I was recently passed along the results of a survey that’s had me thinking pretty hard for a little over a month now.  People from all over the country were surveyed and asked 16 questions about the reputations of 16 large cities in the United States with the simple aim of seeing a “better idea of the collective opinions on America’s regional notoriety”. It was also about putting to rest some friendly rivalries about who does what better.

Our perceptions are more than what the next big viral video tells us about modern society, or what city has the most impressive presentation when Anthony Bourdain stops by to eat. It is our daily dosage of Jung’s personality test, where you are given a word and are instructed to reply as quickly as possible with whatever word comes to mind first.

We apply these prejudices to place in our daily lives. By using what we have gained from first hand experiences, word of mouth, or simply stereotypes, we decide where to go and what to do. It’s what we use to figure out what our third place is, and what places to avoid entirely. By doing this, we put certain location on a pedestal. We create heroes out of neighbourhoods, cities, and nations that are larger than life and sport the finest things the world has to offer. That why I feel that even though I’ve never been to Paris, I believe that it has some of the finest shopping in the world. The same can be said about just about anywhere that is known for something. Those are our perceptions at work, and the heroes that are created out of them.

For better or worse, with winners there has to be losers. In my emails with Greg Emmerich, whose team conducted the reputations survey, he told me that the data made it easy to conclude that Detroit was the anti-hero of America. It’s easy to see why: out of the 16 questions asked, Detroit was an answer in both positive and negative senses. American’s said it was the dirtiest city on the survey, the least friendly and the least intelligent (all by the way, categories in which Seattle was ranked as doing the best). Some of the results of the survey I found easier to mentally analyze than others.

Detroit’s high point in the results was taking the top spot in the cities where people think it’s easiest for men and women to find sexual gratification. In discussing these findings with Greg, I found this presumption the most difficult to explain. Where did people come up with this idea? I highly doubt most of the responders have ever been to Detroit, let alone come to Detroit looking to hook up. Some of these questions have easy sources to track. The least intelligent city honor could be due to the low quality of elected officials the city produces, or the questionable 47% literacy rate the city allegedly sports. The worst food honor could be the fact that the city is known for turning pizza into fast food and a hot dog variant called the Coney Island.

However not all people struggle with reading and not all food is questionable: there is some fantastic food and some very smart people in Detroit, just like any of the other cities listed in the survey. Changing these perceptions, is difficult. Even for the person who says “I want to come see this antihero for myself”, with the online travel guides being so mind-numbingly terrible, it feels that these perceptions of grand mediocrity aren’t going to change any time soon.

At least not without a great deal of personal effort on the part of us individuals.

This is an inherit problem with any data that is difficult to quantify: what makes something “the best”? If we want to say, as the survey suggests, that Los Angeles is the most fashionable city in the United States, the ways of backing it up with scientific data are going to be entirely subjective. If we looked at the number of fashion shows as a metric, it would not neccessarily indicate that there is good fashion, just that there is more of it. If we look at the amount of new clothes spent per capita annually, that does not necessarily mean that people are fashion forward. They could have lifestyles that wear out clothes easily or simply a preference for new things.

This is why “best” in these regards is only constrained by what we think the best is. By contrast, it is easy to determine for example, which kind of cell phone gets better reception in a given area: we an measure the signal pickup and determine, scientifically stating that “phone X is the best one to use here, phone Y is not”.

The world is changing rapidly, in case you’ve forgotten that Dubai was in its infancy as a city as recently as 1990. While American cities have not had a transformation that dramatic, we are seeing a log of change in what our places are. Consider that not too long ago we associated oil production with Texas. These days, North Dakota is the place to drill.  Now we make lots of motion pictures in the Carolinas and Salt Lake City is booming with Tech jobs. Economic ups and downs means that some places are no longer affordable, paving the way for a new generation of cities with a lower cost of living to make their mark.

This means that it’s time to keep an open mind about reputations and perceptions, because they are changing quickly. If this study is done again in 10 years, expect the results to be different. Not just from the incremental social and economic change, but also due to the fact that the most populous cities in the United States will change as well. If it hasn’t already, El Paso, Texas will be surpassing Detroit in terms of population and this round’s anti-hero may disappear from the fold of study entirely.

Which only means that there are new heros and antiheroes to come, and that we can hope to anoint them through personal experience instead of entrenched heresy.

Check out the survey results, do you agree with them? via Movoto

John Cruz
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John Cruz

Editor-In-Chief at The Urbanist Dispatch
John Cruz, MUP, is an urbanist, photographer, and city planner. He has lived in Detroit, Montréal, and now resides in St. Louis.
John Cruz
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