What Message Is Your City Telling You?

Most Houstonians are familiar with Houston's most famous piece of graffiti, the "Be Someone" message in giant letters on the Union Pacific bridge over I45 north of downtown. It's gone through a lot of iterations and defacement over the years, including recently, but the fact that it keeps coming back is a testament to its popularity. Long ago I did a post here titled "What message is your city telling you?" discussing an essay by Paul Graham (of Y Combinator fame). His basic theme is that each city has its own subtle message it's sending you about what's important and how you should direct your ambition.

Here are some of his examples:

New York: "You should make more money."

Boston/Cambridge: "You should be smarter." (or at least better read)

Silicon Valley: "You should be more powerful." (i.e. change the world)

"Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups."

SF/Berkeley: "You should live better." (more conscientious, more civilized, better 'quality of life')

LA: "You should be more beautiful and famous."

DC: "You should know more important people."

Paris: "You should do things with more style."

London: "You should be more aristocratic." (higher class - although he says this signal is weaker than it used to be)

Here's the summary list of messages he came up with:

"So far the complete list of messages I've picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life."

And here's what I came up with at the time for Houston:

"So what about our little town of hard working engineers and entrepreneurs? The city of Canion, Cooley, DeBakey, and a gaggle of energy and real estate mavericks? Well, I think we can rule out style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life. Wealth, maybe a bit, but I think the primary one is economic power - "You should be a bigger player in business."(even the business of medicine) We don't seem to care too much whether you're an entrepreneur, developer, or top executive - just so long as you're a big shot. And if you're not a big shot, the message is to become one by whatever path necessary - whether on your own or through a large organization.

Maybe not the ideal message I'd choose (although not bad), but I think it's an accurate reflection of the culture of the city."

Later my friend Anne suggested maybe "industriousness" is a better ambition message for Houston rather than "economic power", because it's more inclusive of people working hard in all sorts of endeavors, including nonprofits. Both of those certainly fit well with a "Be Someone" motto encouraging people to go out and make a difference in the world.

I think it would great for the city to embrace "Be Someone" as our official motto and start baking it into our identity as a city (cue the T-shirts). It's a great message we could put just about everywhere. A similar example of an inspiring motto is "Live a Great Story". On a practical note, that probably means cleaning up the sign and protecting it from future defacement, maybe with a protective spray-paint-repelling clear coat and/or some sort of physical protective shield added to the bridge. But the real value is beyond the sign itself, but in the collective sense of identity it can unify Houstonians around.

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments...

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I am not a brand

1. Everyone is someone merely by virtue of existing
2. If everyone is Someone, no one is.
3. If everyone makes a difference, no one does.
4. Encouraging people to "make a difference" merely encourages them to new ways of interference in the lives of others.
5. Encouraging people to a self-understanding as a character in a novel will simply drive many of them into mental illness and addiction. This is becoming more apparent daily. Social media encourages people to narrate their lives to themselves, and their essential ordinariness spurs them to fictionalize it. The resulting cognitive dissonance overpowers them.
6. Literacy in Boston/Cambridge is declining as precipitously as everywhere else. People scan, they don't read.