US culture for foreign tourists: about American cities

24 Feb

As I’m back home in the US after a great trip to Budapest, Hungary, I thought I’d do a post about the pros and cons of US cities, and how they differ from cities in other parts of the world (in good and bad ways). So, without further delay, here are some fundamental qualities of US cities that every foreign tourist should know before they visit a US city for the first time. I will do this for other world regions’ cities too.

1. US cities are diverse but segregated

While many of America’s more left-leaning citizens boast that their country’s cities are “melting pots” of many cultures from around the world, the reality is a bit more complex than that. US cities are diverse indeed, and every city has its own unique demographic pie. In many ways, however, the average US city is more of a lumpy stew than a melting pot. The cities are heavily divided among racial, class, and ethnic lines, and people from neighborhoods of very different races and cultures don’t interact so much. This is especially true in the suburban areas. Even the bigger, denser cities, like New York, have a lot of divisions between neighborhoods. It’s just harder to notice these divisions on a crowded subway train full of many types of people, or in a tourist area like Times Square.

2. Most US Cities are car-dependent, although some are improving their public transit options

There are many US cities where if you’re poor, you ride the bus, and if you’re not, you drive. End of story. It’s a very snobby thing rooted in classism. Cities with subways or trams rather than just buses tend to have less of this snobbery, because trains generally attract a more diverse set of riders. The car dependence of many us cities is a result of the mass migration of wealthy (usually white) families out to suburbs that took place in the 1950’s. In these suburbs, there simply wasn’t enough density for people to see much need to keep public transportation a few decades later. Today more American cities, like Denver and Los Angeles, are reviving their tram systems and metro systems, although there is still a long way to go.

3. American cities are modern in some ways, and old-fashioned in others

The cities of America generally have more modern buildings in their centers than those of Europe, but do all these cities have the modern liberal attitudes and public infrastructure that characterizes those quaint European cities? Unfortunately not. Many US cities are sadly deeply divided, and the culture here is generally more conservative and religious than that of western Europe. Even San Francisco, Boston and New York aren’t as left-wing as western Europe. There is more crime, and more paranoia as a result of that crime. There is less of a welfare system. There isn’t as much tolerance, and people live more insular lives.

4. It’s not all ugly, make sure to still visit US cities!

Not everything about US cities is bad. US cities generally have a lot of interesting diversity, a good amount of international cuisine, a somewhat prosperous feel in the nicer areas, and some very interesting attractions. The museums in New York are great, as are the ones in San Francisco and Chicago. The best cities to visit are Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Miami, New Orleans, Savannah, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

5. Crime is less of a concern now than in the 1980’s

While it’s true that places like Detroit, and certain parts of many other cities are definitely places to stay away from, crime in US cities has gone down for the most part, and it’s good news for travelers. From my experience, I’ve felt pretty safe in most major US cities, and crime rates have gone way down in places like New York. The peak of crime was the 1980’s. Thankfully we are now living in a less violent time in America.

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