It takes some real imagination to recall this today, but there was a time, starting about a century ago during the Gilded Age, when Detroit was known with a straight face as "The Paris of the Midwest." Really boastful natives even left off the Mid- and called it simply "The Paris of the West."
That historical trivia was repeatedly trotted out in stories during the recession about the city’s decline. Look how the one-time "Paris of the Midwest" had fallen! Among the more optimistic – especially, as Chris Reade recalls, after that Eminen Super Bowl Ad – some locals even began to wonder if Detroit could become Paris-like again.
The metaphor got Reade thinking about the identities of place and that ubiquitous formula, "X is the Y of Z." Reade is a Detroit native himself and a computer developer. As he realized, we're kind of addicted to such analogies. Twitter is littered every day with people chuckling at their own smart insights about how "Duluth is the San Francisco of Minnesota," or "Macon is the Afghanistan of Georgia," or "Chattanooga is the Cleveland of the Southeast."
We’re not sure what this habit says about us, but Reade has built a brilliant website cataloging all of these "metrophors" on a navigable map of the world (it’s best viewed on Chrome or Safari).
"There certainly are some weird ones," says Reade, who now works for a consulting firm out of Chicago (which is kind of like the Gary, Indiana, of Illinois). "It’s made me doubt the general Twitter population’s grasp on geography a little bit."
Some of the sentiments are so weird they're endearing (Canada is the Japan of bagels? America is the Philadelphia of the world?).
"For some of them, I think people do probably have a rationale that’s just personal to them for what they were thinking about at the time," Reade says. "I think that's why Titter ends up being such a great data source. It is so quick, whatever you’re thinking you don’t have to put a lot of thought into publishing it."
Reade built the site using a Yahoo! tool called Placemaker, which is able to identify and geographically index place names in a block of text. He uses it to troll Twitter for metaphors in a format like "Paris is the… of" or "is the Paris of…" Once Paris is compared to Detroit, Detroit gets sucked into the search, too. In that way, the tool is constantly expanding and now searches for about 1,200 place names all over the world. New contributions appear on Reade's site about every two days.
No longer compared to Paris much, Detroit is a popular point of comparison for other places. Compton, too.
"The other thing that surprises me is that people are not very nice with this," Reade says. "For the most part, it’s negative things."
Dubai also gets thrown around a lot, which could be positive or negative depending on your point of view. Same with Portland and Austin. As a sociological exercise, there's something to be said for the way Reade's whimsical site reflects how we think about the meaning of place. "Compton" quickly becomes the shortest way to say that somewhere is dangerous, or "Portland" that it’s got bikes and vegetarians and wheat-grass bars. The most frequently cited places essentially have the strongest identities. And that makes them more difficult to analogize themselves.
Sure, a lot of places are like Las Vegas (or wish they were). But what do you say about Vegas itself?
Las Vegas is the Blackpool of America. Such a lot of slags and flashing lights.— Kingsley_etc (@Kingsley_etc) September 16, 2012
So true, right?
"I’ve never actually done this," Reade says, "but the buttons are on there so you could in theory ask someone what they’re talking about."