Living in the Shadows

by drewnilsen

Back in 2006, I finished a job in the Chicago area. Before returning home to Texas, I planned a solo trip to check out Milwaukee, a mere hour and a half away. A few years prior, I had read an article that pegged Milwaukee as the #1 most underrated city in America, but I had never visited (generally because, on roadtrips, I would stay with friends in Chicago and Madison or Minneapolis).

My colleagues – all from Chicagoland – seemed bemused but intrigued by my excursion. One, who grew up in Chicago, had never even been to Milwaukee. Within a few hours, we had wrangled a posse of Chicagoans to make the arduous trek up I-94, and we all had a blast consuming brats and spectacular coffee, checking out some fun tourist traps, and hitting the colorful bars on Brady Street. The night ended with the entire bar singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with us (don’t ask).

This is not to suggest that Milwaukee is better than Chicago. (I despise hierarchical comparisons of cities being “better” than others. They’re just different.) But the Chicagoans’ dismissal of plucky little Milwaukee as a place not worth visiting is a phenomenon that exists elsewhere.

Last month, residents of Baltimore were perturbed by a condescending Travel piece published in the Washington Post that culminated in a superfluous, snarky “I wouldn’t want to live there, but what a place to explore.”

I’ve only lived in D.C. for a little over a year, but I suspect a lot of Washingtonians share that attitude towards Bawlmer – maybe not outright condescension, but at least dismissal or oblivion. I’ve visited Baltimore a few times in the last month (though I’ve been there previously), and I’ve found it to be a vibrant, fun place full of more characters and self-expression than I usually find on the street in DC (even in hip neighborhoods like Columbia Heights). So, whether that dismissal is bad for Baltimore (or Milwaukee), a lot of people in DC (or Chicago) are missing out.

A similar phenomenon can occur with a medium-sized city subsumed by a larger metro area. Oakland has been “discovered” within the last decade or so, but I recall its reputation among residents of San Francisco and the Bay Area prior to that was of violence and poverty – despite the fact that it always was a big city that, in addition to gangs and slums, also had wealthy homes in the hills, a downtown business district, stadiums, and a cultural diversity and range of income levels that most cities have.
While Oakland has “Brooklynized,” a more current example is Long Beach. I grew up in Los Angeles County (in a beach suburb not too far from Long Beach), but Long Beach always seemed to suffer from the same negative connotations Oakland used to have. I’ve always found it to be a more affordable, lively part of L.A. that has a laid-back vibe and incredible ethnic diversity, as well as some cool shopping districts, bars, and coffeeshops. But, even last year, when I was asking Angelenos about good neighborhoods for a friend of mine to live in, Long Beach still suffered from a “hood” sort of reputation.

Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. The very dismissal from the big city allows the forlorn city to flourish. I just stayed with a friend in Baltimore; she’s a District native who recently moved from the DC suburbs to a beautiful house in Hampden, Baltimore that she bought for a price that would be unattainable in Washington.

“I think it’s also important to note that being the smaller, dismissed city is part of Baltimore’s psyche. … People here are proud of where they live, and no small part of that pride is based in constantly having to defend the city’s merits. People here have strong feelings about the city, and a loyalty towards it, that I think is at least in part a reaction to those dismissive attitudes. So I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing,” my friend said. “If those dismissive attitudes didn’t exist, and more people were moving from DC to Baltimore, the character of the city would change greatly. … We get a lot of creative weirdos and nerds and entrepreneurs and people who want to make a difference in a local community, and that population makes the city what it is. Plus the dismissive attitude [from DC] keeps down traffic and costs and makes it possible to get into pretty much any event without lots of advance planning — it keeps things more casual and spontaneous and affordable. It would be a very different city if folks in DC and NYC didn’t dismiss it. I don’t think the dismissive attitude is really such a negative thing for Baltimore — as much as I love to speak up on behalf of my city in the face of dismissiveness, it’s really just filling me with more pride, not detracting from my experience of living here. It’s the people in DC who dismiss it who are losing out.”

So maybe all is well. The ostensibly underrated places remain bastions of the weirdos and cheap rent and artists and all the things that foster a funky subculture, which they’d lose if discovered. This is not to say that bigger, expensive cities like New York can’t also be incubators of innovation and culture – they surely are. But like a neighborhood that hasn’t fully gentrified, the symbiosis between a bigger, more “important” city and its forlorn little brother an hour up the road or nestled in its metro area is perfect.

Still, if you’re a fan of great cities, hop on the train next weekend. There might be a great place you’re overlooking.

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