A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Tag: lists

At Long Last, A Finance Magazine Tells Me Where The Cool Kids Are Chillin’

by drewnilsen

Once you’re explaining a joke, it’s no longer funny. Once you’re quantifying coolness, it’s not cool.

That arbiter of what’s hip, Forbes Magazine, is out with a list of the 20 coolest cities in America.

As I’ve discussed recently (here and here), online surveys purporting to tell me “Where I should move to” or what the next hot cities are have an inherent inability to capture the intangibles what what makes a place great.

I’ll reveal the findings below so you can pack your bags on the train to Bitchin’ville (unless Fortune Magazine drops its own dopeness bomb first). But first, the methodology.

Forbes used seven equally-weighted metrics. Multiple criteria were based on sports and recreation (number of sports teams, green space, outdoor recreational activities … like golf. Tré cool, Forbes). I like that they used number of non-chain restaurants, as TGI Friday’s hasn’t been a proxy for coolness in 40 years. Also factored in were cultural diversity, unemployment, and net migration. Notably absent — any mention of walkability (curious, since quantifiable Walk Scores are readily available for every neighborhood) or access to public transit.

No list of this sort is perfect, but it’s missing a human element. God help me for invoking the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series in support of my argument, but the original intent recognized that computers might not realize that 9-1 Oklahoma is actually way better than 10-0 Central Michigan. Thus, they balanced the computer rankings with the human element (coaches’ and media polls).

The human element is the missing link here. A panel of “experts” — everyone from urbanists and realtors to cultural mavens and sociologists — could have rendered their own coolest city picks, or weighted the rankings based on the data.

So, what’s the #1 coolest city in America? Brace yourself.

Houston. Just the other day, I noted that Houston gets a bad rap, and is underrated. In my years living in Texas, I came to admire Houston’s cultural diversity, arts, food, and fun, walkable neighborhoods inside the 610 Loop. Its affordability is an asset, as is its progressivism (I get more raised eyebrows — especially outside of Texas — by mentioning Houston’s second-term lesbian mayor, than I do from anything else I say about the place). All that said, it’s hard to believe that Houston would even get on the “Family Feud” board in a survey of average Americans asked to name the coolest cities.

And #2? Washington, DC. [Comments redacted since I live here now.]

There are a few good choices on this list — though whoever put Betheda, Maryland on there should be fired — but it demonstrates the limitations of trying to decipher what’s cool based exclusively on numbers. Math, in this case, isn’t cool.

The next Brooklyn/Boulder/Austin/Portland …

by drewnilsen

“I’m not from here/
but people tell me/
it’s not like it used to be.
They say I should have been here/
back about ten years/
before it got ruined by folks like me”

— “I’m Not From Here,” Austin, Texas musician James McMurtry

By the time everyone knows a place is cool, it’s already well on its way to yuppification and losing the spirit that made it cool in the first place. Asking “What’s the next Austin?” (or Portland, or Prague, or wherever) has become a cliche — one I’m happy to perpetuate.

Pondering The Next Big Place is certainly a fun exercise, but beyond that, it has practical applications. It can be helpful in figuring out where to move if you’re a recent college graduate or planning a life change. It can identify what cities are thriving and reviving, in contrast to those withering and dying. It can identify fun, off-the-radar places to visit. (Yesterday, the New York Times had a nice profile of a local benefactor single-handedly revitalizing downtown in the small Appalachian city of Roanoke, Virginia. It’s nice to see these things happening in places that aren’t preciously hip. I’ll have to add this to my East Coast road trip list, maybe on my 39th trip to Asheville.)

Obviously, merely considering job growth and overall pay ignores a multitude of factors. Matt Yglesias — an insightful urbanist as well as political commentator — recently posted a chart of Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing the metro areas with the highest-paying jobs. On its own, though, these figures are pretty meaningless, as the entire graph consists of some of America’s highest-cost-of-living counties (NY, Boston, DC, SF, etc.). This information would be more useful if translated into a “best bang for your buck” metric.

Joel Kotkin did just that, and Houston comes out tops. [Side note: Although “Houston” is almost a pejorative to most coastal/Yankee city dwellers, it’s a surprisingly diverse and fun city, with great arts and walkable inner-core neighborhoods. Yeah, the metro is a sprawly mess, but Houston — with its re-elected lesbian mayor — is a fairly progressive, nice city with good museums, great food and drinking establishments ranging from nouveau cocktails (The Anvil) to old school, outdoor walk-up bars (Alabama Ice House).] Other good value cities: Austin, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth.*

Moreover, the Web has no shortage of slideshows with the top 10 places where people are moving. Many of these, however, are often the product of the growth of a particular industry, not the character of the town.

As I discussed last week regarding the personality traits of cities, we’re all looking not for raw data, but rather the je ne sais quoi of what makes a place great. Kotkin extrapolates his “bang for your buck” data into predicting the next big cities, but its too objective and not subjective enough. San Antonio is a lovely place with a thriving economy (and seriously great tacos), but its too undereducated and unintellectual to comport of to Richard Florida’s idea of a “creative class” city any time soon. It may boom, but SAT will not be a PDX or an AUS or even an MSY anytime soon.

Earlier this year, an Austinite postulated on what the next Austins might be.  I was surprised to hear Chattanooga, though a friend of mine has played up Richmond to me (both: road trip list). I’ve been a decade-long champion of Pittsburgh, Detroit is a perennial favorite of journalists to lament or, simultaneously, exalt. I adore Asheville, but I’m not sure it can ever grow enough economically to be The Place (though it might have the best weather in the South). Burlington has been a hippie haven since Phish was playing Nectar’s, but I doubt it will ever blow up.

This is a curious list that has added some new spots for me to check out. I’m curious to hear feedback about the list (tell me more about Chattanooga!), but also readers’ own picks. What off-the-cultural-radar places are fixing to bust out big?

My picks: Milwaukee, Portland (Maine), Missoula or Bozeman, and Orlando.

*You can do your own cost-of-living conversions between metros using this calculator http://www.bestplaces.net/col/; $1,600 per week in DC is the equivalent of only $1,100 in Kansas City, for example.

Extroverted, Sensing, Feeling, Judging People Belong in Birmingham

by drewnilsen

I think about what cities I’d like to live in the way college-age women do Cosmo quizzes to determine what kind of man they should be with. Frankly, I have no idea who reads Cosmo, and maybe I should also be asking if Denver or Minneapolis are as into me as I’m into them.

The problem with some Web-based “where should I live?” quizzes is that they place a trumping premium on weather, or too much on objective criteria like proximity to the opera and property tax rates.

Certainly, the economy is important, but any of us who’ve ever chosen a city to which to move know that it’s not that housing starts are five percent higher in Kansas City than Chicago, it’s that Chicago is cooler than Kansas City. Sorry, Kansas City.

What appeals about different places is a je ne sais quoi one feels when they’re there. New York, Washington, and San Francisco are all creative class-type coastal cities that draw highly-educated and have insanely-expensive housing (“$1700 for a basement studio? Sold!”). We all know, though, that they have different temperaments, and no one moves to one over the other because one has three percent more park space than the other. (I’m not an anti-parkist, it’s just an example.)

Attempting instead to categorize places by personality type poses an intriguing alternative. Admittedly, it’s completely unscientific, as well as unfair to try to box in the rich tapestry of any city. Nonetheless, it provides an interesting layer to overlay on the more objective (e.g. economic) and tangible (e.g. “I have friends there”) data.

Richard Florida, the influential urban theorist who popularized the “creative class” concept, provides a bunch of snazzy tools to find your spot on his website, “Who’s Your City?” Bonus: there’s an entire Canadian section! (Who knew Ottawa was so gay-friendly?)

One of Florida’s studies interestingly characterized cities and regions (in ‘Murca) by personality traits: where agreeable, open to experience, neurotic (read: the Northeast), and conscientious people reside. Note to extroverts in West Texas: what are you doing out there?!?

A travel blog extrapolated those figures into a fun rundown matching personality types to cities. Cynics should head to New York (shocking) or the Rust Belt; Artists to Los Angeles (where you’ll end up being one of 750 massage therapists advertising in the classifieds of L.A. Weekly); Model Citizens to boring places; and Party-Animal Types to a bunch of places where Kenny Chesney is in regular rotation at the bar.

“Taken By The Wind” also runs down a book, Where in the World Do I Belong?, in which the author applies Myers-Briggs (you know, that INTJ and ESFP stuff you took in a staff retreat and subsequently forgot which one you are) to countries, and comes up with some interesting collections of countries for each type. (If you need me, I’ll be in Kyrgystan.)

While I doubt this would ever pass peer review muster, it’s a cool way to think about places. I’d love to see this applied to cities. What’s the Myers-Briggs for passive-aggressive Scandinavian-immigrant Upper Midwestern cities?