Essence of a City

Recently I attended a dinner party with some fairly well-to-do suburbanites who all seem to pretty well rely on their automobiles. The conversation illustrated just how great the difference between American and European urbanism is. Basically, all the attractions of life in Chicagoland (and particularly the North Side) for our dinner company were individual shops or entertainment venues miles from any public transportation but providing the “best” form of whatever good or service was under discussion.

“Oh, you can only get the best carrot cake at Magoo’s Bakery about 4 miles west of here, just before the interstate.”

“Yeah, when I’m out there I like to get the best soaker garden hoses at a place a mile north of there — they’re handmade by Gypsies!”

Robert Fishman has described the auto-based American city as a “city a la carte,” in which the individual no longer takes the good and the bad of his or her neighborhood. Nowadays, he finds the best house for himself, goes to his favorite grocery store, visits with his friends on the other side of the city, and doesn’t trouble himself with all the stuff in between.

I neither have the means nor the desire to patronize the best places scattered about the metropolitan region. What I really like and what seems to be the most responsible form of urbanism is not having or patronizing one best place for something. In Sicily and Greece, the rule seemed to be that there were several similar types of places (bakeries, cafes, groceries, butchers, etc.) that were all pretty good but without clear distinction as to which was the best. You walked to the one near you and were confident of good bread or cheese or salami or pizza. This seems to have been a product of demand as much as of supply; that is, a “best” place wouldn’t have an advantage over other bakeries because customers wouldn’t pay extra to have the best when all the bakeries were pretty good.

I can only name one restaurant in the whole 6 weeks that was particularly notable in terms of being better than any other of the same type of place we went to (Trattoria Archimedes in Ortygia [Syracuse], Sicily). Every other place we went was just a typically good, local bread, granite, meat, cheese, fruit, espresso or whatever store or market. And it was awesome because it meant that just about every street was an attraction, every neighborhood was enjoyable, and every place we wanted to go was walkable. Sicily was the attraction, not the three restaurants or 2 coffee houses. I highly recommend going to Europe if, rather than loving particular restaurants, you love having a choice of restaurants and their all being accessible. In short, if you love cities, not stores.