There are people who feel most alive fishing a clear stream, sailing across glassy seas or reaching a mountain's summit. America includes ranchers whose sprawling acres are their pride, suburban homeowners at their happiest on a three car driveway shooting hoops with their kid, and college professors most contented on the quads of the liberal arts colleges where they are faculty residents.
This is a project inspired by another sort.
In the coming month, this page will explore cities in the same spirit as the person who thrills at urban life more than any other kind. He or she may find rural or suburban settings likable enough, but bliss as a traveler means arriving at a downtown train station armed with a map, a comfortable pair of shoes, and endless walkable blocks to explore. And everyday living? The lover of cities craves bustle if not always hustle, contact with different kinds of people, the anonymous solitude that masses provide as well as lakefronts, and every benefit of civilization that requires a certain scale before it is a daily possibility.
I love cities in that way. I've lived in Washington DC, New York City, Los Angeles, Paris, and Seville, traveled widely in the United States, and once spent a year doing my utmost to see Europe, when my wanderlust was at its peak, and I wanted nothing more than to see urban streets, scatter pigeons with my stride, and cull tips from slightly suspicious concierges at hotels I couldn't actually afford. We all contain multitudes, and I wouldn't pass up a chance to tour the world's best surfing beaches, but given an all expense paid trip to anyplace I've never been, my list would be filled with cities like Tokyo, Capetown, Hong Kong, Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Sidney, St. Petersburg, and Reykjavik.
Aldous Huxley once wrote, "A large city cannot be experientially known -- its life is too manifold for any individual to be able to participate in it." I've visited cities where I felt that I had them wired after 12 hours, when I'd meet a traveler fresh off the train and intuit a shortcut to the Bauhaus apartment they sought, but far more often it's seemed to me that Mr. Huxley had it right. In Midtown Manhattan, standing at the window of a hotel where I sometimes stay, I gaze out at high rise apartments and marvel that the mind cannot even be wrapped around the lives led by people who fill the lighted squares of a single building. As any lover of urban life knows, the endless possibilities on offer, the feeling that one could never exhaust them, is a large part of any large city's charm.
When writing on cities, the expansiveness of what they encompass is a challenge. Given a lifetime, perhaps I could do partial justice to a small city, or at least its most interesting neighborhood. Here I've got just a month, so better to set a different goal. I'll weigh in with daily observations on city life, urban affairs, the history of cities as seen through the exceptional lens of The Atlantic archives, and the future of the city -- but mostly I'll act like the friend you visit in an unfamiliar metropolis, the one who has lived there a couple years, absorbing a lot, but less than a true expert. Everyday we'll go out walking together, I'll point out all the interesting stuff that I see, and if something in particular catches your eye, you'll have enough information to go explore that thing in as much depth as time and interest afford. Questions? Comments? A take on how your city is unique? Send those to conor [dot] friedersdorf [at] gmail [dot] come.
And do check this page often -- we've got only a few weeks together, and there is so much to see.