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The Unbearable Sameness of Cities

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The Unbearable Sameness of Cities

October 24, 2018
Cities
Economy, finance, and budgets

Oriana Schwindt joins City Journal contributing editor Aaron Renn to discuss Schwindt’s seven-month-long journey to municipalities near the geographic center of every U.S. state, and what she found there: the curious “sameness” of American cities. Schwindt chronicled her travels in a recent article for New York.

In gentrifying neighborhoods across the country, visitors are practically guaranteed to find high-end bars with expensive cocktails, coffee shops with tattooed and bespectacled baristas, new luxury housing in all-glass buildings, and maybe an Asian-fusion restaurant. “The reason so many of these joints feel harvested from Brooklyn,” Schwindt writes, “is because they are.”

While urban aesthetics are important, coffee shops and micro-breweries are no replacement for serious infrastructure investment and economic development.

Audio Transcript

Aaron Renn: Hello this is Aaron Renn, contributing editor at City Journal and I'm pleased to be joined today by freelance journalist, Oriana Schwindt.

Oriana Schwindt: Howdy, howdy.

Aaron Renn: Thank you for being here. You are my new hero and the reason is that you wrote an article, it was actually a New York magazine, called “The Unbearable Sameness of Cities,” that hit all of the themes that I've been pounding for so long and did it just such a great way, and the article went viral. But before we talk about your article, it came out of a very interesting travel journey that you did when you went to all 50 states. So tell me about what you did first and kind of how this project came about.

Oriana Schwindt: Yeah this New York Magazine piece was sort of the apotheosis of a journey I started last, hmm, end of April was when I went to the first stop on this trip. I decided to go to the cities and towns closest to the geographic center of each state and write, you know, talk to as many people as I could in each place and write a sort of profile of each place. Sort of, you know, how Sufjan Stevens was supposed to do an album based on each state—I wanted to do a nice, big, long profile of each state—of the center of each state. And I kind of failed at writing, like, really nice, long, big, in-depth profiles simply because I didn't quite have the time. But I went, over the course of seven months to these cities and towns. I hit every single state including Alaska and Hawaii, and you know, just kind of, the project just kind of died. I wrote all of the pieces because I had people backing me on Patreon and they got to read all the stories. I put some up online to sort of bring people in but it was only an audience of about anywhere from ninety to a hundred people. I had a budget of about nine hundred bucks a month to do this. I stayed in each city for three nights, there about’s. There were a couple that were more, a couple that were less, because of safety reasons and I just—no one cared.

Aaron Renn: That sounds interesting.

Oriana Schwindt: Yeah, there were some problems I didn't quite expect. I thought it was, you know, it's 20—it was 2017. I thought a lone, small, kind of dark complected woman could go around alone and it would be fine and it wasn't. But yeah and then, you know, a few—a couple months ago a New York Magazine editor on Twitter had, was having a conversation with someone about the sameness of cities and she, you know, sort of put out a call—was like, “Could someone write about this?” and I was like, “You know what I actually can. I have experiences firsthand in many, many cities, you know.” So something did come out of it, interestingly enough.

Aaron Renn: So what is it, this is the same in all of these cities that you go to? What were some of the things that you just noticed—these are just the same?

Oriana Schwindt: Well so one of the things, you know, I went to a lot of coffee shops because I needed a place with Wi-Fi. I didn't have a home for seven months. I needed a place to write and I was often I was often staying with strangers that I had been connected to on the couch surfing app, or through friends of friends of cousins of friends and I didn't want to stick around their house and be rude, so I would go out and find people to talk to and go to these coffee shops. Or I would try and take my hosts to a restaurant of their choice to thank them, and I noticed that a lot of these places were very similar despite every city is unique. I'm not trying to say that every city is exactly the same, but there are elements of sameness, like a lot of these coffee shops. And most of the time I was choosing at random it was, “Oh there's a place with Wi-Fi,” because while some of the cities I went to were very large, like Indianapolis in Columbus Ohio, a lot of them were either mid-sized or below population of 50,000. And so I didn't have that many options and that was what was really interesting, was in these cities where there weren't a whole lot of options, these coffee shops—these sort of gastro pubs or brew pubs—they all felt very similar to one another and to places that I have been in Astoria where I lived for nine of the ten years that I've lived here, or Brooklyn where I lived for a year, or you know all of the places that I have been throughout my tenure here. And so that, there are different elements of sameness, like the coffee shops you see a lot of, you know, the dark wood and the kooky lighting, and the coffee culture—

Aaron Renn: You mentioned the IKEA lights.

Oriana Schwindt: Yeah and you know they may not have actually been from Ikea in every place, but they look it's very, very close to the ones that you see and you look at them and you go, “Oh man that looks, like, really cool, it looks like a flower or an exploding geode or something,” and it's totally not. Don’t—don’t get them.

Aaron Renn: Well you know what gets to me is all of those Edison bulb things. They’re everywhere.

Oriana Schwindt: Yes those, too! The sort of American bistro, the Astro pub type places that that have the, it’s steam punk by way of West Elm.

Aaron Renn: That's a great way to put it. There's only three or four different kinds of chairs that they buy, too

Oriana Schwindt: Oh yeah, that’s –

Aaron Renn: And you tell it’s a deliberate branding—

Oriana Schwindt: Yeah

Aaron Renn: —To pick the chair you're going to recognize.

Oriana Schwindt: Yep, the wood and the metal is very, there's that particular type of that dark wood and the sort of rusty, dark gray metal in those chairs and the tables, the communal style seating. And again, it's not like this is a new thing. I'm not trying to say I'm pointing out anything that's new, it's just I happen to notice and someone happened to want me to write about it.

Aaron Renn: People always talk about the bland conformity of the suburbs—it’s endless strip malls with the same chains.

Oriana Schwindt: Which is true—

Aaron Renn: Which is true. I mean you highlight an important thing, which is, a lot of these cities now have very, very similar feels to them, and again they're almost, they may not technically be chains, but they might as well be chains in terms of, they're almost using the same architectural style. You talked about barbecue restaurants, for example, where it's all have the exact same lacquered tables and you have to order at the counter and then they give it to you in the wax paper and—

Oriana Schwindt: Yep and that pickle, and, but it's not quite the same if you go to a place—and this makes me sound like a terrible snob of sorts—but if you go to an actual roadside barbecue joint in nowhere, Texas, which I did and it was very tasty, but it's not the same. You know they're going out and they they're doing the whole hog in the pit for 12 hours and digging it out and that's not quite what's happening in most of these sort of upscale barbecue joints. And it doesn't mean the food is not good, but it's a facsimile of the authentic hog, let's say.

Aaron Renn: Yeah and now it's almost like, you made this point, Brooklyn almost imitating itself. In a sense it’s this sort of a self-replicating thing. Last weekend I was at a barbecue place down at Red Hook in Brooklyn. I went there and I'm like, “I am inhabiting the interior of your story in that magazine.” You—this article got a lot of response. I put it on my own personal site and it just went crazy, tons of comments, tons of—hundreds of Facebook shares. You were going, it was going crazy. It looks like it did on the magazine site, too. What kind of response did you get to this?

Oriana Schwindt: I mean it was mostly really positive, which was really nice because you know I've been a working journalist since I was about 18 years old, but most of the time people don't pay attention to the things that I write, and so for people to pay attention to a piece that I was actually, it's the only piece I've ever been paid to write that I was actually really proud of after—like I could stand to read it after the publication, and actually thought that it was pretty good. And so most people were really positive about. It definitely struck a nerve; there were definitely some people who thought that I was kind of crapping on the their city, you know, crapping on cities smaller than New York and people who are saying that, you know, New York didn't invent hipster culture, which is not wrong but it's also the people. I would talk to the proprietors of these places sometimes and they would tell me in some cases that they were going, very much going after the Brooklyn Silverlake in LA sort of aesthetic. And you know, so I'm sorry to all the people who thought that I was saying their cities were unbearable and all the same. Your city is unique, I promise, but it's got a lot of elements in it that feel very similar to other cities and that's just how it works. It's also I'm taking a much broader view. Most people don't go to every state you know, it's a sort of bucket list thing for a lot of people but most people don't see—they go to maybe a few cities a year. They go to the cities that I actually didn't go to you know, I didn't go to San Francisco or see, you know I stopped in Seattle because I had to change trains. But most of the places I went were not really tourist destinations and so—but these places are there nonetheless and they all feel quite similar.

Aaron Renn: You know what I always say is while every company tries his hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you that it is exactly the same as every other city that's conventionally considered cool. And I saw some people like push it, “You didn't talk about what was unique about our city.” But I'm like, “Look at your own marketing materials.” Go watch any video—it’s interesting that you just stumbled into these places. But if you went on YouTube or went online and looked for the marketing materials that these cities put together, they are all highlighting these very places to which you went, they're not highlighting the traditional, you know, working class or whatever it is that they have there. And I really find that you really hit the nail on the head, that so many people are not especially well traveled when it comes to other cities like them. So they look at their city now and they look at their city 15 years ago and they're like, “Oh my gosh, we are now it, we're a thousand times better than we used to be.” Look at all the great coffee and you can go anywhere in America now and get like world-class coffee—

Oriana Schwindt: —and beer—

Aaron Renn: Great beer, great micro brews, I mean I've had so much great ice cream—you don't need to be in New York for that now but on the other hand they don't necessarily recognize that what they have is the same thing that everybody else has. They’re not the only place that has microbreweries now.

Oriana Schwindt: And it's not wrong. I do feel like some people came away from the piece thinking that I think that that's wrong or bad and I don't necessarily think that it's bad or wrong. It's just the way things are and you, again, if you are, if you happen to notice these things it can, you know the hairs on your neck kind of stand up once you've seen it for the 30th time, and you know, but that's a me problem—not necessarily a problem for the city.

Aaron Renn: I think it is a problem a little bit in that, while there's nothing wrong with like copying a good idea, so like bike lanes became popular; everybody's got bike lanes, well that's great, I'm glad everybody has bike lanes now. But if all you have is copies of other good ideas and you don't have anything that's sort of original to yourself or you don't play up or make the things that are original to yourself discoverable, then that sort of is a problem to me, because you really do want to be—just like people, cities are all unique and so they have to display that uniqueness. If all we do is try too hard to fit in with what's fashionable now, we don't think that's great in a person so I don't know that it's great in a city either. And your experience was so important because it represents, here's an outsider coming into this place and what do you see when you come here. And it's very rare that cities really get that honest, candid feedback about what a visitor thinks because generally speaking, you know, it's somebody that came for a convention. “Oh what do you think of our city?” Of course you're going to say something nice. You went to all these cities, you didn't pick on any particular one. So you're able to make general comments about what you found that will hopefully cause them to maybe take stock and say, “Wow how are we selling ourselves and what are the people—when people from New York come to our city what do they really see and think?” I think you really nailed it because that's what I see when I go to these places.

Oriana Schwindt: Right and I, you know, it's strange to—you talk about originality and how cities can sort of miss what—I think there's a good Anthony Bourdain quote about, you know, cities not realizing what makes them cool and that's true. But at the same time there's also, there are some elements of cities that are original that are not awesome. Like, you know, there was, there's a food stuff in sort of central/southern Illinois. I think it might even just be a Springfield thing called the horseshoe and it's like, you know, Texas toast on top of French fries with gravy and all sorts of things and like, I ate half of one and it's just it's so starchy and heavy. And it kept me going for my drive from Springfield to the middle of Wisconsin around Marshfield/Stevens Point sort of and that was good that it kept me going, but it's also not necessarily something I'm going to single out in a positive way, I, you know.

Aaron Renn: I love that stuff.

Oriana Schwindt: Yeah I mean it's great but it's, again, it's not necessarily something I'm going to single out. Also in a piece about the sameness of cities it's weird to talk about what things make them original, to you know, to sort of go into that in great detail.

Aaron Renn: Well I thought it was a great piece so I had to invite you and thanks for coming, Oriana Schwindt. The piece is called “The Unbearable Sameness of Cities,” and if people want to follow you on Twitter, what's your Twitter handle?

Oriana Schwindt: It's @schwindter, S-C-H-W-I-N-D-T-E-R. Please don't follow me on Twitter.

Aaron Renn: Well there you go. Alright, thank you very much for coming in and good luck with your future projects.

Oriana Schwindt: Thanks so much.

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