I was among the thousands who fled grimy, dying Pittsburgh decades ago. In recent years, as my hometown topped livability lists and hosted a G-20 summit, I’ve told people, “They waited for me to leave to start cleaning the place up.”
It appears my departure has aided two other urban centers. In the 1990s I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, which with Durham and Chapel Hill forms what locals call the Triangle. This week The Daily Beast named the region the nation’s smartest “city.” Through per-capita counts of college degrees, book sales and other factors, the modish news aggregator also ranked Las Vegas 54th of the 55 place it rated. “A city that prides itself on sin performs predictably for each of our intellectual-based criteria,” sniffed the Beast. I can only assume my leaving Las Vegas lifted it above Fresno, 55th.
I loved living in Raleigh and Las Vegas, and found intellect aplenty in both. The latter lacks the former’s higher-education density, but UNLV gave me a number of friends. The art scene has declined, but it remains a source of lively ferment. The very nature of the city invites high-level inquiry about urban design and social behavior.
Fortune, of “America’s Most Livable Cities” fame, recently published a protest of all such rankings. Urbanist Joel Kotkin says he prefers cities of “ambitious migrants, families and entrepreneurs” to those promising “safety, sanitation or homogeneity.” Or advanced degrees, let’s say. Kotkin finds an urban standard in 17th-century Amsterdam, which Rene Descartes described as “an inventory of the possible.” Whatever its failures, Las Vegas passes that test.