In 2009, Jay-Z and Alisa Keys collaborated on a release entitled Empire State of Mind. In the song Jay-Z raps about Brooklyn, Tribeca, and Harlem as Key’s belts the lyrics “these streets will make you feel brand new, big lights will inspire you, hear it from New York, New York, New York!”
Their soaring tribute to New York City is beautiful. It’s a love song, really, a love song to their hometown. Jay-Z and Keys, of course, weren’t the first to write a song about a city. Not even the first one to sing about New York. Frank Sinatra told us if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. He also had a soft spot for Chicago, crooning that it was his kinda town.
It’s not just big cities that have serves as a songwriter’s muse. Rocker John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” might be about a particular place in Indiana, but it has become a universal anthem for small towns everywhere.
The month of February is a time when we think about love even more than usual, with the 14th marking Valentine’s Day. Many of us will be both givers and receivers of tokens of love from people in our lives. Love isn’t limited to the month of February, of course, and it’s not limited to peoples. Many of us, like Jay-Z and Alisa Keys are also in love with places as well – big cities and small towns.
One of the books in my bookcase is book about this topic. Peter Kageyama wrote For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places a few years back. In it he says that certain attributes can make one place more lovable than another. He points to research conducted by Gallop looking at what community qualities influence residents’ loyalty and passion for where they live.
Aesthetics. The study indicated that a “pretty city” is a lovable city. Some of what makes a city beautiful is the natural setting – mountains and beaches, for instance – but also the built environment – parks, playgrounds and trails. Kageyama contends that lack of aesthetics does not ultimately disqualify a city from being lovable, but may mean the city needs to try harder in other areas.
Social Offerings. Gallup also found that lovable cities are places where people have a lot of opportunities to meet up with others and make new friends. Kageyama suggests that although some of these social opportunities can be city- or town-sponsored, like a Forth of July parade, for instance, the most satisfying occasions are those led by “non-city agents.”
Openness. The number one characteristic that makes a city lovable, according to the Gallup research, is openness, being a good place to live for a variety of people, which is defined as including, “senior citizens, racial and ethnic minorities, families with kids, gays and lesbians, college graduates, and immigrants from other counties.” Kageyama has an interesting barometer for gauging openness. He says if a city seems like a place an outsider could move to, get engaged in, and in five or 10 years run for mayor, that’s probably an “open” city. Contrast this kind of city with a place where after living there for 20 years, you’re still thought of as a “newcomer.”
He makes another point worth noting. When people “hate” something about a city or town, it is usually a big thing – crime, blight, or traffic; but what they love about a city is often small things – a park in the middle of town or cafes with tables and chairs outside. He goes on to say that often just a few of the lovable little things can make up for some of those big challenges.
So, as you set your mind on love this month, consider the place where you live. Do you love it? I hope that you do. If you think your city, town. or neighborhood could stand to be a little more lovable, maybe some of Kageyama’s ideas will help.
Consider what you could do to help make the place you live more open, more social, or more beautiful. You might not be able to do much about some of the big stuff that troubles many of our cities and towns, but we can all take action by initiating lovable small things. Plan a block party. Plant some flowers. Who knows, you might just be helping someone fall in love.