Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Don’t Believe What People Tell You About Your City

When I listen to folks in cities below the first tier talk, I so often hear some variation of a story about people from out of town and exclaim about how great the place is saying, “I had no idea your city was this cool or had all this stuff.” Or we hear about the person who moved there from New York, fell in love, and is now the city’s biggest champion.

I think all of these should be taken with a grain of salt.

First, how often do you visit someone’s house and then make a disparaging comment about it to their face? My guess: never. Whenever we make a visit to someone’s home, we always draw conclusions about it, some good, some bad. And we’ll probably chat about it candidly with our friends later. But it’s unlikely we’ll say anything that’s not exquisitely polite to the person we visited. That’s not how it works. That doesn’t mean we tell them something that’s not true, but rather we choose to accentuate the positive while not commenting on the negative. It’s a little more subtle lie, as it were.

Also, people visiting from out of town frequently end up in a highly manicured environment such as a downtown Green Zone surrounding the convention center or some such. This might indeed be very nice, but it’s likely also very unrepresentative of your city. (This sometimes works in a negative way, as with my first experience in Dallas).

Likewise, the people who moved to your city from LA and fell in love are likely not representative. By definition that doesn’t include the people who moved there from somewhere else, hated it, then left. Or those who decided against moving there in the first place after paying it a visit. Or those who grew up there but got the hell out as fast as they could.

I think we all tend to glom on to the positives, and while we should certainly be encouraged by good reports, and use them to our city’s marketing advantage, I get the sense that a lot of places actually internalize this as reality. Thus they conclude that their problem isn’t with their product, but merely that the marketing hasn’t gotten the message out. If only everyone out there saw how great it was (as evidenced by those visitors and transplants), all would be well, and people and investment would flow in.

I’m all in favor of better marketing, but this is naive.

One of the most difficult to obtain but immensely useful things in life is honest feedback about what people around us actually think, particularly from those who are generally inclined positively towards us, but aren’t by default going to tell us our problem areas. Lake Wobegone isn’t the only place where grade inflation is out of control. As a general rule, I strongly suggest applying some level of discount to excessively positive feedback received about your town.

Topics: Civic Branding

23 Responses to “Don’t Believe What People Tell You About Your City”

  1. Jim Russell says:

    I would treat the negative feedback with as much skepticism as the positive.

  2. I agree, but I never hear the negative feedback cited at civic events the way I do the positive.

    I’ve noticed it particularly here in Rhode Island. I’ve heard lot of people talk about the folks who moved to Rhode Island and fell in love with it, a story I’ve heard about many cities. Yet when I talk to people who moved here from elsewhere, they are generally quite candid with me about the state’s shortcomings. Maybe it’s because I’m also an outsider and thus am safe to talk to that way.

  3. Jim Russell says:

    I’ve heard the negative feedback at civic events, particularly regarding brain drain. People are leaving in droves. We must figure out how to change that. Every community has some version of that type of negative feedback. Outside critics of Cleveland pale in comparison to the critics living there. I’ve seen/heard that firsthand at civic events in Cleveland.

    Whereas outsiders see positives that locals don’t. What’s lacking at civic events is the outsider perspective, whether its negative or positive.

  4. Brett says:

    Part of the dynamic is validation. If you make a decision to move somewhere and don’t like the place, you have to admit that you made a mistake. Praising the place validates your decision.

    A friend of mine moved to Germany. On his first visit home he was completely obnoxious going on about how great Germany was.

  5. Jon Zemke says:

    This post makes a great point. At the same time, what should one expect at civic events? Local officials always will be (and should be) the biggest cheerleaders for their communities. Plus, these sorts of positive anecdotes are often the counter balance to say, how the local TV news will consistently over hype local crime or public safety problems. It’s all part and parcel to that community’s narrative.

  6. “First, how often do you visit someone’s house and then make a disparaging comment about it to their face? My guess: never.”

    I wish this were the case. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a recent trend of visitors to my home, Phoenix, insulting the city as obnoxiously as possible and then being cheered on by a cadre of self-flagellating local urbanists. Andrew Ross calls Phoenix the world’s least sustainable city but then refuses to defend that rather dramatic claim. Taras Grescoe dismisses the city’s successful introduction of light rail in favor of outmoded stereotypes of Phoenix. Former Phoenician Jon Talton regularly lashes out at the hometown he loves to hate and has called its residents “four million idiots.”

    I’m not here to engage in an unproductive debate about the claims of the authors named above. Obviously, I find them all offensive. Even if you agree with them, however, my point remains that outsiders can engage in exaggerated negativity just as easily as exaggerated optimism. Any subjective opinion about a city, whether from a local or an outsider, should be seen as just what it is: one person’s filtering of experiences to reach a personal conclusion that may not apply to everyone.

  7. George M says:

    Aaron, my experience with Rhode Island is that vistors love it, locals hate it. I met many RI natives that taked about getting out ASAP.

    Maybe some of those visitors that loved it moved there and raved about it. I personally always liked the state and was surprised when I met locals that would disparage it so readily.

  8. costanza says:

    “This post makes a great point.”

    Are you sure?

  9. Matthew Hall says:

    A colleague of mine who spends one week a month in Cincinnati cannot contain her contempt for the Queen City. She’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about how awful Cincinnatians are and she’s from Philly, the roughest town in America.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    What industries are the people you guys know in?

    In academia, people move wherever they get a job. Only superstars have much of a choice about where to live. Most people can pick a continent and stay in it, but even that isn’t guaranteed. The result is that people don’t feel compelled to defend the city they’re in.

    (Now without link to avoid the spamfilter.)

  11. Angie says:

    Um, YES! You would think Cleveland was Shangri La the way people talk about it here. There is a certain segment of the population that is completely divorced from reality, I think, and they are also the loudest ones. I actually think people from outside Cleveland have a much more grounded perception of the city than people who live here. A lot of these people are also marketing professionals that can then cash in on trying to solve the city’s grievous “image problem.” That money would be better spent on the woeful quality of life issues for the region’s growing population of desperately impoverished people.

    Andrew Basile Jr., Detroit business owner and letter writer: “Detroit doesn’t have a perception problem. We have a reality problem.”

  12. Vince says:

    Angie, come on. Surely you don’t think that Cleveland’s or any other city’s best approach to solving its problems is to broadcast only its problems to the world.

    I listen to the marketing professionals, and I listen to people like you, who, in my opinion, are equally loud. You are both presenting extreme viewpoints which any reasonable person would know are only one part of a picture.

    Intelligent people are capable of understanding that the truth is between the extremes and that the truth is different for different people, even sometimes different people living in the same household.

    “Until you get there yourself, you never really know.”

  13. Eric says:

    I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment. I fly a lot and constantly overhear conversations between visitors and paunchy business-schlubs about where they are from and where they are visiting. Often, these conversations distill down the same things you hear among urbanists, and pretty accurately. Houston, specifically, is bad-mouthed regularly by visitors who find the form bland and suburban. In general, I find these casual observations by “amateurs” to be about 70% accurate.

  14. Nick says:

    I agree with your comments that their is a tendency to believe your own press and overhype the smallest positive instead of taking a truly objective look at the situation.

    Politicians generally are not good at telling the truth about serious problems out of fear of destroying community pride unless they have a solution in their pocket.

  15. Nick says:

    I read you linked article about your visit to Dallas with great interest.

    I am from Indianapolis and visited some friends in Dallas/Fort Worth area for vacation several years ago with big expectations. (Everything is bigger/better in Texas right?)

    My wife and I left with disappointment.

    Our friends lived in a very nice home in the area similar to what is found in the Indianapolis upscale suburb of Carmel.

    The problem was the rest of the community.

    The city layout was widely spread out required long drives to get anywhere. Driving on the highways between locations was loud and bumpy. Apparently the roads were built on shifting sands that create an unlevel driving surface.

    We also found the attractions and entertainment as poor, not only for a large city, but subpar to our smaller hometown.

    The few Dallas/Ft. Worth museums and attractions that we did find, were not as good as what we see at the Indianapolis zoo, art & children’s museums, etc..

    There simply was no downtown entertainment district in Dallas or Fort Worth. I never thought I would actually miss the comfort of downtown Indianapolis or Broad Ripple to Texas idea of fun.

    The local TV stations were even still playing 1970 episodes of “Dallas” daily, which seemed not only out of date, but backwards.

    You would think with all the oil money, they would have something more that is truly bigger and better.

  16. Chris says:

    Aaron is making a valid and important point about the dangeres of becoming complacent or only hearing what you want to hear. Some of the defensive responses to this article bolster his argument about the importance of being self-critical.

    He is not suggesting anyone “broadcast only their problems,” nor is he suggesting that visitors’ negative comments can never be unrealistic (And, I think the one poster upset about what some people said about Phoenix is missing the boat by focusing on professional writers/urbanists whose business it is to critique cities, rather than casual visitors simply sharing their honest impressions of a city). No, what Aaron is saying is don’t just look for what you want to hear, and don’t think that just because someone said they had a nice time visiting you there aren’t real issues and problems to address in your community. Acknowledging deficiencies in your community does not make it an awful place, and in fact acknowledging problems so you can take action on them will help to make it a better place to visit and to live in.

  17. Chris, it’s hard for me to miss the boat since I live in a desert city. Seriously, though, you make an interesting point about the distinction between published authors and casual travelers. I’ve seen both groups of people adopt strongly exaggerated opinions, whether positive or negative, about a variety of cities. Looking at this in a slightly different way, there’s often a distinction between what people say face-to-face and what they say when their communication is mediated by a keyboard. The dis-inhibition in the latter situation can result in caustic, unproductive diatribes against places, whether in published books or amateur media such as blogs, discussion boards, or Yelp reviews. Obtaining balanced, productive feedback that mixes appropriate praise with needed constructive criticism — that’s the real challenge in any medium.

  18. costanza says:

    “Aaron is making a valid and important point”

    Wow, you sure?

  19. Chris says:

    Constanza, do you have some social challenges, or perhaps difficulty with your writing skills?

    You keep posting weird one-off comments like “Wow, you sure?” Yes, if I write something, then I am sure of what I write.

    If you disagree with a comment made by another poster, then state what your disagreement is about and why you disagree. Posting nonsense is just trolling, and a waste of your time and energy (go outside and get some fresh air and enjoy the day instead).

  20. Angie says:


    The difference between me and a lot of people in Cleveland is that think cheerleading Cleveland is an actual strategy for fixing it. Like if enough people knew how cool CLeveland truly is (not that cool), everyone would flock here and everything would get fixed.

    “Broadcasting our problems to the larger world,” as if Clevelanders had any actual control over that. And as long as Cleveland continues to have serious problems, the larger world will be aware of them, to the extent that they are interested. Rather than trying — unsuccessfully and embarrassingly (see Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video — to prove everyone wrong, I think we would be much better served by actually taking stock of our problems compared to other cities and tackling them, rather than denying them.

    But maybe that’s just because I’m “not intelligent.” Ugh. One more marketing campaign and all this will be fixed, right?

  21. Interesting post. I remember when I was younger and visited Universal Studios in Florida and everything looked so nice and bright and pretty! I later considered that we were in the tourist attraction area and we weren’t in the not so cute area of town.

    I also agree with Brett up above who said that people may feel like they have to brag about the new city they move to, rather than admit that they made a mistake moving there.

    All in all, you just have to check out a place for yourself and determine if it’s a good place for you.

  22. Vince says:


    I apologize if you inferred from my post that I think you are unintelligent. Of course I don’t, but I do think you present a viewpoint that is as extreme in the negative direction as the viewpoint presented in marketing materials is extreme in the opposite direction.

    All I meant is that most people know that, despite what they are told about a place, they must arrive at their own conclusions, and their conclusions are going to be based on what they are looking for. I moved to Cleveland during the “Comeback City” era of the 1990s, and I didn’t have any slight expectation of finding a perfect city with no problems. I came here for many reasons, but among them were my wanting to live in a city with snow, rail transit, and water.

    I was not in any denial about the region’s numerous problems nor am I today, and yet I am still glad I decided to move here.

    You make it sound as if we should warn people to stay away. Whether or not that is your intention, that is what I read into what you write, and I disagree.

  23. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    Pessimistic people are like optimistic people in one respect, they both reflect personal situations.

    I love Cleveland and it is getting much better.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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