Farrell Fawcett's urban index

I live in Philadelphia.  In the past six weeks I've traveled to San Francisco, New York, Washington DC, Baltimore, and Los Angeles.  (Considering the coastal clustering of these cities, it's not much of a feat.)  But those are 7 of America's top 20 cities.  And it got me thinking about an old conversation. Really it's an old educated-stoner party question:  What are those cities that virgin visitors to America needs to experience if they have a limited amount of time to encounter the best of our nation?  What 5 or 6 cities provide the Modern Tocqueville tour of America?

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The fact is I have friends visiting from abroad soon who has never been to America.  They plan to spend 3 weeks.  So I've recently felt this question more urgently.  Here is something I've always noticed about this city conversation, a phenomenon that I like to refer to as hometown patriotism.  For many, the hardest part of answering this question is coming to terms with the fact that your city (the city you live in now or the one you were born and raised in) might just not be that important in many ways.  For instance, despite being the place of America's founding (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the first US Capitol, the first US Hospital…ad nauseum), dear Philadelphia doesn't make the cut.  And for that matter, neither do Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Chicago, Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, St. Louis, Kansas City, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and probably Salt Lake City.

Obviously, New York is the most important city any US visitor should visit first.  Who would argue with this?  But, is it important to visit Brooklyn?  Or Queens?  Or the Bronx?  Probably not, unless, you're headed to a Yankees game.

The second city would be Los Angeles.  Its importance in any US tour is incontestable.  Especially, since it is so near Las Vegas, which is the 3rd most important city to visit.  And only another couple hours away from the Grand Canyon–and really, is there another national park/wilderness area as extraordinary as experiencing the Grand Canyon?

But from here it gets harder.  Because here are the cities that remain: San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington DC, Miami, Santa Fe (and White Sands), and Salt Lake City.  A good argument can be made for each.  Especially New Orleans and Washington DC.  In fact, I would say it's hard to argue that any of the other cities beats out those two.  Sure, San Francisco is probably the most beautiful city in the US.  (Seattle and San Diego may beg to differ.)  But that doesn't automatically put a city on the US tour circuit.  Miami comes closest to elbowing its way into the 5th spot, as America's premier collision of Latin America and the US.  And it has a stunningly distinguished Art Deco architecture and beach life.  But have any of you ever left Miami thinking: “Wow, I really understand America better now”?

Maybe to truly understand America, you need to understand its most enduring religious export: Mormonism.  A visit to Salt Lake City seems to make sense.  It embodies the story of Westward expansion.  And the story of American mistreatment of minorities.  And it's the purest example of America's puritanism.  Not to mention the stunningly absurd story of Mormonism.  It's a pretty good case for being the 6th city to visit.  Plus, Zion's and Bryce Canyon’s National Parks are so close by.

But it's just as easy to argue that to understand America, you need to understand the Spanish and Native American imprint on our country.  Not to mention the nuclear imprint on our country (and the world).  Santa Fe is a good place to start.  It claims to be America's oldest existing city.  It's also quite beautiful.  Santa Fe has an accent.  Mexican food and Mexican accents abound. It's also surrounded by a dozen Native American tribes.  Their influence is acutely noted on the Santa Fe plaza and more so in their cultural traditions maintained on their tribal lands just a few miles from the city.  Santa Fe is also just 30 minutes from Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project occurred, and it's three hours away from the Trinity site in White Sands where the first atomic bomb was detonated.  It's a sound argument to include Santa Fe (and it's vicinity) on the list.

But am I leaving something out?  Does someone feel like defending a city?  I'd love to hear it.  My friend doesn't arrive until September.  Please contribute your thoughts (stoned or otherwise) to this never-ending conversation.  I love hearing your comments.


26 responses to “Farrell Fawcett's urban index”

  1. I don’t really know how qualified I am to comment; have only lived in one of the major cities and have only spent much time in three or four of the others. (Lived in NYC, spent lots of time in SF and LA, bits of time in Phil, Boston, DC, Chicago… I think that’s it. Actually I live very near to Newark now, but that never seems to make the cut.) And I’m certainly not close to understanding America myself. But I would put San Francisco way above Los Angeles in terms of how important (and fun) it is to visit. (Nice place for getting stoned, as well.) The sheer density of iconic places in SF continues to amaze me — the city is almost like a cathedral in the sense that as you walk through it, you are constantly being struck (well I am anyways) by a sense that you are standing in an *important* location. Whereas huge swaths of LA are nowhere, I mean obviously there is a lot of great, important ground in LA but it’s spread out over a much much greater area…

  2. Rachel says:

    Defining the American experience as an urban one is, of course, stacking the deck. A foreign visitor could learn as much (or more) about this country by visiting Maine or Montana.

    Any version of the “urban index” you identify is bound to be highly individualistic. For example, I tend to under-rate the west, in contrast to many people reading this post, who have roots there. But I don’t think anyone could come away from trying to “understand America” (if such a thing is even possible) without visiting Boston.

    I also think NYC is hugely important, but inevitably overrated. There. I’ve said it.

    Going anyplace with a native/knowledgeable guide will be the most enjoyable and provide the most insight. I’d rather spend three days in SF with Swells than a month in LA by myself, you know? A few days in Albuquerque with you or Dave? Sign me up!

    Also, I think you are just trying to stir up trouble by including SLC. Yes, it can be interesting, but it’s hardly a world-class city. Mormonism and urbanism are practically contradictory systems of value.

    You’ve given me a lot to think about, Fawcett. Thanks. p.s. why so much recent travel?

  3. Tim says:

    If I were asked to suggest places a visitor should see to get a better understanding of the US, Chicago would be third, after NYC and LA. These are the capitals of three major US industries: finance, entertainment, and shipping. As such, they have remarkably different feels. Also, the differences in climate among them have helped to create different cultures.

    And of course the one place all people, including all Americans, shouldn’t miss if they want a true understanding of America is my hometown and the Home of Baseball, Cooperstown, NY. (Just kidding.) (No I’m not.) (Yes I am, but only a little.) (No I’m not, not at all.) (Yes. I. Am.) (Whatever.)

  4. Josh K-sky says:

    Los Angeles is a difficult city to visit, and I wouldn’t recommend it for a whirlwind tour. (I live there. Here. In Los Angeles.) I think for a tourist, San Francisco might provide a more accessible window into the California combination of majesty and amusement. (Unless they’re Disneyland bound.)

    I think you’ve underrated Chicago, which still has a little World’s Fair pluck to it, and is also an easy, short visit. I also feel like the South needs more of a one-two punch than just New Orleans, the way the West gets Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. A road trip through one of the mountain ranges — Blue Ridge? Ozark? I have spent precious little time in the Old South, and could use the advice myself.

  5. Stella says:

    I love this debate! Accepting that we’re only dealing with cities and that the premise is understanding America, then I totally support New York, I absolutely advocate D.C. – maybe not the most dramatic, but the city that most Americans visit to understand themselves. Although I think getting inside D.C. is a much harder task than getting inside New York.

    I’m questioning LA and Las Vegas – the world is very exposed to them and their culture through…the movies. On a second tour of the U.S., sure, but in the top 5? (Full disclosure: I have never been to LA.)

    Then I think it becomes a question of contrast, so I would go for NYC and DC, contrasted with New Orleans, and then SF – and let’s not underestimate the influence of SF on 60s culture, so a great relevance for visitors as well as insight into the West Coast culture.

    The last one…I’m torn between Santa Fe, which is hardly a city, but is certainly a key to the Southwest, and an American city that expresses the very average of urban development in the late 20th century…Atlanta or Houston or, god forbid, Orlando? Horrifying but tells you everything you need to know about post-WWII capitalism and American urban/suburban culture.

  6. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Oh, poor LA. So many negative reactions to it. You haters! I happen to be in LA at this very moment and I still stand by my pick. Especially since LA’s downtown is currently experiencing such a revival. And driving around Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and Hollywood is such a uniquely charming experience (Yes, driving through massive swaths of LA is a real drag (Carson, Downey,…), but the soaring elegant gravity defying freeway interchange of the 110 and 105 still gives me a jolt of excitement, not unlike stepping into a Gothic Cathedral. And perhaps I’m guilty of some sort of hometown patriotism (lived three years here).

    And yes, I agree including SLC is a bit of mischief-making. But I just wanted to expand the conversation and invite similar unpredictable cities. Cooperstown. Go Tim!

    And yes, San Francisco should be on just about any tour of America. But i do stand by Las Vegas. Movies don’t really do it justice. It’s a truly unique American phenomenon. And a lot of fun.

  7. jeremy says:

    I’m not sure I have any cities to add to this debate, though I think a case could be made for so many different cities that’s it’s rather bold to suggest any, really (much less a place like Salt Lake).

    I have to say that I’ve always been rather defensive of LA–especially since so many people (like Stella, no offense) tend to think that LA’s importance has already been captured in TV, films, etc. Because, actually, I think this is part of what makes LA so interesting; its mythology is so firmly entrenched, and it’s so different from the reality. Of course, this “reality” is very different from person to person and isn’t necessarily easily accessed by tourists, especially…

  8. Oh this topic makes my head explode because I have a dozen irrational, enthusiastic/angry responses! One is hometownistic and involves Austin but honestly: for better or worse, you’re gonna understand the U.S. without seeing Texas, nu? I wonder. Texas is important from a number of standpoints, many of them lamentable, but the most important might be American iconography. Texas!

    But then you know what? Austin is still off the list. In the same way Brooklyn is. They’re great places to live, but you’re not going to get anything much out of a couple of days there. Ok.

    You should do what a friend of mine did, in some other version involving possibly the west coast. My friend lived in Austin and his friend from I don’t remember, let’s say England, was not what you’d call well-versed in American geography* called and said “I’m flying into somewhere called Newark. Can you pick me up?” And rather than killing the fun with a geography lecture, my friend said “sure!”

    *not that surprising really. I had a grad school friend in Chicago whose parents from Long Island said “can we go to the Grand Canyon while we’re out there for your graduation?”

  9. An interesting variation on this thread is to ask, “What city that I have never been to would I be most interested in visiting?” For me (if I cross off the obviously silly/contrarian responses like Detroit and Cleveland, and cross off Savannah which I don’t really know anything about but have felt drawn to ever since reading a lovely post of AWB’s about visiting there), the answer is probably New Orleans. But Nashville and Memphis are pretty high up the list too, and Seattle.

  10. (Speaking only of American cities, in the spirit of this thread)

  11. Ivy says:

    As a visitor, I can say that going rural was the most enlightening thing I did. I felt slightly ridiculous coming from NZ and having a rural holiday in USA (even though I live in Auckland, the city in NZ that has a third of the total population and the only city over 1 million population by a long stretch). But pottering around New York state and Vermont taught me a lot. Having said that, I have also spent time in NYC, LA and Seattle, and the scope of those places, especially the former two, was mind-blowing. Where would I choose to go next? Chicago, perhaps, or New Orleans. Couldn’t care less about Las Vegas. But really, what I would like to do most is visit the natural places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Death Valley and yes, the salt lakes. Just for the weirdness. Which is probably why I liked the rural areas, too. It’s a whole other country.

  12. Matt Coats says:

    I favor the “four corners” approach! NYC, Seattle, San Diego, Key West–Done!

    We used to rent an apartment to Germans coming to work for T-Mobile here in Seattle and when they inevitably asked where all the SUVs and fat people were had to explain that Seattle really isn’t like the rest of the US. Statistically too white, too educated and too overcast–it’s hard to get a “read” on any kind of “America” here. (but don’t forget Microsoft, Jimmy Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Brendan Fraser!)

    In the end the “Germs” seemed to love it here and enthusiastically recommend it to all their friends and family.

    And while most of the year is dreary, the short summers are phenomenal! Farrell et al, COME VISIT!!!

  13. I favor the “four corners” approach! NYCBangor, Seattle, San Diego, Key West–Done!

    Fixed that for ya.

  14. sladeny says:

    Kurt Cobain is very dead and the music industry moved to Portland. At least that is what I found in Seattle, having just spent 7 months living there. Save a visit to the natural phenomena such as Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, I would not go back. If that region was sought after by said tourist friends, Portland would be my recommend: they’ve stolen Seattle’s thunder.

    And there is FAR less traffic. (Seattle is rated with LA with the nation;s worst traffic.) And come on, polar fleece, _always_, really?

    And why not a drive from Taos to Moab to Las Vegas, ending in L.A.? Our deserts and canyons are some of the most unique terrain we have. And along the way there is a chance to see Polygamists, if you’re lucky, for a good ole’ taste of puritana-kitsch.

    As far as urban uniqueness, it has to be New Orleans. There is nothing like it in the world. And there is nothing like that food in the world either.

    And lastly, the reason to go to Brooklyn would be the views from DUMBO and then Vinegar Hill House.

  15. J-Man says:

    I also have to disagree with Vegas. Yes, it’s very American, but in a clownish, bombastic sort of way. If I were to give advice on places to visit, I’d have to agree with Ivy and include rural and wilderness in the list – Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon, etc., and all the small towns in between. And Austin! I have done Austin in a couple of days, and I thought it was fantastic. (Granted, it was during SXSW, so it was, I’m sure, much more Vegas-y than it is normally, but I did get a glimpse into life there during the other 360 days of the year just by riding my bike around some of the neighborhoods).
    Yes to L.A., but also SF – two very west-coast, very American cities but very different from each other.

  16. Jeremy Zitter says:

    12: Regarding Matt Coats’ “4 corners” approach, I’d say that you’d have to replace Seattle with Bellingham, then, since that’s more of the corner of the state than Seattle. Also, Bellingham is to Seattle as San Diego is to Los Angeles.

  17. Matt Coats says:

    Bangor? I don’t even know her!

  18. Dave says:

    Vegas is a bad idea because your guests will be distracted by the glitter and not see what’s truly American about the place, the wasteland of bloated housing developments in the desert. Send them to Phoenix, instead.

    So many of these suggestions are cities I haven’t been to. I feel like I need to get to know the country better.

    Bangor, on the other hand, I’ve been to. It has a nice folk-music festival in August but is otherwise not that great, with the happy exception of Dysart’s truck stop and its amazing breakfasts.

  19. trixie says:

    alright, F: i miss you so much (sorry for being insider-y) but you know how i feel about this … here we go.

    full disclosure would be to admit that F and I had this (heated) conversation (for the millionth time) three nights ago. we have had this conversation in pretty much every state of awareness/inebriation over the past decade plus, so i apologize in advance if i am not making any sense starting now:

    ok, so for anyone still reading after that horrific sentence: my point is that i maintain that there is more than one agenda that a person can follow when visiting the US for the first time, and that none of the following represent the best, most correct or most accurate vision of the US. we are a melting pot for chrissakes!!

    a person in the dave hickey school of american cultural appreciation would have the best time doing the manhattan/LA/las vegas +/- something like santa fe/grand canyon/salt lake. whatever, fine. all of those places have plenty of cultural significance without question, but do they define the US? do they define what any individual should take away after a visit to our country? no matter what?

    for example. someone who, like Ivy, grew up in a place that is wild and wonderful like NZ, but is also urban-ish (lives in auckland) might find that the best way to appreciate the US would be to visit some lovely wild places like nova scotia, puget sound, everglades…and contrast that with some walkable but not too gritty cities like seattle, san diego, boston, providence… are those places less quintessentially american?

    or, someone who is from a european city; someone for whom the collision of diversity, walkability, and aesthetic pleasure is the measure of success for a city would most appreciate a visit to san francisco, washington DC and NYC (ok, i really mean manhattan, and not necessarily above houston). maybe somewhere a little quirkier like key west or new orleans or even savannah… but sending a person who isn’t in love with american culture as defined by american cinema isn’t going to be that charmed by driving around in LA traffic…

    my point, obviously: any one of these places is just as iconically representative of the USA as any of the others; a place like NYC or LA certainly defines a limit of the country as an extreme, but often its the places in between that define the nature of a place. and also, the extremes of a place might be very unappealing to a person from another culture and therefore limit their ability to appreciate the spectrum of interestingness that we have in store for them in general in the US…

    an interesting question to me is this: what constitutes the best road trip route? we are the country of highways and wildly diverse regions. what would be the most interesting, disarmingly disparate, confoundingly informative road trip that a person from outside this country (or a citizen of the US who hasn’t travelled) could take? i think a tour approach, where the spectum of transitions in the physical as well as the cultural american landscape could be experienced, might be more illuminating/inspiring.

    its my bedtime, and i am getting boring.



  20. trixie says:

    i would also like to add what i thought was a zinger in my debate with F abt this the other night…

    lets say someone from rural india/vietnam/russia/whatever came to the US after never leaving their country/town/neighborhood. would they have more of an appreciation for LA over Miami? they are almost indistinguishable if you are not someone who wants to get on a particular cultural bandwagon that requires being informed about movies/music blah blah blah blah


  21. Josh K-sky says:

    Farrell, as someone who has lived in Los Angeles, you may be overestimating its ease of access to tourists. Or I may be underestimating it. But I’m not a hater. I just find that tourists seem to like the trip best when I hang out with them in the neighborhood (the same one you like). If you can arrange to be here for a couple of weeks, I’d give it a strong recommend. Just not for a quick tour.

  22. Nat says:

    It really depends on where your friends are from. When I came for my first visit, I had certain views about America (formed by the foreign mentality of my country), which were completely different from how I view it now. Anyway, at the time, I thought Chicago and Seattle were the most authentic and beautiful places. It was love at first sight with LA. New York and New Orleans were nice. Knoxville scared the ….out of me in so many ways…

  23. K-S says:

    I wish I had known Farrell and Trixie back when I used to smoke weed.

  24. AWB says:

    If I had to pick 10 cites for a tour of the US, I’d say:

    NYC — To see what the world looks like all in one place. Walk from the UWS down through Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, across through the East Village, down through the Lower East Side, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, Financial District, and across the Brooklyn Bridge.

    Philadephia, PA — More than Boston, I find Philly, especially around the Old City, but even farther out, to be a gorgeous representation of 18c American architecture and spirit. I always look forward to going there and walking around.

    Northampton, MA — Small-town liberal New England. Farmer’s markets, transsexual teens, local folk music, ice cream, and beer.

    Washington, DC — Free museums everywhere.

    Savannah, GA — As TMK notes above, I wrote a few posts about it a long time ago. It’s the only city Sherman refused to burn on his march. It’s shockingly beautiful, quiet, mysterious, and shows the beauty of the Old South as well as its tragic legacy. Low country food and crafts.

    Austin — Texas at its best. Great food, music, and culture, and millions of bats living under a bridge that all take flight at once. Lovely churches, friendly people, long spacious walks under the hot sun.

    Kansas City, MO — Lewis and Clark monument, the old jazz row, barbecue, Negro Leagues Museum, great contemporary art and a vibrant theater scene.

    Chicago, IL — Never had a bad time here. The history of industrial labor in America is everywhere here.

    Las Vegas, NV — I fucking hate LV, but it has to be seen to be believed. Side trip out to Lake Mead/Hoover Dam and the desert.

    San Francisco, CA — Everything said above. How can one city be so majestic, and yet so quaint? Very close to being too precious for its own good. Eat at a cab-stand-type Pakistani or Indian place in the Tenderloin. BYOB and talk to the chef. Take a day trip out to the Sonoma vineyards and cheese shops.

    Places obviously missing from this list because I have never been there:
    LA, Miami, Minneapolis, Seattle, Hawaii, Alaska.

    Places I didn’t include:
    New Orleans — Haven’t been there since Katrina. What I did see of its culture was great, but it was hard to dig beneath the touristy trappings. Hard to get at what I wanted from it. Mobile would be a great side trip.

    Louisville — Surprisingly awesome and beautiful, but not a ton to do.

    Boston — Just went here for the first time recently, and expected more from it, I think.

    Southwest — My experiences here have been limited.

    If I had to pick five:
    NYC, Savannah, SF, Austin, Chicago.

  25. autumn says:

    Echoing what has been said before, I do believe the gems of cities are best mined with help from locals. For that matter, what I do when traveling by myself and exploring on my own (as I often do for work) or on holiday with partner(s), often changes my perception of a place. What do I want to gain from the trip? Sometimes it’s a wilderness adventure, sometimes relaxation and a view, many times I want shops and eats and architecture. Many places/culture I only start to know after re-visits.

    If I had a friend visiting US for the first time, I would want to try and help them find key places to fly in and out of and then rent a car and drive. Much the same way I would approach Australia. Or better yet, how I’ve planned a trip next week, in which I will fly into Toronto and leave out of Montreal, but in between hire a rental car and just explore.

    Being a child born in Seattle, driven at age 4 to St. Petersburg Florida, then driven to San Diego at age 7 before finally settling in Los Angeles at age 10, I can say is there is much to be seen of America from a car window, at a table in a diner, at a thrift store or in a highway store. I’m all for a well curated road-trip with room built in for wild abandon.

  26. farve says:

    camden, poughkepsie, pasaic, belize city, newark, detroit
    these are the true american cities.