Archetypal American cities and “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

A story about the decline of retail establishments in Manhattan and the consequences for street life ends with this saying from Tennessee Williams:

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

These three cities are indeed unique with distinct cultures and geographies. But, I could imagine there would be some howls in response from a number of other big cities. What about Chicago and its distinct Midwest rise in the middle of a commodity empire? What about Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and highways between and across mountains and the ocean? What about Miami serving as a Caribbean capital? What about Portland’s unusual climate and approach to social issues? And the list could go on.

Perhaps a more basic question is this: how many archetypal American cities are there? One of the books I have used in urban sociology, The City, Revisited, argues for three main schools of urban theory: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These happen to be the three largest cities in the United States and also have the advantage of having collections of urban scholars present in each. New York is marked by a strong core (Manhattan) and a unique colonial history (Dutch and then English) that helped kickstart a thriving economy and religious and cultural pluralism. Chicago is the American boom city of the 1800s and was home to the influential Chicago School at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Los Angeles is the prototypical twentieth-century American city built around highways and Hollywood with a rise of urban theorists in the late 1900s dubbing themselves the Los Angeles School. If these are the three main cities on which to compare and contrast, a place like Cleveland is more like Chicago (as is much of the Rust Belt), Houston is more like Los Angeles (as is much of the Sunbelt), and San Francisco is more like New York (and some other coastal cities might fit here).

But, these three biggest cities cannot cover all possible kinds of American cities. How many archetypal cities are too many before the categories become less helpful? Should the emphasis be on cultural feel or on how cities develop (New Orleans might simply be a unique outlier in all of this data)? Having these ideal type cities is only helpful so that they help describe and embody broad patterns across groups of cities.

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