Defining A Great City

The first thing I do when I arrive in a new city is to take a walk. Along the way, a city’s pulse sinks into me, I begin to “get” what it’s all about.

I had always dreamed of visiting Vienna, for instance, drawn by its stately parks and elegant cafes. When I finally made it there, though, I was put off by its quiet grandeur. It seemed designed to impress, but not to charm. Its cafes seemed insular, and its parks were too quiet.

On the other hand,  Tokyo is all about noise. Traffic lights, ATMs, and subway trains constantly chirp at you, telling you when it’s okay to cross the street, when your money is about to be dispensed, what the next stop is. I hate noise, but I’ll never stop visiting Tokyo.

So, what is it about particular cities that call to us?

Tokyo’s aural cacophony exhilarates me, as does the exuberant ugliness of its architecture. Tidy places like Houston, Atlanta and Minneapolis, with their soaring assemblages of glass skyscrapers — perfumed with the scent of ’80s-era prosperity — leave me cold. These cities all sport museum districts and downtown stadiums, marking them, no doubt unfairly, as non-organic entities that are trying too hard to please. They seem sprung from whole cloth, there’s no layers, no complexity.

Hand in hand with a city’s architecture, I’ve noticed, goes its retail. Newer cities strive for a mix of mid-level chain stores to bring crowds to their red-brick paved, pedestrian-only downtowns. Older cities like Chicago and New York still find room for the hardware stores of the ’40s and the wig shops of the ’70s. They welcome quirky modern-day entrepreneurs. They promise happy surprises like cupcake boutiques and shops filled to the brim with old watches, even as we expect that they too will offer an unending supply of Starbucks and Gaps.

And they have real, old-fashioned concrete sidewalks. Anything else just looks wrong to me, with rare exception: the blue flagstone banquettes of New Orleans, come to mind, as do  the mosaic patterns on Prague’s sidewalks. I’d never seen anything like them and they signal Prague almost as much as the city’s famous bridge. Paris, too, has distinctive visual cues: its Metro entrances, its tree pit grates, its street lamps and its kiosks all sigh ahhh Paree to me.

What about topography? San Francisco’s hills and spectacular setting are unparalleled. But ultimately I find those hills and those vistas detract from what I look for in a city — walkabiity, connectedness, intimacy.

I like to understand how people move from place to place in a city, and where they all come together. In London’s parks, human presence is always strong  — whether there’s a thousand loungers in Hyde Park or two lovers in Berkeley Square. Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, too, is a model of both solo serenity and group activity. Rome’s incomparable piazzas — both big and small — define a culture, where the taking of coffee and the watching of people are primo pastimes.

What works for you in the cities you love?


2 replies on “Defining A Great City”

  1. What works for me in the city I love:

    I think a combination of the old and the new works for me…being able to get a sense of history with modern-day twists and turns is typical New York…just as you described.

    And, the smells of certain cities are what linger as well. There’s a certain muddled street smell when you get out of Grand Central Station–something very distinct, very New York–food vendors, especially the chestnuts roasting in the winter and the “dirty-water” hot dogs, car exhaust, a mixture of expensive perfumes and tourists’ distinct scents, and the underground mustiness from the subway gushing through the door as you are propelled onto the street. Some find the scents unappealing or even disgusting. I find their combination…distinctly NYC.

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