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Define a ‘Great’ City

• March 22, 2010 • 12:00 PM

A University of Louisville researcher data-crunches and theorizes about the ‘greatest’ American cities.

H.V. Savitch knows that “Best of” lists are always debatable. That’s why he didn’t make one.

Instead, the distinguished research professor at the University of Louisville took a less-traveled road. He analyzed other authoritative sources to glean information on an endlessly debated topic: What’s the “greatest” American city?

Sure, it’s a frivolous question. And it begs to be countered with a simple, “Define ‘great.'” But it’s also a question dear to the hearts of nearly every glossy travel magazine, cultural watch-dog and, apparently, AOL or MSNBC blogger. Iconic cities, after all, seem to hold that romantic allure for the young — at least according to their tourism campaigns.

When Savitch pondered this “great” question (and recently published his research in the academic journal Cities), he started by culling data from three of the most recent authoritative city rankings: the Foreign Policy magazine Global Cities Index, the Anholt-GFK Roper City Brands Index and the MasterCard Worldwide Centers of Commerce Index.

He then defined “great” as empirically as possible, knowing that any attempt to quantify the notion can “be problematic because of what is selected, how a given quality is measured and whether indicators point in a certain direction.” For instance, the amount of artists nestled in a dense city area may mean less to someone who is searching for the most hospitable place to raise a family.

What the researcher came up with was a grid headed by four words beginning with the letter “C”: Currency, Cosmopolitanism, Concentration and Charisma. To define these, he compiled data points from a variety of quantitative sources.

For example, “Currency” is measured by gross metropolitan product, the amount of Fortune 500 companies located within the city, per capita income and other measures. “Charisma,” one of his quirkier categories, is measured by the number of Google hits, the Bohemian Index rating, “amenity richness,” Internet Movie Database titles referencing the city and other factors.

The results from his two-part research? Well, it appears that the professor’s data has much in common with many list-making magazine bloggers.

New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles most frequently charted as the top American cities in the three indices he evaluated. In nearly every “C” category New York attained top honors, followed by a rotating assortment of the next three cities. By these measures, it seems that the Big Apple can still lay claim as the “greatest” American city. (Popular culture never had a doubt.)

Chicago, one of the top 10 “miserable cities” according to Forbes, was also lauded by the professor’s study. The Windy City, Savitch contends, was ranked highly for coming to “embrace that accolade of America’s ‘second city.'” That is, “the city has found its identity as the big city that’s not New York — more manageable, cleaner and more affordable with a hominess of its own.” Its strongest suits appear to be in Currency and Cosmopolitanism, where it received high rankings for its “global network connectivities,” status as a “high-tech city” and for the size of its downtown in square miles (second only to NYC).

San Francisco, on the other hand, “is a city of balance and economic diversification.” Noted scholar Richard DeLeon is quoted in the study for observing that “hyper-pluralism reigns. That means mutual tolerance is essential, social learning is inevitable, innovation is likely.” And yes, according to the Daily Beast of all places, it’s considered one of the “smartest cities” in the nation.

Even though San Francisco is the smallest of the four cities — 12th on the list of most populous U.S. cities — it houses the nation’s highest per capita income and has an apparently commendable large influx of foreign tourists (though less than N.Y. and L.A.).

The “greatest” challenge to New York’s supremacy may not be any of the above cities. It appears that Savitch’s “quintessential 20th century city” could face a truly 21st contender: Los Angeles, a city that scholars have praised for its “post-modern” (read: disjointed, sprawling) sensibilities.

The City of Angels, it appears, “exceed[ed] many of its sister cities on the Bohemian Index” and was ranked highly for its ever-“desirable location.” Not to mention the fact that influential critics think L.A. surpasses N.Y. as the “best deli town” in America. Now that’s a revolutionary finding.

Could Los Angeles eventually overtake New York as the “greatest” American city?

Savitch wouldn’t be on that bandwagon — he coined the acronym DEAD (Density Extensive, Auto Dependent) to neatly describe L.A.

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Erik Hayden
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Erik Hayden recently graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Religion. He regularly contributes for a variety of publications including the Ventura County Star and the alt-weekly, VCReporter.

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