The Unbearable Sameness of Cities


The person who sent me Orianna Schwindt’s New York magazine piece on the “unbearable sameness of cities” asked if I had written it under a pen name. Indeed, she hits so many of my themes about American cities:

"The light fixtures were what tipped me off. You know the ones I’m talking about — you see them every time you go to Ikea, coolly geometric, and every time, you wonder if they’re worth the effort of getting them installed in your ceiling. (They’re not.)

I was in a non-chain coffee shop in Columbia, South Carolina. I was on a mission to the cities and towns closest to the geographic center of each state, and this was only stop No. 6 of 50, but I remembered seeing the same lights in coffee shops in Bend and Portland in Oregon, and innumerable others I had frequented while living in New York and the Chicago area.

This one small observation opened up the floodgates. I noticed the same kind of person was behind the counter: young and tattooed and bespectacled. The same kind of patrons: young and tattooed and bespectacled, clacking away on MacBooks. (Full disclosure: Your correspondent is young and tattooed and bespectacled, clacking away on a MacBook.) The WiFi passwords were all some cutesy variation on “coffee culture”: !Java!, TheGreatBambeano, that sort of thing.

I couldn’t stop noticing. I’d go on to see the same in Colorado Springs, in Fresno, in Indianapolis, in Oklahoma City, in Nashville.

And it wasn’t just the coffee shops — bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar. Every time I walked into one of these places, my body would give an involuntary shudder. I would read over my notes for a city I’d visited months prior and find that several of my observations could apply easily to the one I was currently in.

The establishments weren’t chains, though some were clearly spawned from the same local owner. Why did they all seem plucked from some gentrifying corner of Brooklyn? Why did so many cities I visited feel so damn similar?"

This piece goes well with the earlier piece in the Verge about the rise of “AirSpace” and how “Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic around the world.

It’s another example that proves my maxim:

While every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you that it is exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.

This isn’t just in how they market themselves – though it includes that – it affects they way that they physically build themselves. American cities are all attempting to clone the attributes of places they are seen as hip, like Brooklyn.

It’s like a kind of cargo cult urbanism; as if they believe that if you just build the right coffee house or farm to table restaurant replica, high tech startups will fall from the sky.

To be fair, some level of copying is inevitable and completely appropriate. None of us can create a life that is totally unique. We all pull clothing, habits, etc. out of the zeitgeist.

The issue comes when copying is all you do. There have to be at least some areas where you put your own stamp.

Also, it’s indisputable that there has been a vast increase in the quality of product and life available in what were previously Siberia tier cities. You can get coffee, beer, food, ice cream, etc that are at elite levels of quality in an astonishing range of American cities today.

That’s worth celebrating and places should feel good about it. It’s an exciting time to be alive in a lot cities.

A challenge these places face is that the level of improvement locally has been so high, locals aren’t aware of how much the rest of the country has also improved. So they end up with an inflated sense of how much better they are doing versus the market.

One of the most important writing decisions I ever made was to make the original Urbanophile a Midwestern regional blog, not just a single city blog. I did that because people in these Midwest cities did not even know what was going on in the next city just 100 miles down the road. They were celebrating all these downtown condos being built. But the same condos were being built everywhere. I wanted to try to help bring awareness to this, to help give Midwest cities a sense of the regional market.

But even today people in most cities don’t really seem to get it that every city now has this stuff. Their city has dramatically improved relative to its own recent past, but it’s unclear how much it’s improved versus peers if at all.

Then there’s the challenge that it’s just psychologically hard to go against the crowd, and especially against the cool kids. It takes a certain kind of civic mindset to pull it off. The places that can have distinguished themselves. I again cite Nashville, which boasts of its hot chicken, the “meat and three,” and country music.

In reality, most cities are full of interesting, quirky, truly authentic items. In the cities I know well, I can personally name them. The problem is that they aren’t marketed. Instead, when someone like Orianna comes to town, she’s pointed to the Brooklyn-clone place instead of a more genuine place.

Anthony Bourdain once said that so many cities “tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves.”

That’s certainly been my experience. I see so many great opportunities to sell this uniqueness as part of the package of a place, but I can’t get people interested in doing it. Maybe I need to do a better sales job. I’m taking suggestions because it’s tragic to see such potential squandered.

There’s a huge opportunity out there to be seized by cities that aren’t afraid to highlight the new but standard things they now have, but also to equally tout the things they already had to make them stand out. This is critical to creating the brand that can fuel national or regional attraction.

Another excerpt from the New York piece:

We’re just getting started. In every single city mid-size and above you’ll also find:

The barbecue place with lacquered-wooden tables that repel sauce, creating an atmosphere that is content to evoke the feeling of a roadside joint that roasts its hogs whole in a real pit for 12 hours, without actually providing that feeling in full.

The Asian-fusion restaurant that is either owned by one of the Vietnamese families who came to America after the Vietnam War, and therefore reasonably authentic, or promises sushi made by someone who just really loves Japanese culture, man.

The American bistro or brasserie whose innards can invariably be described as “steampunk by way of West Elm.”

The brunch place that plies you with the same mimosas and pickle-tinged Bloody Marys, with the same menu of dressed-up, oversauced leftovers of every brunch place. Eggs-whatever. Bourbon bacon. Avocado everywhere. Truffle fries? De rigeur.

Public murals that dare you to pass them without posing for a pic for the ‘gram. Even the dive bars can blur together when you’ve been to enough of them.

Perhaps it’s inevitable, this sameness, when you’re taking a broad view of a country in which nearly 326 million people are strewn across 3.8 million square miles. A country which is connected by the light-speed of the internet and hundreds of millions of people looking at Instagram photos of bistros in Nashville, in Los Angeles, in Brooklyn, and going, “I want that.”

Click through to read the whole thing.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.


And not just American cities, either. Airports around the globe are nearly indistinguishable. I flew out of HND last year, and MEX this year--you can't tell the difference. Signs at both are in English, and each offered both sushi bars and taco stands.

Charles Mann coined the phrase "homogocene." He meant it in an ecological sense. That is, post-Columbus, species hitched rides from one hemisphere to the other, making them both similar. But jet travel and instant communication have had the same effect culturally.

Trump's popularity is at least in part a reaction against this trend.

crocodile tears

Cities, like people, differentiate and successfully specialize when they think independently. For cities with complex economies that required a large middle class consisting of people with specialized real-world skills, an essential part of that process was listening to voters who were already part of those cities, cities that had differentiated during their earlier histories, when development processes were not as controlled and manipulable as they are today. (Manipulable, not least, by the federal government.) The knowledge and interests of those voters reflected the capabilities and potential of each city. But those voters fled over the last half of the 20th century.

What's left are just large-scale amusement parks for young, tattooed, parrot-speaking robots. In New York, and a few other cities, there are also facilities for coked-up financial people and the amusement of corporate brass and rich tourists. But everything is just part of the amusement park display. That includes the media and the "intellectual" institutions, which are conducted to please the crowd--and make sure they conform to the management's standards of behavior.

That's not going to change, not for generations, until some historical process replaces the live-in amusement park crowd with people who are part of a real economy, and some other historical process puts those people and their cities in control of their own destinies again. Until then, the cities don't count. The real economy, real culture, and real intellectual activity--or what is left of them--are elsewhere. (The same thing happened to Rome in the Middle Ages.)

One reason they're all the same now is that they all listened to the same clique of urbanists--including earlier versions of Aaron Renn. Of course, business interests and the politicians they corrupted were a more important factor--urban-scale real estate is a dirty game with a lot of money at stake. The urbanists were just puppets of those same interests--or were small-time speculators themselves. There would have been no room for the young tattooed types in those cities if the previous inhabitants--and their jobs--hadn't been pushed out by real-estate and other big-money interests, and the politicians they paid off. Those interests always found willing urbanists to provide pseudo-scientific endorsement in exchange for consulting fees, just as they always found hack pundits and media outlets--like the New York magazine I remember when I still lived there. Of course, national, state, and city politicians pandering to reliable ethnic voting blocs were a factor too--and they also found their pliable experts, and used the same media outlets.

The marketplace of ideas in all fields is has always had plenty of self-promoting experts with qualifications in meaningless pseudo-disciplines, or no qualifications at all except the fact that they've gotten away with it for some years. Smart people, smart businesses, and smart municipalities never listened to them.

Urbanism is one of those pseudo-disciplines. By the time cities start differentiating again, urbanism, or whatever it may rename itself as, will be regarded in the same light as the pseudo-disciplines of earlier eras.