Nine “Only In…” American Cities

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A couple of weeks ago, I went for a walk around my neighborhood. Over the course of thirty minutes, I passed an elderly Mickey Rooney (yes, the Mickey Rooney) being helped out of a building and into a black SUV, then went to a park where a Mexican teenager and her family were posing for her quinceaƱera photos, not far from the public bathroom where singer George Michael was famously arrested - and outed as gay - then walked past a struggling actor getting his head shots taken as he posed against a palm tree. I thought about this and said to myself, "Only in Los Angeles." For a while, I have been trying to think of other cities in the United States that one could say "Only In..." For the phrase suggests a city with a truly distinct identity and culture, something that's harder to find than you think. Here are the nine cities which I believe deserve the phrase.

  1. Only in Los Angeles. As suggested by my prologue, what makes us unique is obviously our celebrity culture and everything that goes along with it, but LA is also famous for its practically perfect weather; its nearly comical obsession with health, beauty and spiritual enlightenment; its enormous influence over what the world looks at, listens to, and even eats; and - perhaps most prominently, if least discussed - its incredible ethnic diversity.
  2. Only in New York. Many cities have skyscrapers, subways, pizza, and bagels. But not like New York. Along with the Statue of Liberty and Broadway, only the Big Apple's got that speed, that excitement, that cynical attitude, and that open-all-hours energy. Not to mention the richest cultural atmosphere (for art, music, theater, literature, etc.) in the country - possibly the world.
  3. Only in New Orleans. The Crescent City has too many "Only In..." examples to ever to list them all. But let me put it this way: can you name any other city on Earth that has its own cuisine? And certainly there is nowhere else in the country with such a vital musical heritage. Creoles, voodoo, Mardi Gras, Katrina, zydeco, gumbo - there are so many things that are unique to New Orleans, it boggles the mind. It is a legendary, even biblical, town.
  4. Only in Chicago. Although a part of me suspects that there are aspects of Chicago to be found in other notable Midwest cities, such as Milwaukee and Minneapolis, I haven't been to those cities. And anyway, none is as big as Chicago, and the one thing I can say about the Windy City is that it does everything big. The buildings are big (the two tallest in America are here). The pizzas are big. The museums are big. The streets are big. The people are big. It's everything representing the square-shouldered Midwest attitude, only on an operatic scale.
  5. Only in Albuquerque. It seems an odd entry for such a grand list. Humble little Albuquerque? But if you go there, you will see that there is nowhere else like it (nearby Santa Fe has many of the same features, but with a snootier, more tourist-oriented presentation). The kiva style homes that fill the city. Sopapillas. The Balloon Fiesta. "Christmas" sauce (i.e. both red and green salsas). Desert and mountains. Kokopellis and ancient rock carvings. Dried chili ristras. And can you imagine Breaking Bad working quite as well anywhere else?
  6. Only in Austin. In another era, I would have listed San Francisco - but while I still consider it the most beautiful city in America, it had its heyday during the '60s and '70s. Today, aside from its famous landmarks, it is culturally almost indistinguishable from fellow West Coast cities Seattle and Portland (and, on a smaller scale, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Eugene). Austin takes that same hipper-than-thou vibe, plops it down in the sweaty, sun-baked middle of nowhere, then infuses it with trademark Texas friendliness and swagger. None of those Northwest cities has such a continuously relevant music scene. Also, Austin has bats. Lots of bats.
  7. Only in Honolulu. It may be true that the special things found in Honolulu could be found throughout the Hawaiian islands. Leis, luaus, ukuleles... Spam musubi, loco moco, shave ice... "Mele Kalikimaka"... But with Honololu, you're putting all the countless things that make Hawaii unique - not least the native people, their language, their music, and their customs - into a fairly large metropolis (population: nearly 400,000) that also has to function as a state capital.
  8. Only in Las Vegas. This town was manufactured to be America's Sin City, a Pleasure Island in the desert. As such, it was explicitly designed to be an "Only In..." destination. Few can not be fascinated by the garish architecture, the campy live shows, the glittering lights - and of course there are the casinos that fund it all, with the desperate (if exciting) culture they create. No city in America is as sleazy, as purposefully ugly, or as perverse as Las Vegas.
  9. Only in Washington, DC. There are probably other cities I could have ended this list with. (Probably your city, you might be thinking.) But are Houston, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Denver really all that unique? Until I can be convinced otherwise, my final vote goes to the Capitol for reasons which are obvious, but I'll list them anyway: The museums. The monuments. The history. The center of American government and the culture that it creates. (When I went to DC, I felt in some weird way that I was back in Los Angeles, as that city is as dominated by politics as LA is by entertainment. The phrase "politics is show business for ugly people" has a profound resonance here.)