In Our City You Can Rollerblade Near Water
I like my dinners ethnic, my coffee latté, my gossip salacious, and my conversation wired. Not a lot to ask, you might think, but difficult to know where to find in an unfamiliar city—if one doesn’t know where to look. Fortunately, despite a peripatetic life that has meant six different urban settings in three years, I’ve suffered no appreciable change in my leisure-time pursuits. That’s because a bevy of slick publications—Washingtonian, New York, San Francisco Focus, and Chicago act as my guides, willingly exposing each city’s secrets, directing me to the microbreweries and tattoo parlors that define my life.
As a nomadic member of the meritocratic class, I maintain a mobile lifestyle, flowing as easily as capital or information between the moneyed pockets of the nation’s various urban centers. A loyal knowledge worker, I’m ready to pack up my rollerblades and mountain bike at a mere beeper message from my boss, to be hermetically transported to yet another hip, urban playground filled with like-minded members of my psychographic.
For my truly important consumer decisions—which sneakers, bottled water, or computer operating software to own—I take my cues from the national media. But many aspects of my urban lifestyle—which third-world restaurants, home design stores, and sports teams to patronize—simply don’t lend themselves to presentation on a national scale. This, then, is the objective of the city magazine and the form of press-release journalism that it has perfected: to glamorize the handful of culture-products that go unaffected by national image advertising, to provide elaborate breakdowns of the various items that are supposed to be unique to my town. The resulting trade-off is simple: I get to feel like a savvy, life-long resident of a place, intimately acquainted with all its gritty minutiae; and local merchants, their wares enhanced by inclusion in long “best of” lists and full-color, slick-paper articles, get my business. Thanks to these magazines I can consume a city like any other packaged product.
A Riot of Same
“Where do you want to go today?” asks Microsoft’s new ad campaign, associating its products with the glamorous globetrotting lifestyle of a cast of cyber-corporate protagonists. This is the official version of the new bourgeois dream: everywhere they—and I—go is supposed to be wildly diverse and exciting. But the fact is that everywhere we go the diversity and excitement are always the same. The main difference I notice when I go from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to Chicago’s Wicker Park to Washington’s Adams-Morgan, is whether the local Starbucks is independently owned or a franchise. Things trumpeted as making each town unique turn out to be remarkably predictable: Guess what—they revitalized the waterfront! And there’s gonna be river boat gambling!
City magazines deal in counterfeit uniqueness, parceling out life in some easily merchandisable form—sports team, celebrity, coffee shop.
With less and less to distinguish one place from the next, city magazines teach me to invest tremendous meaning into the minute differences that are discernible, like those between my Colorado Rockies and New York Yankees baseball caps. The magazines help me see that the differences go beyond blue and black fabric: each cap is a microcosmic emissary, spreading the word of a city’s personality to the far corners of the globe. Their understanding of civic culture is similar: what is unique about Chicago is, like its professional sports teams, stuff that’s packaged and available everywhere, but here it comes in blue rather than green. You haven’t been to Chicago, I am told, until you’ve seen a game at Wrigley, gotten a drink at the Baja Beach Club, and enjoyed stuffed pizza at Pizzeria Uno. A visit to San Francisco doesn’t count until you’ve been to Candlestick, paraded through the Marina, and seen a nose ring at a street fair in the Haight. City magazines deal in counterfeit uniqueness, parceling out life in some easily merchandisable form—sports team, celebrity, coffee shop. City culture, as understood by the city magazines, is just a decoration—and a remarkably cheap one at that, the contemporary equivalent of those old Empire State Building pencil sharpeners or Space Needle paperweights.
From Boosters to Barkers and Back
Many city magazines trace their origins to the days when they were give-away house organs of local chambers of commerce, charged with promoting business and tourism. They were fairly open about their mission, and fairly transparent as well. But with the rise to prominence of New York in the late 1960s, it wasn’t long before a new, better-educated and wealthier class of Americans came to expect their local magazines to share a more urbane point of view.
Clay Felker, who launched New York in 1968, tried to “recreate the atmosphere of an upscale dinner party,” echoing what the city’s “well-informed” citizens felt about real estate, art, and culture. He realized that since “one of the major activities of people was being consumers” he would also run “endless lists of what’s the best this and what’s the best that.” New York’s pages, filled with the ins and outs of the urban hip, became an instant success with the urban upper-middle class, and a favorite among advertisers in the local retail and restaurant communities. Identical magazines soon flourished in over eighty cities.
But New York sought to be more than just a listings book with ‘tude: it was something of a journalistic success as well. The showplace of such authors as Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, and Jimmy Breslin, it introduced such highly regarded neologisms as radical chic, the me decade, couch potato, downwardly mobile, and the brat pack, all while delivering the phone numbers and credit card policies of the city’s more expensive restaurants. Felker’s magazines published award winning articles as well. His California magazine broke the story of Jim Jones cult in 1972, even though the cover of that issue featured a fashion shoot by Annie Leibovitz. At least they had their priorities straight.
City magazines bloated successfully through the eighties, until at one point in late 1987 even the culturally bereft city of Chicago boasted three such publications. But then newspaper editors began to wise up, transforming once-droll “Society Pages” to more accessible “Style” sections replete with local celebrity gossip and in-depth looks at local retailers. “Alternative” weeklies constructed along the lines of the Village Voice hit even harder, grabbing advertisers by providing them with shiny little plaques proclaiming them “Best of” purveyors of everything from cole slaw to condoms. The importance of these coveted awards was quickly apparent: they determined which burrito stand moneyed suburbanites would dare to “discover” and could even break businesses that failed to advertise. Having succeeded in becoming the most mimicked form of local media, city magazines were fast becoming irrelevant to readers who could find their trademark civic detritis elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the retail recession that ruined Macy’s reverberated through the glossies. Once fat with ads, the city mags thinned, causing them to lose the credibility associated with being as thick and perfumed as their national brethren. In the early nineties, most city magazines found themselves on the verge of extinction, in need of a radical plan.
Never much concerned with the concept of the “editorial wall” between ads and content, city magazines became ever more aggressive in their service to advertisers. By using such pioneering concepts as the “special advertising section” city magazines invited advertisers to help plan the copy. Result? One magazine’s recent look at cosmetic surgery was bordered by ads of smiling plastic surgeons, offering to enhance your appearance. Phoenix magazine has turned its ad sales around by creating “exciting new marketing opportunities for business,” putting its writers to work attracting lucrative corporate-sponsored expositions to the city. South Florida magazine printed recipes and profiles of local chefs and saw an increase in ad pages from restauranteurs. One San Francisco magazine was especially creative: it bribed hotel concierges with silk ties to get them to recommend advertisers’ stores to tourists.
To give editorial a tweak, city magazines became “more provocative,” offering extended pieces on famous local murders and sex scandals, letting readers know that their town was home to decadence on a par with anyone’s. A Washingtonian cover story accomplished this goal so effectively it was cited as the country’s best piece of investigative work by a regional magazine. Its shocking conclusion: teenagers in the DC suburbs were partying at home when their parents were out of town.
The combined effect of the two strategies is intoxicating: the reader is reminded at every turn of the daring, exciting lifestyles enjoyed by their neighbors, and of the daring, exciting products available here and here only. Call it hyper-boosterism, a trait which is especially noticeable in magazines that are actually read outside their city of origin. Los Angeles’s Buzz, the avatar of this new form of journalism, seems to believe its blend of celebrity worship, postmodern layout, and silly cut-size will make it fly on a national level, and has invested heavily in a direct-mail campaign aimed at the readers of national lifestyle magazines.
Maybe the particularly egregious way it has of glorifying the Los Angeles’s artistic pretensions will allow Buzz to succeed. One of its columnists compared the flowering of talent at the magazine to “a kind of literary Bloomsbury” (sic!). “We’re outrageous,” she continued, describing writers’ lunches at hip eateries. “It’s like, we’re the funniest, smartest women in town. I wish somebody would tape us.” With this incredibly brilliant staff, editor Allen Mayer hopes the magazine will “help set an intellectual agenda” for Southern California.
“New Yorkers realize that you don’t pee in your own tent, while our [Los Angeles] media seems to specialize in it.”
In setting that agenda, they’ve made some strange choices. Almost every one of their covers in the past five years has featured a movie star. This year, they found themselves embroiled in an escalating game of civic one-upmanship the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Chicago built the Sears Tower. In February Buzz proclaimed the nineties the “L.A. Decade” (“center stage to the ultimate fin de siècle experience”), compared the city to Vienna a century ago, and equated Steven Spielberg with Gustav Mahler. Another article in that issue declared that a restaurant “was not only the best deli in Los Angeles; it’s better than just about any deli in New York.” But New York fired back with an issue entitled “Good-bye LA; Hello, NYC,” where it revealed that, along with a number of other celebrities, none other than Steven “Gustav Mahler” Spielberg was moving to New York.
An enraged Buzz didn’t take kindly to that suggestion, and commissioned a ten page feature disputing the claim that New York was “back” and listing the different ways Los Angeles kicks New York’s ass (better ghettos, more multimedia/interactive, and softer recessions). As a coda to the article, author Joel Kotkin dresses down other Los Angeles journalists less jingoistic than he: “New Yorkers realize that you don’t pee in your own tent, while our [Los Angeles] media seems to specialize in it.”
City in Case
But such public battles aren’t needed to boost the sales of most city magazines. With most of the weaker titles eliminated, times are good. The City and Regional Magazine Association boasts sixty members, more than it had in the category’s late eighties heydey. Chicago magazine was recently purchased by K-III (owned by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, bottom-liners not known for their charity work) for over seven times earnings, a handsome price for a flailing monthly. Hyper-boosterism, it seems, is profitable stuff: these magazines’ affluent readers are willing to pay a stiff cover price for their reading and are therefore much sought-after by advertisers.
Making no secret of whom they serve, city magazines are free to focus less and less on the cities they are named after. One magazine’s “best of” list includes fifty restaurants that are in the suburbs. A recent Washingtonian magazine cover story compares the lifestyle available in Virginia to what one can find in Maryland, the implicit message being that no Washingtonian readers would consider living in the actual city. In fact, in the last two years, only two covers of that magazine have been graced by African Americans—an amazing feat in a city which is over 70 percent black.
With the hyper-boosterism, the craven concessions to advertisers, and the soft-cycled PR feed that makes up their version of lifestyle journalism, city magazines cater to a vision of urban life that is becoming increasingly commonplace among the affluent. Cities are consumer products, exciting lifestyle-amusement parks that come complete with marketing campaigns and brand images. Like all good products, they compete with one another for the patronage of wealthy customers and the relocation of corporations. City magazines speak openly to the often-covert forces and desires that, whether we like it or not, are transforming our cities into places of wholesomely daring recreation for one class and cesspools of neglect and degradation for everyone else.