It starts with the local brewpub. Always with the goddamn local brewpub, located in some renovated craftsman schoolhouse or 1920s fire station with the locally sourced Czechoslovakian-style hops and the brewmaster with the certification from the Golden Barley Council or whatever governing body oversees alcoholic hipsterdom.
Whenever some self-appointed hometown convention and visitors’ bureau rep (and sometimes it’s an actual CVB rep) takes you to that cool little place in the downtown renaissance district where they actually make their own beer—So cool! Nobody does that, right?—you know you’re in trouble. Or, more precisely, you know you’re in that bastion of municipal mediocrity: the newly anointed “It” City.
Now, you may dislike or disregard places like Poughkeepsie or Plano or Palm Whatever. But there are few more insufferable banalities in modern urban life than a town recently deemed cool. Greg Brown name-checked Santa Fe and Sedona in his 1994 song “Boomtown,” an acid slap down of the phenomenon. It didn’t help: In the years since, cities “where people used to live their lives [and now] the restless come and go” have proliferated like fungus in a damp basement.
Most recently, it’s been Nashville’s turn. Last month, The New York Times laid out the usual liberal criteria for why sophisticates should embrace a city the kale-and-karaoke cognoscenti previously snickered at for its association with mullets and Rascal Flatts. “Flush with young new residents and alive with immigrants, tourists and music, the city made its way to the top of all kinds of lists in 2012,” the Times gushed. “Critics admire its growing food scene. GQ magazine declared it simply ‘Nowville.’ ”
Artisanal ice cream, gluten-free pizza, burrito trucks run by real Mexicans, jalapeño-infused margaritas, celebrity graffiti sprayers, and First Thursday art walks in revitalized industrial zones promoted by farsighted civic planners armed with government tax schemes—these are the totems of It City. I’m certain Nashville has plenty of them to brag about. But, then again, so do Asheville, Austin, Baltimore, Boulder, Burlington, Las Vegas, Madison, Portland, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, Santa Monica, Savannah, Seattle, Taos, Tucson, the Twin Cities, and a klatch of other cities that have ascended the heights of those “most livable,” “coolest,” and “best” lists.
When I lived in Dallas, I used to say that, if it wasn’t surrounded by Texas, Austin would be called Sacramento. Austinites took this the wrong way. The remark wasn’t meant to criticize the Texas capital so much as it was an acknowledgment of just how pedestrian eclectic local bands, underground donut culture, and galleries with funky art that no one buys have become.
Sacramento, of course, has its own hip district—it’s called Midtown, and it’s full of places with names like Lowbrau Bierhall and Firestone Public House. But you can find the same thing in blah hamlets like Aurora, Illinois, where locals were eager to take me to Walter Payton’s Roundhouse & America’s Brewpub. And it offered “hand-crafted brews from the bar (brewed on the premises)” (!) in a renovated train depot, plus an $11 burger topped with peppercorns, gorgonzola, and crispy leeks. Don’t act all hungry, people: You can get pretty much the same burger at the brewpub down the street from your office.
I’ve done my own It City exploring just a couple hours’ drive from Nashville. In 2011, I was dispatched by Outside magazine to report on the results of a Facebook poll that resulted in Chattanooga, of all places, being named the “Best Town Ever.” What I found was a pleasant enough little burg that might have been more accurately described as the best place in southeastern Tennessee to stop for a bite if you’re driving through on the interstate. Admittedly, there were some good mountain-bike trails and rock-climbing places thrown in.
Driving from the airport into town through the slightly unkempt neighborhoods where most Chattanoogans appeared to live, it took a while to find the righteous enclave that had carried the day with Facebookers. My city hosts put me up in a chic new hostel geared toward outdoorsy types. From the reception desk, I was taken to a steamy laundry room and instructed to pull a freshly laundered sheet (emphasis on the singular) from the industrial dryer and told I could use this sheet to make up my very own wooden bunk.
If Austin weren’t surrounded by Texas, it would be called Sacramento.
Forgive me if this struck me as slightly less cool than the moneyed clink of crystal glassware in the Oak Room.
But, as that Times piece on Nashville suggested, that’s the thing about trendiness, or at least the perception of it—it’s usually driven by the popular media and young people, two groups whose experience with the more interesting things in life isn’t often what one would call comprehensive. Setting aside the way it treated thinly supported proclamations from media cousins as news, what the story really did was pull back the curtain on the forces that determine whether or not some town gets hyped as an It City: advertisers and out-of-towners. For an otherwise fine-but-nothing-special town to break into the zeitgeist, it must first attract the affirmation of outsiders, then the cash flow of sponsors.
That’s what happened in the It City fountainhead of Portland, Oregon, a onetime mid-market waypoint between San Francisco and Seattle that has cannily monetized its reputation without tarnishing a surreal bohemian cred that still baffles longtime residents.
I’m sure there are insouciant wankers across the country grousing that, once Fred Armisen and his beat-a-single-punch-line-into-the-ground “SNL” ethos sunk his dull fingernails into “Portlandia,” the city irrevocably became the pitiable shark that has been politely stepped over. But that isn’t even close to true. As in all It Cities, Portland’s status is codified by its need for recognition from outsiders, embellished by how effectively it commercializes that attention, and sustained by the intensity of its need to prove that you don’t have to live in New York or L.A. to be surrounded by awesome musicians, world-class theater, and pretentious Sazerac culture.
Except that you sort of do.
Ground zero of Portland cool these days is an expanding grid called the Pearl District. It’s one of the first places you’ll go when you visit the city. Walk through the Pearl and you’ll find ad agencies, glass-and-steel condos that look just like the ones that are re-branding your city, and bars where they use nineteenth-century tools to chip shards from giant blocks of ice into your glass. You’ll also find Anthropologie, Aveda, P.F. Chang’s, REI, and Storables.
It’s not that I have anything against these establishments. But walk around the Pearl and you feel like you might as well be in Santa Monica. Or Santa Fe. Or Sedona. Or Sacramento. Or, come to think of it, SoHo.
And maybe that’s the point of it all. We’re all happening now, no one better than anyone else, no city that’s any more “it” than any other. Pretty cool. Or so they tell me.
Chuck Thompson is the author of Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession.