Why "best cities" lists are kind of the worst
I used to seriously entertain the idea of moving. This was back when I was less encumbered and traveled quite a bit. Every trip wound up as an audition for my New Hometown. Within a few days, I’d have decided which house would be mine, picked out which coffee shop I’d frequent, relished the thought of how much cheaper and easier it would be than living in New York City. The classic New York narrative is one of strivers drawn to the city by their ambition to be artists, Broadway sensations, contortionists, or what have you. I, on the other hand, live here essentially because my parents did, just as their parents did before them. Back then, it still seemed I might be able to break that chain. I came really close to moving a few times. But since having children and settling into a home in Brooklyn a block from where my father was born, I’ve pretty much given up the dream. Uprooting seems impossible, except when I visit the land of fantasy relocation.
Though my forays to this land are furtive and infrequent, I know I’m not the only visitor. Indeed, there is a whole genre of magazine feature that caters to moving-obsessed people like myself, providing lists that tell us which cities in America are offering everything in life we currently lack.
In addition to slideshows regularly published by outlets like CBS News, Newsweek, and Forbes, there are several data-driven websites devoted to place comparison. BestPlaces.net allows readers to rank the importance of such variables as crime, climate, cost of living, and schools. Their computers then take the survey results and “run through thousands of calculations and display a ranking of the cities which best meet your cri- teria,” according to the site. RelocateAmerica.com relies on real estate and labor market information to create its “Top 100 Places to Live” feature. FindYourSpot.com offers a quiz, and will create a tailored list of “perfect hometowns and undiscovered havens” based on your results. MyDreamLocale.com compiles a list of com- munities likely to appeal to you.
The bigger publications tend to have less personalized lists that read more like Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Scroll through CNNMoney’s list of “Best Places to Live” and you’ll find Newton, Massachusetts, ranked third best place to reside, with its charming Victorian houses and expensive schools. Ellicott City, Maryland, apparently has a rocking “Bubbleman kids’ night,” according to the business site Kiplinger.com. Norfolk County, Massachusetts, where several presidents were born and the average SAT score is 1090, was ranked high on Forbes.com’s “Best Places to Raise a Family” list in 2008.
The lists are a fascinating way to waste time, in a click-and-ogle sort of way. And the list-makers often factor in as much data as possible. (Children’s Health magazine, for instance, used 29 “variables” to select its best places to raise children.) But the problem, or one of them, is that taste varies wildly. Another is that, because they attempt to incorporate an entire nation’s desires, these one-size-fits-all features tend to showcase a version of life as we’d like it to be, a version that glosses over the things that truly make a difference to most people: com- munity, services, and policies that ease their daily life. Idealizing places means being ignorant of their inevitable flaws. Graduation rates and crime stats, on which many of these lists are based, are important to consider. But allowing them to define a place is like falling in love with someone’s online profile. When I developed crushes on my vacation destinations, I didn’t have this kind of data.
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Even the most sophisticated data set won’t yield a single best place for everyone to raise children in this country, of course. Try to picture a mythic spot where all life’s hassles melt away—where the playground is wondrously free of bullies, the schools provide uniformly positive educational experiences, the markets are all conveniently located and filled with delicious food you want to eat—and you begin to appreciate the futility of the effort. Or just Google the Bubbleman of Ellicott City, who, it turns out, is some guy who blows huge soap bubbles on the sidewalk. You realize that these lists attempt to service an impossibly broad swath of people, some of whom weigh the presence of big bubbles in their calculus of where to live.
Though the downsides of living there are rarely explored, the locales touted as havens by media behemoths are inevitably real places with real histories and real warts. Consider Tinley Park, Illinois, the suburb of Chicago that in 2009 BusinessWeek decreed top place to raise a family. Like most of the places on such lists, Tinley Park has a blandness that likely stems from being chosen on the basis of statistical analysis rather than human experience. Publications arrive at their “best places” largely by putting various facts and figures in a demographic blender. Test scores, crime stats, housing prices, and commute times go in. Wichita, Kansas; Lawton, Oklahoma; Abilene, Texas; and Tinley Park come out.
The distance between tabulation and reality might be summed up by the fact that Tinley Park, which has “top-rated schools, low crime, beautiful parks, relatively affordable houses, and easy access to jobs,” according to BusinessWeek, is also the place where a gunman mowed down six women in a Lane Bryant store a couple years back. A stark reminder that misfortune, unpleasantness, and indeed the full range of life’s harsh realities are ultimately inescapable.
Such is the case with Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo that BusinessWeek named the best place to raise children in New York state. While Tonawanda does have considerable virtues, including some affordable, quaint housing and proximity to Lake Erie, it also has notable spots of environmental contamination that pose serious risks to all the people who live there. Though no one at BusinessWeek seems to have spoken with them, most residents of Tonawanda are all too familiar with the health threats associated with local industry. In 2009 the New York Department of Environmental Conservation found that the air surrounding the Tonawanda Coke Corporation’s decades-old but still-functioning coke processing plant had 75 times the recommended limit of benzene, a known carcinogen. A local environmental group, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, responded with a rally, which was well covered by the local press, to demand that the plant’s owner discuss health concerns with area residents. Mark Kamholz, the plant’s environmental control manager, was arrested on charges that he failed to notify the feds about the dangerous emissions. Then last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency cited the plant for “discharging industrial wastewater containing cyanide” into a sewer that empties into the Niagara River.
Tonawanda is also home (sweet home?) to a former Manhattan Project site, which generated nuclear waste that is now buried in local landfills. Though the dumping took place decades ago, the half-lives of the radioactive radium, thorium, and uranium start at 1,600 years.
The data aren’t the problem; it’s the lack of context. If BusinessWeek had consulted the New York State Department of Health, it would have found above-aver- age cancer rates in certain Tonawanda neighborhoods near the dump site. In October 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided not to excavate one of the landfills—not because the site was found safe, but rather, according to Army Corps documents, because dredg- ing up and removing large amounts of deeply buried, weapons-grade, highly radioactive isotopes would be more dangerous to workers and the community than leaving it buried.
If BusinessWeek had spoken to the area’s residents, many of whom are well versed on the issue, the editors probably would not have chosen the site of a radioactive waste dump near a toxin-spewing chemical plant as one of the best places to raise a family. When I recently mentioned Tonawanda’s “best place” distinction to alongtime Buffalo resident, she joked that it might be the best place to live for families who don’t mind having children with three eyes.
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To be fair, though, it’s not just Tonawanda that collapses under the weight of first-hand experience. On BusinessWeek’s site, most of the comments from resi- dents of the 50 supposedly best places (one in each state) express some level of incredulity at their hometown being deemed the best. “Warner Robins [Georgia]? You gotta be kidding! A one dimensional town if ever there was one. Unless your kids like baseball there is not much of anything to do here. And the schools? The standards are set artificially low to give the illusion the Houston County system is great. We can’t wait to move out of Warner Robins!” Or, this comment about Clarksville, Tennessee: “One of my kids teachers actually let her retake a test several times until she got the answers right. Some school system. There is nothing to do there for kids at all. You have to travel 45 minutes to Nashville for entertainment/activities. Rotten place to raise a family!”
Adding an eerie sense of dislocation to the outrage of many readers, BusinessWeek illustrated many of its stories about “best places” with pictures of entirely different cities, which were then Photoshopped so that images of random, happy-looking children appeared to be hovering on the skyline.
There are even bigger problems with using data to rank places to live. Emphasizing low crime, test scores, and “livability” often leads to the selection of places that are more expensive—and far less diverse—than the country overall. Thus, just as the outlandishly pricey Zurich, Switzerland, tops international “best cities” lists, elite, wealthy suburbs have increased chances of being touted as the best domestic hometowns. Tinley Park, for instance, is in the top 10 percent of places where residents are “middle class or better,” according to CityTownInfo.com, with the cost of living and average income there well above the national average. On the site’s one-to-10 scale of racial diversity, with 10 being most diverse, Tinley Park gets a three. Similarly, Des Moines, Iowa, Forbes’s choice for the best place to raise a family, is far whiter than the rest of the nation. And Burlington, Vermont, the city selected by Children’s Health as the best place to raise kids, is one of the whitest cities in the country, with more than 95 percent of the population identifying as white, according to census numbers.
The shortcomings of “best places” lists serve as a reminder that in pretty much every town in our country, the basics aren’t available in adequate supply. Were we to actually move to the cities featured on these sites, we might find low crime rates and good schools. But we might not be able to afford to live there. We might not feel like we fit in. And we might find plenty of other things lacking. That’s why we trawl the lists. Sometimes looking can make us feel better about our own home. Even if it’s a block from where we grew up.