Civic Personnae

April 11, 2014 New York City, Philly / Pennsylvania, Travels Comments (0) 94

South Philly ChristmasSomething Liz and I got thinking about this past weekend:

After attending a particularly drunk and rowdy brunch at a bar in downtown Arlington, Virginia (nice town, by the way) Liz remarked how different it was from the more subdued brunch in New York City. I remarked, off-the-cuff, that “New Yorkers have a certain expectation of how New Yorkers are supposed to behave.”

This got me thinking about how people change to fit the city they live in–or the city they might be visiting. We all know humans unconsciously change their behavior according to the role they are assigned, but in many cities there’s also the question of self-selection. New York City is full of aspiring Carrie Bradshaws, Gordon Gekkos, and Patti Smyths. [pullquote position=”right”]People don’t just behave based on their city’s reputation; they move to the city they think suits their ambitions.[/pullquote]

We got talking about examples that came to mind: The way Philadelphia sports fans worked to maintain their reputation for anarchy, half a century after the infamous Santa incident; the young beautiful Angelinos who adopt every new diet fad and obsess over physical beauty; the bikini-clad beach bodies in Miami, back-country liberalism of Austin, and ardent anti-corporatism of Portland or Seattle. Yes, these are stereotypes, but that’s the whole idea: some stereotypes are reinforced because people unconsciously work to conform to them.

In late 2005 when I moved back to Pittsburgh after five years away, I discovered how much Queer as Folk had influenced the gay culture. QAF, actually filmed in Toronto’s thriving gay village, was set in a fictional Pittsburgh that greatly exaggerated the city’s gay presence. I met numerous young gay men who had moved to Pittsburgh because of the show, and bemoaned the gap between television and reality. I often wondered why they hadn’t bothered to visit first–Pittsburgh has no shortage of hotels. Notable, however, was how the gay landscape in Pittsburgh flourished, in part thanks to QAF, as the locals and newcomers created a world that resembled their fantasy.

Liz and I got talking, too, about cities that don’t necessarily have as strong a sense of identity. I didn’t find that there was much of a “stereotypical Philadelphian,” for example–at least outside the sports arena. I think I might prefer this kind of setting, because people feel less restricted to type and more free to be themselves.

I have heard murmurs recently about discontent among Portland residents who say fans of the show Portlandia arrive expecting a certain kind of experience, and that an influx of Portlandia fans has begun altering their community in a way they don’t necessarily like. Maybe in five to ten years, Portland will become more like the show. I wonder if South Philadelphia is being reshaped by fans of It’s Always Sunny, though I can’t say I’m familiar enough with either program to say what they represent. I did occasionally meet tourists, when I lived in South Philadelphia, helplessly searching for a bar called Paddy’s that didn’t actually exist.

I wonder about cities like Columbus, Denver, and San Diego, where I’m not aware of any stereotypes beyond broad generalizations about their respective regions. I’d guess there must be a shared sense of identity, but nothing as strong as the caricature of the frazzled sophisticate adhered to by so many New Yorkers. I wonder if these people feel more freedom to be themselves, rather than following a cultural archetype.

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