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Since reading an Economist’s report on the competitiveness of global cities, I’ve been thinking about just what makes a city livable, and indeed how one thinks of cities at all. I have lived in many cities and, as a born romantic, never once asked myself the Economist’s practical question–how does this town compete in terms of physical and human capital? Never mused about what’s up with a burg’s institutional competitiveness.

Or I think I haven’t. As 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 made a surprising realization.

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 each a gender and an age, but also character qualities and often quite a bit of backstory. These are amusing fancies, though not nearly as impressive as those of my British ex, who has synaesthesia and glamorously associates days of the week with color (Friday is black and therefore suits everyone).

However, I will tell you this about the Economist’s analysis on this subject: compared to my own system, it tells you nothing, nothing, truly useful about a city. The best way to get the vibe of a town before you go is to ask two people — one a native of that town and the second a recent arrival — a single question:

If this city were a person, how would you describe them?

What do I mean? Here are examples from three cities in which I’ve lived:

Example #1:  London.  I recognized London right off as being a male urchin aged approximately 13. His 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 simultaneously 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 charming but slippery disposition. Paris is beautiful and embarrassed by her affection (which she knows leaves her open to being made a fool of) and  therefore spends as much time scolding as she does cosseting her love. This does not have a good effect on his character: he begins to flirt with Paris’ friends, particularly with lovely Venice. Paris worries that she is losing her charms. Fortunately, she re-encounters an old friend. This fellow is an aging banker with dark brows, a balding head, and angina. He has always been in love with Paris, so she immediately begins a strenuous affair with him in the hopes that this pastime will drive away her obsession for the younger man. The banker dies (blissfully) one afternoon. Paris and the young lover attend the funeral, and in the pure, slanting light of the cathedral she notices that her young man’s hair is thinning, and how smug his smile has become. Paris’ heart is free again.

Example #3: New York City New York New York, the town so nice they named it twice. Many say that NYC is a town that takes you in, rolls you around its mouth for a bit, and then decides whether or not to spit you out. My friend Courtney, when we were 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? 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 clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She wouldn’t offer me a beer because it’d make me bloated, and who wants to look at bloated? No one, that’s who. New York has plenty of coin but she’s tight with her money and she loves who she loves with ferocious bias, yet she lives alone. She’s not shy. New York has no problem going down to the doorman and asking him to unhook her bra one winter’s night after she’s had her Feldenkrais class yet her back still 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 chafe, and she thinks about the menu for her friend’s birthday party next week. Screw ’em all, she’s going to serve ham.

Will Garbo lose her shirt to the tax bill?

A few years ago I saw an eminently forgettable Garbo film–one from the early 30s, when 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. In a foamy close-up Garbo gazes darkly sideways, sighing the sigh of a tired woman on a late night train heading towards a town she’d always heard of and never wanted to visit. . .yet another town in which she’d have to make her way. A convenient supporting player asks the boat-footed Swede what the heavy sighs are all about and Garbo again exhales, clearly yearning to take a Karenina dive beneath this steaming locomotive. Then– finally– she mournfully replies. “Another man. . .another life.”   

Pure Washington D.C., don’t you think?

 

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