Why Other Cities Matter

Finding the Stories in the Middle

I’m checking in with my friends across the country on Twitter; like little thumbtacks in a map, their speech bubbles dot their way through America, from sea to shining sea.

Someone up in Detroit is talking about what they’re doing to bring writers to the city, taking advantage of a wide open housing market and an environment ripe for creatives. Someone in Seattle is wondering if a local restauranteur is being unfair to his employees by exchanging tips for minimum wage. Here we are in Cincinnati, talking about a streetcar project that will potentially change the fabric of our city. These are stories that matter to those of us living in these cities, the stories that color our daily lives and guide the conversations occurring within a certain geographical radius.

But then suddenly it comes, like a foghorn blast, blowing the rest of the stories out of the water: the noise from the coasts. The Marketing of Brooklyn; Which Brooklyn Neighborhood Are You. Will (place that isn’t Brooklyn) be the next Brooklyn? Why LA is Better than New York, Why New York is Better than LA, and Hey! San Francisco has something to say, and an app to say it with. MFA vs. NYC vs. The Rest Of Us.

In the grand national narrative of culture, the stories of smaller cities tend to get relegated to sidebars: this awful/inspirational thing happening somewhere in the void of fruited plains, stories of neglect and bankruptcy in unknown territories criss-crossed by interstates. Not, by any means, the dominant narrative, but filler.

It’s not just in the news: culture—books, movies, television, music—is under the nearly-exclusive purview of coastal cities. Our references have all become the same: a saturated sameness of cultural commonality all stemming from a few limited sources. It’s the ease of familiarity: everyone knows Times Square, so let’s set our story there. Everyone knows the East Village from Lou Reed songs; nothing needs explaining.

Everyone knows the Sunset Strip; nobody knows Over-the-Rhine until there’s a riot there.

When I first moved back to Cincinnati, my inclination was to stir up dust, to fight the limited coastal city narrative, to get everyone here to make our own noise by shouting from the rooftops about how much we love this city. Which some of us still do. But the longer I’ve lived here, the more I realize that it’s not quite our way to shout from the rooftops. We’re not evangelicals; we’re just trying to devote our energy to turning this city into the place we all want to live in. Build a streetcar, support our local craft breweries, have intense conversations about gentrification.

Sure, more souls paying taxes would secure schools and libraries and roads that are badly in need of repair. And who wouldn’t want to see more butts in seats at the fantastic new eateries sprouting up across town, more people renovating buildings on the west side, more kids shoulder to shoulder at all of the great shows we have coming to town? We’re patient, though; we’re content with enough.

To me, though, this dust stirring is not really about convincing the world that they should all be living in Cincinnati (though, sure, you’re all welcome; we’ve got housing galore); it’s about finding a way to send out enough signals for others to see, to get people here to share our stories in case anyone wants to hear them out there. Because I think that people out there should hear them. Not because we need recognition, but because I think it will benefit our entire cultural landscape to be a little bit more aware of the inbetweeners, of folks in other cities, of the fact that culture extends beyond these falsely drawn otherland borders the media has painted for us. If nothing else, we need to tell these stories so that we’re not hearing the same refrain over and over, da Capo al coda where the coda never comes.

Let’s be honest, though: it’s difficult to get other people to care about what happens in a place they don’t live in unless it’s glamorized or sensationalized, plagued with the heat of controversy, or unless we know someone who lives there, some other connection to some far-off land. Every once in a while, the white noise of a story from the Middle will come through, a story that seems to have some sort of global significance: the unemployment crisis in a small suburban town, a girl gone missing, a debate over fracking. (“Ever wonder what lights the lights of Times Square?”)

There are other complex issues that plague locals in ways it can be difficult to explain to those who aren’t from around here, and sometimes even difficult to explain to those who are from around here. But in each issue is a seed of multiple experiences that are the common threads tying our society together.

The mission impossible is finding the global experience at street level without a map. It might elude us, like the search for The Next Great American Novel, but, more likely, it might start to seep out in the tiny narratives tucked into each corner of everyday life, the lives I see float by on Twitter as someone tells me something they saw that day: the skater boy smoking a cigarette in a doorway and pushing his hair out of his eyes in California, the sudden rain catching everyone off guard on a pedestrian walkway in New York, or the joy someone feels over some wonderful flicker of a moment happening hundreds of miles away in Cleveland, in Atlanta, in Nashville.

It’s important that these settings be different: it better highlights the similarities of the experience: the joy, the exasperation, the ire, all seen through different cultural lenses.

Find these threads, and you start to see the whole fabric of experience being woven from thumbtack to thumbtack. Find these threads, and you start to see the full story of who we are.

This week The Cincinnati Anthology, a book I’m proud to have edited, was published into the world. Inside are some of the stories and images that our Other City has inspired, narratives formed in a city whose geography may be foreign, but whose very human experiences are not. As I pulled together these words and images, some from natives and some from outsiders, I realized that in telling these stories, we aren’t forming a new identity or rewriting the city’s narrative, we are simply giving it weight. We are saying that our experiences in this city matter not just to our neighbors, but to the greater cultural landscape. We are finding a way to amplify this very common human experience in a way that anyone can understand.

They’d done it in Cleveland with the Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology, and Detroit has its own anthology forthcoming as well. With these collections, we’re telling the rest of the world that we’re still here, that our culture is important. That we have experiences here that may be more difficult to express to people who don’t live here, because the rest of the country doesn’t have the common knowledge of our city that we sometimes presume among ourselves, but that these are experiences worth sharing nonetheless.

Sure, we did it for ourselves too, but we hope that everyone else will bend an ear. That as much time as you have to listen, we have time to tell you a little something about our hills, about our growth, about what we love and what we hate, about what’s hard about living here, about what we haven’t yet figured out. There are stories brewing in these hills, there are visions coming up from the river basin. Here; but also there.

Because, when it comes down to it, we are telling our stories because we think it’s important for other people to tell their stories too. I want to read your anthology. I want you to talk about what is important in your city: what makes it so important to you, what about it inspires you in your daily life. Because other cities matter, and we don’t want to let the stories of these smaller American cities fade out, obscured by the brighter lights and bigger noises of larger cities with bigger names.

So share your stories. Create your anthology. Do it because you know why your city is different. Do it because you’re not just another Brooklyn neighborhood. Do it because you’re Kansas City, because you’re St. Louis. Because, goddammit, you’re Albuquerque.

Do it because the differences are what makes this country’s patchwork beautiful, each little thumbtack a center from which these threads of stories radiate, weaving a glorious tapestry from sea to shining sea.

imitable; nostalgic to a fault (also: baseball & malls)

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