Wed 28 May 2008
In ‘Cities and Ambition,’ Paul Graham explains how great cities attract different sorts of ambitious people, thereby creating different types of cities. He posits that if you want to be ambitious in a particular city, it’s essential to know how to read that city for its specific type of ambition. And if you find your own ambition to not match the overarching ambition for that city, perhaps you’re in the wrong place.
Paul’s main point is how a resident of a city is affected by the kind of ambition that’s found there. But I think there are also hints here for travelers.
When I arrive in a new city, I find myself looking for clues on how the city works. Some of the clues are logistical: Are the streets in a logical grid or quadrant, or do they run to and fro, connecting the nodes of the city like mycelium? Is the traffic ordered and calm, or chaotic and frenzied? Where are the main boulevards, the pedestrian promenades? Where is the edge of the city? Where is its center?
Some clues are social. Do people look you in the eye? Do they smile, or do they tense up? (I was once warned to never look into another man’s eyes if I went to Liverpool.) Where is the social scene: on the sidewalks? In the plazas? In the malls? Who is sitting at the sidewalk cafes — if anyone?
Some are architectural, or historical. What is the style and age of the primary buildings? What about the secondary buildings? What about the in-fill — have houses from the 1400s been bridged by a concrete edifice from the 1960s? Or is everything from the 1960s and onwards?
I’ve long I’ve considered writing a guide, tentatively titled How to Read a City, that would go into all these attributes and signs of a new city. It would be part tour guide, part psychogeography. It would be non-specific, be applicable to any city in the world, be usable by any traveler. It would not be a book of answers, but a book of questions.