What makes a city crappy

I just returned from a three-day stint in Paris which is less than three hours away from London on the Eurostar. Taking the train is so much more convenient than flying and you avoid the hassle of checking in xx hours in advance and paying the same amount of money for travelling to the airports as you spend travelling between them.

Needless to say, Paris is a beautiful city, but what is it that makes a city stand out?

Of course, there are the monuments, the people, the language and the history, but there are a couple of mundane indicators that deserve a mention, too:

Indicator 1: Billboards
There is nothing uglier than billboards! People spend time complaining about graffiti and other ‘disruptive’ elements in the city sphere yet it seems that it is acceptable to ruin public spaces as long as someone makes money on it. Every morning, on my commute to London, I notice the incredibly ugly nature of suburbia with huge ads everywhere. Shiny teeth, cheap flights, and must-have cars simply do not resonate well on the backdrop of run down council estates and litter floating everywhere. I bet there are not many marketing directors living in those areas anyway. This is one of the things I like best about Oxford, you hardly see any billboards.

Indicator 2: Chains
Although the French obviously have a problem or two with arrogance, I would prefer this to the usual treatment in the usual chain in the usual city in the usual country. I hate when I sense that the person taking your order is just the public interface of an industrial unit whose foremost aim it is to satisfy the shareholders, whether it is about making sure that all dishes conform to the tightest of standards, you ‘upgrade’ your meal or buy bottled water (“would you like xx to go with that?”).

Ritzer, an esteemed sociologist, put this incredibly well, in his book, the McDonaldization of Society (1993), when he talked about chains as rationalised systems that practice simulated forms of enchantment. Indeed, the principles guiding the preparation and serving of food ought to differ from that of manufacturing cars.

I remember working at a petrol station once: we actually had a mirror in the back so we could practice smiling (I think I laughed rather than smiled for all the wrong reasons).

Take a stroll down any high street in the UK and you will find nothing but soulless outlets of ghostly corporations, including but not limited to Ask, Zizzi’s, Bella Pasta, Angus Steak House, Nando’s and, of course, all the usual American suspects. Oxford’s recent Castle development takes the prize. Here, the Oxford Castle, which used to be a prison, and its surrounding buildings were converted into a leisure area comprising bars, hotels and restaurants. If you go there for a culinary treat, you might choose any city in Europe instead – it is just the makeup of the conveyor belt that is slightly different. One can only imagine the tremendous, long term impact this must have on Oxford as a brand (“…and then, amidst all the boring colleges and libraries, they had this really cool place called Krispy Kreme!”).

Despite the fact that the French have done a better job at resisting these attempts to homogenise their culture, it almost makes me cry (that was a rhetorical statement) when I see Parisians queuing up inside Starbucks in order to buy an Italian-style Ethiopian caramelised latte with strawberry syrup, frozen chocolate wafers and low-fat blue berry bananas on top (TM). I am equally enthused about Ben & ‘we-are-oh-so-ethical’ Jerry’s putting up franchises to compete with the local crepe outlets.

What the market wants is what you get, libertarians would argue – the market was never a neutral mechanism, never will be and should not be treated as such, I would respond.

Show me a city that does not conform to any of these standards and I shall put it in a favourable position on my where-to-settle-in-the-future list.

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