Somehow, Americans have gotten the impression that European cities are paragons of intelligent urbanism.
Every day now, I see Twitter threads featuring beautiful photos of European streets.
The caption will read: "Beautiful yet functional. Why can't we have this?" Or maybe, "America doesn't believe in beauty anymore." Crap like that.
This fashion is incredibly naive and I'd like to end it.
Posting European urbanism threads on Twitter is, to the 35-year-old man with an MA in Public Policy, what posting TikTok dances is to the teenage girl. Easy, quick content that feels good to post, and which large audiences are eager to consume and share.
But to seriously assess the quality of a city's design, one also has to assess the political, economic, and cultural correlates that come bundled with that design.
Anyone who looks closely at the great West European capitals today—for more than the 2 minutes required to look at a decontextualized Twitter thread—is forced to the same conclusion.
All of the once-great European cities are now overwhelmingly sad places.
First of all, the people who live in European cities are very unlikely to do anything remarkable.
There are exceptions, and I'm friends with some, but seriously: How many of your favorite writers live in Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, or even anglophone London? How many founders get started, and stay, in any of these cities? Vanishingly few.
Naive Americans will visit these cities and take photos of the quaint storefronts and post them to Twitter as examples of "urbanism," which we too could have, if only we could get our act together as a country!
This is totally absurd. These people have to be stopped.
If you actually go into any of these storefronts, the food is typically crappy and over-priced. The owners are only barely staying afloat. They're not brimming with joie de vivre, they're living in a permanent siesta.
You'll get two thin slices of salami on a baguette and it will cost as much as an interesting dish from a good gastropub in a mid-sized American city. It will be a great baguette, an amazing baguette in fact, you just forget that Whole Foods also makes equally amazing baguettes.
I know what you're going to say: "You have to explore beyond the tourist traps!"
This is pure fantasy. Anywhere nice, interesting, or worth visiting in these countries is a tourist trap. Including many of the smallest and most remote villages.
If you can find a truly remote and undiscovered place outside the great West European cities, the result is usually not some beautiful artisanal culture; the result tends to be even more tired and more dispossessed people with even worse attitudes and worse food. They're rarely continuing a thousand-year tradition inherited from their ancestors, they're serving canned goods brought to the place on trucks. And they hate you even more than the big-city merchants hate you.
I will admit that I'm no Anthony Bourdain, that's true. I'm not the best-traveled person in the world, but I've explored Western Europe pretty widely. I've spent days to months in Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Athens, Brussels, Amsterdam, London, and smaller remote cities like Bodø in the Arctic of Norway and off-the-map places in the Italian Alps.
In Italy, I spent several days walking around Rome, then Trento in the north, then smaller towns in the Alps. We went to fine restaurants, we went to corner stores, and places in between. And I swear when I say: I did not eat one slice of pizza that was better than an average New Jersey pizzeria.
Don't say, "You should have gone to X great restaurant, which makes authentic Z that you'll never find in America."
I'm talking about baselines and averages. Pizza in New Jersey is plainly better than pizza in Italy, on average. It's not even close. Even if Italy has a few places that make the best pizza in the world.
In the European capitals, too many people are on welfare, and they're obsessed with their pensions.
The average American might be silly for believing he is destined to become a millionaire, but at least the ridiculous aspects of the American are interesting, funny, and energetic. The typical middle-class European capital dweller is just counting the days until their pension kicks in. They're so bored and boring they eventually get pulled in by some absurd European thing like Greta Thunberg, or they start cheating on their spouse.
Don't get me wrong, there is something magical about the bookshops in Paris, or drinking wine late at night in the public squares of Barcelona, or having espresso in a squatted Athens coffee shop. These things are unique, and often great fun.
But sometimes the most vital is the least viral.
Perhaps Haussmann's epic Paris renovation really was genius. For the sake of argument, let's grant that Europe has a magical knack for streetscaping. Even still, are you prepared to first elect an Emperor, and then give everyone so much welfare that nobody wants to do anything interesting? If you're happy to take both, then congratulations, you're one of the few Socialist-Monarchists in the world and you might genuinely wish for the USA to enact European Urbanism. Indeed, perhaps I should not be surprised if such rare voters are overrepresented in the Other Life readership. But if you don't want extreme centralization and you think people working on big ideas is important, then you probably don't love "European Urbanism" as much as you think you do.
One has to live in a very naive, online fantasy world to imagine that the few remaining charms of European cities are evidence that European Urbanism is Brilliant and American Cities Suck. European cities are over. They're running on fumes. I have some fond memories traipsing around these cities, as much as anyone, but the stench of death was always unmistakable.
The stench of death just doesn't travel far in Twitter threads.