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.