What Makes a City Great?

By Tom Robotham  

Recently The Virginian-Pilot ran a story headlined, “Virginia Beach is the Greatest City in the Country, says a new survey.”

The survey in question was conducted by WalletHub, a financial-information website—not exactly in the same league as the Pew Research Center, but ok: I’ll leave that alone for now.  There are so many other problems with this proclamation that I scarcely know where to begin.

First of all, the survey—not to mention the breezy and brief Pilot article—ignores a fundamental question: What constitutes “big”? The website’s methodology section did set the base at a population of 300,000, minimum. But how is that helpful? The population of Virginia Beach is just shy of 450,000, according to the city’s Department of Economic Development. New York City, by contrast, is home to more than 8.5 million people. Comparing the two is therefore ludicrous based on numbers alone.

Second, there was a significant flaw in the reporting. “Mayor Will Sessoms,” the story began, “often claims Virginia Beach is the ‘greatest city in the world.’ A new ranking agrees that it’s at least the greatest in the U.S.”

Trouble is, WalletHub never used the word “greatest.” Virginia Beach ranked number one as “The Best Big City to Live In.

The latter claim is problematic in and of itself, since perceptions of “livability” are highly subjective. I know people, for example, who live in New York and wouldn’t consider living anywhere else. I also know people who wouldn’t move there if you put guns to their heads. Is either group “wrong”? Of course not. It’s about personal priorities.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that “livability” is something that can be established by some objective measures: housing costs relative to income opportunity, for example, or the number of restaurants per capita. Those things can certainly make a city more livable. But do they necessarily make a city “great.”

To my mind, these are two entirely different things. Indeed, when I moved from New York City to Norfolk 25 years ago, I was motivated largely by the idea of raising a family in a place that was more livable than the Big Apple. Traffic here is generally a breeze, compared with New York, unless you have to take a tunnel or bridge during rush hour, which, thankfully, I do not. My commute to Old Dominion University from my apartment in West Ghent takes about five minutes. You’re not likely to enjoy such leisure in a truly big city unless you’re among the super-rich. New York, as everyone knows, is also terribly expensive.

In short, it’s hard to live there. And yet it remains one of the greatest cities in the world.

How so?

Well, let’s consider the word “great” a little more deeply. Consider it first of all as we apply it to individuals. When we call someone “great,” we’re not necessarily saying the person is nice or pleasant to be around. Picasso is widely regarded as a great artist, but by all accounts he was impossible to live with.

Likewise, a city’s greatness is measured not simply by the conveniences and pleasantries it offers but by its contributions to the culture as a whole—what it symbolizes and what it therefore means to the imagination.

New York is great because it symbolizes, with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island at its harbor gateway, a key facet of America’s greatness—its racial and ethnic diversity. Venture a few blocks from the southern tip of Manhattan, and you’ll encounter another symbol: Wall Street, which is synonymous with American capitalism—a monumental achievement in the history of the world, in spite of its many flaws. (Again, let me emphasize that “great” does not necessarily mean “good.”) Move a little farther up town, to the Village, and you’ll find symbols of America’s great Bohemian movements—symbols, in other words, of America’s tolerance for people who reject the symbols of Wall Street. Finally, as you travel farther north, you’ll find one of the world’s greatest symbols of musical achievement—Carnegie Hall—not to mention the most iconic skyscraper in the world, the Empire State Building, which remains an awe-inspiring monument to human achievement.

Many other cities have this kind of resonance: Boston for its history; Chicago for its industrial vitality; Los Angeles as the birth of the film industry; Washington D.C. as the seat of our nation’s political power.

What they all have in common are the synonyms listed in the dictionary under “great”: prominent, eminent, important, distinguished, illustrious, celebrated, acclaimed, revered, and renowned.

They have something else in common, too, with all other great cities: great architecture. To my mind, no city can be great without it. Virginia Beach, alas, has a scarcity of it: It is a city dominated by strip malls, cookie-cutter housing developments, and a few towers that inspire a response of meh rather than wow.

Architecture aside, one would be hard-pressed to call Virginia Beach “prominent,” “important,” “distinguished” or “renowned.”

None of this is meant to bash the Beach. I know many people who live there and love it—and it does indeed have a lot to offer: the beaches themselves, and First Landing State Park; some fine restaurants, and a superb concert hall in the Sandler Center. A few weeks ago, when I ventured out to Creeds, south of Pungo, for a story I’m working on, I was also struck by the rural beauty of southernmost parts of the city.

These things make it a nice place to live, if that’s your taste. Personally, I prefer Norfolk—which, by the way, was not on the list because its population fell below 300,000. It, too, is a nice place to live. And it has some fine elements—the Chrysler Museum, the Slover Library, and Harbor Park, which players regard as one of the finest minor-league parks in the country. It is also home to what is inarguably the greatest Naval Base in the world. But those things don’t make it a great city overall; they make it a good one—and that’s something to be proud of.

The residents of Virginia Beach should be proud, too, for the city has made a lot of progress over the last 50 years. While it was created as a white-flight sanctuary, it is now remarkably diverse—and more racially integrated than Norfolk. Kudos to the leaders and residents for that.

But the greatest city in the country? No. Sorry. Let’s face it: Anyone who utters this claim just sounds silly.

 

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