Cities are “back,” as you might have heard, following a long period when urban America was viewed by fearful observers in the suburbs as dangerous, dysfunctional, and generally addicted to crack. We welcome the renaissance of many American cities—who could not applaud declining murder rates (well, at least until this year and, you know, all the time in Chicago), and the rise of a younger generation less wedded to cars, sprawl and fossil fuels?
Even if cities are officially back, though, there are a few cities we wish would go back to wherever they came from. We love New York and San Diego and, uh, Albuquerque, but there are some places in America so pretentious, unfriendly, boring, racist or otherwise repugnant that this writer finds himself looking for the first bus out of town. These are their stories.
“Beantown” is supposedly New York’s junior partner as an urban anchor of the Northeast, by dint of its age and cultural preeminence. Yet it is also the kind of city, like Athens, Greece, that can only lie awake at night dreaming of long-past glory. In Boston’s case, that happens to be having a rep as “the hub of the world” about 300 years ago. Even the 1980s image of Boston as a place where a mixed crowd of (white) barflies—a mailman, accountant, shrink—can mark the days and years until their eventual deaths in a homey subterranean hangout seems a long way off. Today’s Boston is a cramped and shabby mix of colonial cowpaths and train lines that creep around at a sub-bike pace and stop, pitifully, at traffic lights.
In Cambridge, the nation’s second most despicable college town (surpassed only by Princeton), one finds working-class cops and garbageman who look like they were remaindered from a “hard hats” sketch on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, alongside the aristocratic professors and students who despise the pesky proles who remain necessary to pick up after them. One professor even harassed a local Chinese restaurant over a $4 dispute. The school’s more or less incomparable brand value turns Boston into a sort of sink where the effluent of the most privileged and conceited classes around the globe inevitably collects. In its polarization between a white, black and Hispanic working/servant class and an international menagerie of multicolored rich people (folks who are destined to run embassies and trust funds), Cambridge actually represents a perfect tableau of the twenty-first century knowledge economy.
I once had the misfortune of sharing an elevator with a gold-encrusted muckety muck whose ancestors undoubtedly passed the Atlantic trip whipping cabin boys with Bibles on the Mayflower. The individual saw the UAW pin on my coat and snorted “Good luck with that!” before going on to express remorse for the shareholders who lost out in GM’s then-recent bankruptcy. What a piece of work. It should come as no surprise that rich assholes like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, for whom Harvard was a mere stop on the way from being merely super-rich to being super-rich and super-powerful, hate the place. Chalk it up to traditional GOP class war on intellectual elites, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dubya genuinely hates Harvard—and that’s about the best thing I can say about our former president.
The so-called “Empire City of the South” is the kind of place where no-accounts and slack-jawed misfits from the hinterland of Alabama and South Carolina come to seek their dreams. In this way, it is sort of an Applebee’s to the Hooter’s of Nashville, a city that is self-aware enough to be “tacky yet delightfully unrefined.” Every rapper with a limited vocabulary and a battery of morning show sound-effects poses against the same graffitied overpass in Cabbagetown, trying to look tough for the cover of a homemade mixtape. (It’s the same place where couples have their engagement photos done.) Most of the material in the local “scene,” which geographers inexplicably found to be the apex of hip-hop distribution in the world, is so dull and unimaginative that the gas station owners who get stuck with the burnt discs inevitably sell them for two or three dollars a piece to cut their losses. (The sign indicating that the jewel cases on display do not contain the actual discs is apparently some kind of perverse joke.)
Most Atlantans’ idea of a great Saturday afternoon is driving an Escalade 15 miles per hour down Peachtree Street in the elongated commercial purgatory known as South Buckhead, texting on their phones before plowing through jagged traffic to reach the clogged artery of commerce surrounding Lenox Mall, so dense and deadening that it makes capitalism itself wish the ultimate coronary would finally come and its misery would end. Then, seven able-bodied sixteen year olds park mom and dad’s mammoth SUV in a handicapped space and unload to go browse Swarovksi and laugh at poor people.
Despite all it has to offer, Atlanta finds that a supermajority of its population chooses to live in sterile suburbs that require a one hour sojourn each way to reach work every day, all while listening to Herman Cain talk in smooth, svelte tones about the intellectual virtuosity of Orly Taitz (known to readers of this newspaper as “Oily Taint”). They find it impossible to conceive how someone would want to live in the city if they didn’t have to. Then again, Atlanta’s hardcore poverty and incipient gentrification leave much to be desired. Upscale bohemians in Cabbagetown and Little Five Points look like refugees from an American Apparel casting call, while gentrifier families have bankrupted the city’s public schools by subsidizing charter experiments in resegregation (all on the public dime).
All refuse to acknowledge their ambition to make the Big Peach into a kind of ersatz Big Apple. A few years ago I had dinner with a well-heeled tech entrepreneur in Atlanta—the kind of guy who retires at 35—and made the off-hand comment that “Atlanta wants to be New York.” “How so?” he asked. “Who said that? No one ever said that.” I was forced to admit that the city of Atlanta itself never explicitly told me it aspired to be New York, but a quick look at Midtown’s Stepford version of urban life (highrise apartment, clubs, doggie amenities) tells you all you need to know.
Then again, the wunderkind 30 Rock writer Donald Glover just rolled out an ambitious FX series that strives to give Atlanta its own pop cultural identity, so maybe there’s hope yet.
3. Las Vegas
The jock-y truism that “some guys can’t handle Vegas” may be true to the extent that some people are repulsed by the noisome human wreckage of debt, exploitation and sexual humiliation baking in the Nevada desert. Vegas is generally perceived as a macho funland where the fabulously rich and merely stupid can drink to excess and purchase the sort of personal, physical contact that the rest of the human race wisely denies them—a sort of amusement park for the Republican Party’s libertarian id.
Yet we are forced to cope with the nearly incomprehensible statistic that Vegas was the fastest growing American city for much of the new century. Not just a vacuous leisure spot in a pathetic, post-industrial economy, where vacationers can have their whims momentarily indulged before returning to the daily grind of the “real world,” but a real world unto itself. The vast sprawl of empty, damaged, stripped, foreclosed homes that stretch out into the nothingness around Vegas is a testament to the fact that a large number of Americans actually thought this was a good place to work, live, and raise a family.
And why not? One’s children could receive an excellent education in the vagaries of human existence by checking out the weatherbeaten waitresses who serve coffee to hungover or (worse) still-drunk gamblers in chintzy, all-night breakfast spots off the strip, women who no doubt wonder which loan, credit card or romantic liaison it was that set them on the path to a life of toil and ruin. Some people believe that children should not be exposed to the dark and gritty side of life before a certain age, but those people don’t decide to plunk 400k down on a McMansion they can’t afford in a landscape that was scarcely meant to support human life.
Las Vegas is the example par excellence of a kind of casino capitalism that America proudly championed before the global financial crisis of 2008 and still cannot quit. Its gleaming knot of lights in the desert symbolizes much of what the American economy stands for in 2016: impossible dreams of avarice, risks that do not warrant the human carnage they inevitably incur, and drunken rednecks rocking out to Queen and sipping candy-colored alcoholic slushies before casting a vote for a homophobic lunatic like Sharron Angle.
2. Pigeon Forge, TN
Having discussed the many charms of Las Vegas, we can now turn to its Tennessee country cousin. Pigeon Forge is sort of like an evangelical version of Vegas crossed with Myrtle Beach, but with less class and way less booze. And also, no ocean. Along with its lobotomizing neighbors Gatlinburg and Sevierville, the vacation spot draws morons from throughout the Southeast (and, if the amount of traffic is any indication, the world) to its long, barren strip of Golden Corrals and go-cart courses. In many ways, Pigeon Forge is defined by this quintessential commercial strip, a broken necklace of showmen, signage and shine. For decades scholars have urged Americans to reevaluate the roadside culture of the American highway and car-centric shopping districts, pointing out the organic vitality of such spaces and their quirky, colorful charm. The idea was an excellent one in its time—an antidote to the abstract and austere tastes of high modernism—and America retains many examples of this exuberant “other-directed architecture.” (Consider the classic stretch of Route 66 in Albuquerque, or the busy immigrant strip malls of America’s exurbs, crowded with signs in a variety of languages.)
But Pigeon Forge is a far cry from a funky commercial space, designed to seduce the eye with color and flash at 35 miles per hour. Despite being in the middle of verdant mountains, its strip still evokes an arid desert landscape, dotted as it is with fast food chains, outlet malls, and rinky-dink theme parks. There are “museums” devoted to Elvis and country gospel, a kind of gospel shorn of blackness and beloved only by elderly white people. Such a place might be easily romanticized as a picturesque boulevard of capitalism at its shaggiest and least pretentious—at least if one had never actually been there.
Pigeon Forge offers a variety of cultural activities that straddle the line between hokey and human rights abuse. Even the creeping hipsterization of Dolly Parton cannot redeem the home of her theme park, Dollywood. It is a kind of sub-sub-Branson for people who think the performing arts scene in Nashville is too hoity-toity, and Myrtle Beach too salacious. Christian dinner theatre is a curious phenomenon commonly found in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, in which parents drag their children to watch morality plays that dramatize the torture and crucifixion of Christ and the terrors of Hell. Other theaters provide a variety act with music, dancing, cowboys, magicians, and comedians. Even though some offer an open bar before the curtain goes up—an unusually Christ-like form of mercy given the setting—no amount of pre-gaming can possibly prepare one of the misery of enduring two hours of country gospel, cattle-wranglin’, and humor that sounds like nothing so much as a family of vaudevillians left alone to inbreed for the span of a century. If this sounds like an endearing hodgepodge of Americana, we’ve misled you.
For a taste of what Pigeon Forge is really all about, one can visit a book outlet store, where unwanted literary works are dumped like farm waste and table scraps for slopping hogs. Pigeon Forge’s Book Warehouse is one such place, where the latest works by the disgraced likes of Ted Haggard and Bill Frist are available at fire sale prices. Such books raise an interesting question: at what point does a public figure’s reputation sink so low that the potential exchange value of his books ceases to justify the space they occupy in a store, and the potential price the books could fetch as firewood edges higher? Apparently space in the Book Warehouse is worth less than that. Not that it is all a vast wasteland; the company of misfits is inevitably varied. During my last visit I happened to come across a copy of a book I had bought before—a photo essay that documented ordinary working people of America and gave voice to their stories. Evidently it had also been rejected by the market for lack of consumer interest, and somehow ended up here in Pigeon Forge, like a plucky stowaway who snuck into the belly of the Titanic in hope of a better life.
1. Princeton, NJ
Now for something completely different… far from the muffin tops of wheezing Southern tourists in Pigeon Forge, there is the creepy colony of privilege known as Princeton. If it were possible for New Jersey itself to constitute a city, it no doubt would have made this list. Think of the traffic; the terrible, depressed, belligerent drivers, the general sense of dissatisfaction with life; the jowly bully of a governor, the unwashable stain of Jersey Shore, the inability to pump one’s own gas; the Turnpike, the bronzer, the common fantasy that every young buck cherishes of being a mob wiseguy; is there anything good to be said for the Garbage State? Scientifically speaking, the answer is “no.”
We thought of including Florida in this list, since it is basically New Jersey with Cubans and citrus fruit, but if you want the real thing you have to go to the source. Even though there are parts of New Jersey that seem eminently habitable—I’m thinking of Jersey City and Edison here—there is still the pervasive Jerseyness of a state best known for traffic, high taxes, and political corruption. Princeton, as an oasis of fantastic affluence and liberal conceitedness, stands out as an exemplar of everything that is wrong with New Jersey and, indeed, America.
First, we must concede the advantages. Princeton is a far more attractive and architecturally distinguished campus than Columbia or Yale. That being said, Princeton’s combination of isolated college town (not part of a larger urban area like Columbia or Harvard) and status as an indisputably top shelf academic option (more or less ranked alongside Harvard and Yale at the zenith of American academia) means that it offers an unalloyed example of the national and global elite at their most egregious. A visit to Princeton during reunion week means seeing a bunch of elderly white men in orange-checkered bowler hats drunkenly cavort around campus, while partying nearby are their beefy, short-haired and thick-necked grandsons, the university’s current students and the captains of future economic disasters. It is a rich man’s playground, isolated in snow-globe fashion from the rest of the world. Princeton is the kind of place where Whole Foods is budget shopping. Princeton is where southern slaveowners preferred to send their sons before the Civil War, since it was the only Northern college they trusted not to infect their progeny’s minds with liberal ideas about race and abolition. (In the antebellum era, its student body seldom dropped below 50% southern.)
Today, there is almost no place in America that is more vanilla, more weirdly antiseptic or more hermetically sealed off from the reality of global chaos than Princeton. Sure, there are plenty of towns in Idaho and Indiana that are whiter; and there are places like Greenwich, Connecticut, that are more thoroughly and garishly rich; but no place quite matches Princeton for its combination of power, prestige, and the arrogance of those who daily congratulate themselves for their “good judgment in being born wealthy and in control of the global economy,” as Ian Svenonius put it. It is truly a Village of the Damned for the post-industrial age.
Let’s face it, most capitals suck. The joke about Ankara, Turkey is that the best view of the city can be had by riding a train out of town. Home to Dischord Records, Go-Go, and the late Marion Barry, D.C’s cultural heyday was undoubtedly in the 1980s. Unfortunately it was also murder capital of the U.S.; so bad the basketball team changed its name from the Bullets to the insipidly dumb Wizards. Sorry, Gandalf, Bradley Beal is not; he’ll need all three Lord of the Rings movies and a gaggle of Magic cards just to make it through one season. White D.C. consists of every student government president and representative you ever attended high school and college with; their fashion choices range from khakis to khakis. People throw around their security clearances like a badge of honor, right up there with telling me about your fantasy football team in terms of excitement. Every summer interns flood the city and you just pray you don’t get stuck sitting next to them on the Metro or bus, because seriously young person, your Xeroxing is not saving the world. Speaking of the Metro, keep your fingers crossed it actually shows up on time or you know, doesn’t derail or catch fire. Transit in the nation’s capital at least keeps you on your toes, enough to save the city from full membership on this list
Chicago, oh Chicago. I feel like I should like you, because I am an inveterate liker of underdogs. Hell, I even liked Tonya Harding. But I cannot like you. I remember seeing the station WGN played locally when I was a kid in Cincinnati, when, for some reason, we got this weird Chicago rerun channel, which frequently featured hortatory segments about the greatness of America’s “Second City”—that wonderfully passive-aggressively insecure self-designation—with stuff about its glorious hot dog carts and kielbasa joints and statues or whatever. Even to a 10-year-old who knew nothing about anything, it seemed sad—like a divorced man desperately trying to explain why he had a better job than his ex-wife’s new beau.
Yes, Chicago is cleaner than New York. People are friendlier, in a Midwestern-nice kind of way (it’s kind of like “Christian nice”). Its architecture is vastly prettier and noteworthier than NYC’s glum cornrows of grey-brown apartment towers. But it’s still Metropolis to Gotham, Superman to Batman, the quintessential Big American City in its most platonic form—which is to say, not that interesting. What kind of city has as its signature cuisine deep-dish pizza? It’s like getting a barge when you want a butt plug.
This post represents only the opinions of Clement Lime and does not reflect the views of T of M’s editorial board. We love Cheers and Outkast as much as any good American. Also, Clement lives in Cincinnati, so consider the source. Their idea of “cool” is a crackhead swapping organic carrots for food stamps at a farmer’s market in Over the Rhine.