The Message of Cities

[Tim Lee]

A good essay by Paul Graham on cities and ambition:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you've been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

Here in St. Louis, the message is "you should have met the right people in school." The cliche here is that the first thing St. Louisans ask when they meet each other is "what high school did you go to?" The answer tells them about the speaker's social class and often his religious background. Also, if you want to be successful in Missouri you don't don't go to the highly-ranked Washington University, but to the University of Missouri in Columbia, which is where the kids of other rich and powerful Missourians go to school. Needless to say, moving to St. Louis in your 20s isn't a brilliant career move:

No matter how determined you are, it's hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It's not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.

When I lived in DC and I told people I worked at a think tank, virtually everyone knew what that was and many were interested to know which one and what I did there. When I go to a party in St. Louis, the people I meet not only don't know what a think tank is, but a lot of them don't know what public policy is. I've taken to just telling people I'm a writer, which is something most people have heard of.

Here's Graham's take on DC, which he admits he hasn't lived in long enough to be sure of:

In DC the message seems to be that the most important thing is who you know. You want to be an insider. In practice this seems to work much as in LA. There's an A List and you want to be on it or close to those who are. The only difference is how the A List is selected. And even that is not that different.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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