Since reading the Economist’s new report on the competitiveness of global cities, I’ve been thinking about just what makes a city livable, and how one thinks of cities at all. As a born romantic, I have lived in many cities and never once asked myself the Economist’s question–how does this town compete in terms of physical and human capital? Or, say–what’s up with this burg’s institutional competitiveness?
Or I think I haven’t. Once I actually read this chart and took in the rather contradictory concept of livability being equated with competitiveness, I began to think about the cities in which I’ve lived–and I realized something surprising.
I’ve always anthropomorphized them. Each city seems to me to have its own very particular personality, to the extent that I can not only give them a gender and an age, but also character qualities and sometimes even backstory. (I’m told that I’m not alone in my fancies: I once had a boyfriend who felt that each day of the week had a color, with Friday being black and therefore the best day of all.)
Therefore, I will tell you this about The Economist’s rating system: It tells you nothing, nothing, truly useful about each town. The best way to get the vibe of a city before you go is to ask 2 people–a native of that town and an immigrant to that town–one question:
If this city were a person, how would you describe them?
Examples follow from 3 towns in which I’ve lived:
Example #1: London. I recognized London right off as being an urchin, male, aged approximately 13, whose cheekiness provokes my laughter and my affection; the urchin knows this and leans in for a hug, all the better to rub up against my chest while picking my pocket. I don’t really care because I dearly love a laugh and there is something so brave and funny and grounded about London (except he does smell of cheap fried fat, and also a little bit of sperm).
Example #2: Paris. Duh. Paris is an older lady in love with a much younger man of a too equable disposition. She is beautiful and embarrassed by her affection (which she knows leaves her open to being made a fool of) and therefore spends a great deal of time alternatively scolding and cosseting him. This does not have a good effect on his character. Paris begins to worry she is losing her charms. Fortunately, there is an aged banker with angina who has always been in love with Paris, and she begins to have a strenuous affair with him in the hopes that his admiration will drive her obsession for the younger man away. The banker dies one afternoon. Paris and the young lover go to the funeral, and in the pure, slanting light of the church she notices how her young man’s hair is thinning, and how smug his smile is. Paris’ heart is free again.
Example #3: New York City
Oo-err. Hmm. I’m a little too close to see this one. New York New York, the town so nice they named it twice. They of course say that NYC is a town that takes you in, rolls you around its mouth a bit, and then decides whether or not to spit you out. My friend Courtney, when we were once discussing cities and their characters, said that to her NYC is like a boyfriend who, when he hears you come in the apartment, turns down the volume on the tv and calls out, “Babe, is that you? There’s beer in the fridge if you want one!” (You can tell that NYC liked the taste of Courtney, and didn’t spit her out.)
To me, NYC is female. Older, Jewish, and obviously doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She also wouldn’t offer me a beer because it’d make me bloated, and who needs to be bloated at my age? No one, that’s who. She’s tight with her money and she loves who she loves with ferocious bias, but she lives alone and would have no problem going down to the doorman and asking him to unhook her bra one night after she’s had her Feldenkrais class and her back hurts too much to do it herself. The doorman does this without thinking twice, because frankly his mind is on the crossword. In the elevator, New York scratches that itchy bit in the center of her chest where underwire bras always scratch, and thinks about the menu for her friend’s birthday party next week. Screw ’em all, she’s going to serve ham.
A few years ago I saw an eminently forgettable Garbo film–one of hers from the early 30s, where she was still using the heavy glances that’d worked so beautifully in the silents but didn’t cut it in the fast-talking depression era. Garbo looked to the side, and sighed the sigh of a beautiful woman on a late night train heading to a town she’d always heard of and never wanted to visit. . .another town in which she’d have to make her way. Some supporting player is on hand to ask the boat-footed Swede what the heavy sigh is all about, and Garbo sighs again, looking like she’ll take a dive off the side of this steaming locomotive. “Another man. . .another life,” she intones mournfully.
I think she’d do well in Washington D.C., don’t you?