I’ve never been known as a flag-waving, red-white-and-blue-bleeding patriot (often, quite the opposite), but there is one thing I am constantly in awe of and can never begrudge the United States: the greatness of its largest cities. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been to several American burgs, each one unique in its history, culture, and atmosphere; each a national, if not international, center of industry, commerce, communication, and transport; each with myriad museums, restaurants, concerts, festivals, and other markings of cosmopolitan sophistication. Say what you will about Wonder Bread suburban monoculture—America’s cities as parts of a larger whole are unmatched anywhere else on the planet. I doubt any other country has as many places peopled by representatives of every cultural group on Earth:
Miami, Atlanta, Washington, Houston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Dallas, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York*
Take any of the cities I just named, and you can come up with any random dish, type of music, style of dance, or artistic movement: there’s samba and salsa in Seattle, pad Thai in Miami, Guinean drum circles in Houston, and Tahitian dance classes in New York. And the ease of internal migration and the abundance of external immigration means the fusion of local traditions with recent additions.
Naysayers might erroneously invoke Europe as a comparison: there is none. Europe is a collection of independent nations with their attendant histories, languages, and former colonial empires. The majority of major cities on the Continent and the Isles are ex-imperial capitals, where wealth and power were concentrated during a multi-century competition with neighboring metropoli. The greatest American cities developed through a balance of domestic and international interests, without being national, or sometimes even state capitals. Besides, the United States is still only one country; there are others larger and more populous.
Then, there are equally vast nations, such as China or India for instance, with a large cadre of population centers that are, unfortunately, just that: agglomorations of people drawn together, like all cities, by virtue of resources and opportunity, but largely homogenous relative to their enormous population size and not very well-known on an international scale as models of economic or cultural diversity.
Yes, American cities deal with gang violence and grit, economic and social disparity, declining educational output and unemployment, pollution and inadequate public transportation. But these ills drive the best and brightest in their quest for liveable, enjoyable hometowns. The country is the biggest beneficiary of that work, manifested in those swarming hubs of human interaction where city lights outshine stars.
*I’m purposely excluding “niche” cities like Las Vegas, Orlando, Honolulu, or New Orleans; or “secondary” places like Charlotte, San Antonio, Portland, or Denver, despite soaring cosmopolitanism in each.