What makes a city cool? Why is one town better to visit or live in than another? Is there some cleverly named and diagramed, but scientifically suspect rule to figuring it out? All important questions that I will undisputedly answer here.
A little over 3 years ago my then girlfriend now wife, Lia, moved from Prosser, WA (pop. 4,800) to Yakima, WA (pop. 71k). Prosser, while far from the town of my dreams, had a certain charm that made it visiting a fun little diversion. There was a family mexican restaurant with homemade corn tortillas and a cute wine bar. The locals drank beer and sang Karaoke at a bar called Keno's and there was a huge hot air balloon rally each September. Even Lia's apartment was cute in a rural way, it was on old house turned into a 4-unit apartment building on a large lot in what Lia referred to as the "financial district" - both of the town's banks were across the street.
Lia moved because the newspaper she worked for had an opening in the main office. On paper this seemed like a great deal: it was a more important beat for Lia, she would have a more experienced set of reporters and editors to learn from, and it cut the almost weekly commute one of us would make from 2:45 down to 2:00. In reality though, Yakima was a disaster. Lia's apartment was in a soulless building with a creepy laundry room overseen by a creepier manager. Strangely there were fewer options for decent food and the bars could most politely be described as places for young Todd's with no sleeves to meet young Sarah's with no education - there was even one bar that was housed in a double-wide. The town even seemed to hated itself: Lia was constantly being asked why she moved there if she went to Stanford, a question she began to ask herself more and more often.
It seems like there are many factors that drive the quality of life in a given town. There is the location, people, weather, museums, restaurants, entertainment, transportation, etc. But how does a city get great attractions? Why does Seattle have more great restaurants than say, Federal Way? It would naively seem that more people = more stuff = better, but Yakima disproves this.
I would propose that the answer can be found in a hypothesis that has had only the smallest amount of anecdotal data, and no serious research. Behold, The Unclassy Valley!
- Everyone knows each other, so there are stronger relationships and a close community.
- The town is too small to attract many large, homogenizing chains like Olive Garden's and Wal-Mart.
- Rent is low enough to allow small, family run restaurants and shops.
- People have some of the freedom that comes with anonymity, but there is enough population to allow many close-knit sub-communities to develop.
- There are enough people that niche restaurants, shops, and museums can attract a critical mass of audience.
- Money has been invested in infrastructure to make services (hospitals, transportation, etc.) available.
- Are too small for strong sub-communities, but too large for a single community.
- Have enough population to have attracted low-value chain restaurants that have driven out mom and pop places that add character.
- Don't have enough population to invest in unique infrastructure, museums, or parks.
This theory gained international acceptance when Lia and I took our honeymoon in Italy. We loved Tremezzo (pop. 1,300) and Florence (pop. 366k), but were unimpressed by either Como (pop. 88k) or Rapallo (pop. 33k)
In my experience, the nadir of this chart is at 71,845.