the city's famous bridges is stunning; the dramatic terrain is unparalleled (eat it, SF.) On top of that, the people are some of the most down-to-earth that you will ever meet, and there is a unique attitude here that combines the friendliness and outdoorsiness of the Midwest with the do-as-you-will ways and urban energy of the East Coast. There is no mention of this Pittsburgh in the article.

Why is there nothing said about any of the cities on this list in terms of what truly makes them stand out? What provides them with a sense of place that is different from New York or Chicago in ways other than sheer size? And there are so many silly lists like this that I have to ask: what does their representation in the media suggest about how Americans see the "revitalized" cities of today?

Top 10 Underrated US Cities (MSNBC)


Juan said...

I can't believe I inspired this blog... I'm speechless.

Jacob said...

I saw this list too, and it made me giggle a little bit. Although I can't totally lie, I was secretly happy to see Louisville on there.

I agree with you that Minneapolis is completely NOT underrated - everyone talks about how great that place is. But I think Portland is absolutely amazing and fantastic city and it doesn't get all the press it deserves. I think Houston is not underrated - but thats just me.

This list really doesn't tell us much though, anyway. It really is a list of cities where the writer thinks he can find "arts" in places not New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Anyway, keep up the good work.