CityLab is shopping for real estate in made-up places.
In his 2008 book, CityLab co-founder Richard Florida asks: Who’s Your City? He called the choice of where to live “the most important decision of your life.” Here’s a follow-up question with far lower stakes: What fictional city would you live in?
The terms: What place described in fiction—be it a novel, a movie, a TV show, a pop song, a video game, or some other artistic endeavor—would you totally relocate to, for reasons of professional advancement, personal fulfillment, or sheer curiosity?
Please note: You’re not a tourist. You gotta eat, sleep, live, work, and raise your kids there. So think about all the real things that this made-up place needs to provide you and your family. What are the schools like in downtown Arrakeen? What’s the walkability score of Macondo? Are the property taxes in Stepford through the roof? (They gotta be, right?) Can you find a decent apartment in Funkytown? (Lipps Inc. is frustratingly vague on the details.)
Also note: You can also pick a real place, as it appears in a fictional work—say Hemingway’s Paris, or the New Orleans of A Confederacy of Dunces, both of which I pondered.
But, really, this choice didn’t take long for me. The only logical answer is Twin Peaks, Washington. Perhaps it’s just the nostalgia-fog that is rolling in like the mists of the Pacific Northwest in advance of the show’s Showtime reboot, but the eponymous hamlet of David Lynch’s early-’90s TV series has never seemed like a more appealing place to relocate.
Here’s an exchange that captures Twin Peaks’s branding success: Judge Clinton Sternwood, played by the veteran character actor Royal Dano, is meeting Special Agent Dale Cooper for the first time on a rainy night.
Sternwood: Mr. Cooper, how do you find our little corner of this world?
Cooper: Heaven, sir.
Sternwood: Well, this week, Heaven includes arson, multiple homicides, and an attempt on the life of a federal agent.
Cooper: Heaven is a large and interesting place, sir.
Twin Peaks appeared to be a very small town (the sign declaring the population as 51,201 was a typo, according to show lore) but, unlike actual small towns, it boasted a limitless supply of fascinating characters and attractions. You could go down to the Roadhouse and catch a live set from supercool dream-pop chanteuse Julee Cruise. You could dine in knotty-pine style in the Timber Room at the Great Northern Lodge, or enjoy the famously exemplary pastries and hot beverages at the Double R Cafe.
Or you could just get on your Harley and roar around the drizzly countryside, looking for mysteries.
Twin Peaks even seemed to have some manner of downtown shopping district—remember when Audrey Horne briefly worked at her creepy dad’s department store, selling perfume to older ladies in white gloves, just like some 1950s fantasia? Lynch blended past and present to build his TV town, and the allure of that mix is undiminished. In fact, it’s even richer. Watching the show now offers me a curious double-shot of nested yearning—a Gen-Xer seeing an old man’s funhouse-mirror vision of ‘50s Americana, as performed by beautiful young people.
When I was just out of the college, during the peak “Twin Peaks” years of 1990-1991, my pal Tim and I steered our post-grad transcontinental road trip over to Snoqualmie Falls, the little town 30 minutes outside of Seattle that provided many of the exteriors for the show. We gazed at the famous waterfall, got Big Ed Burgers at a local eatery trying to capitalize on the cult fandom of the series, and tried to imagine inhabiting its world. It didn’t really work; real life is too loud and ugly and bright, compared to that sleepy, synth-swaddled TV dreamscape.
Twin Peaks is hardly a perfect town, beginning with the fact that there’s an evil force there, bent on raping and killing teenage girls. Seeing the 1990 show in 2017, one is also struck by its lack of racial and ethnic diversity. Eventually, I suppose I’d get tired of going to the Double R and the Roadhouse every weekend. And the place has a serious backwards-talking dwarf problem. But maybe that will keep the housing prices in check and the gentrifiers away; every city has its problems. “Life is hard,” as Judge Sternwood says. “Still, it’s harder in most places than in Twin Peaks.”
The Grinch hated Christmas, as that well-known Dr. Seuss story goes, and nobody quite knew why. But I do. He wanted to live in, not outside of, Whoville.
For 50 years, the Grinch watched the Whos from his cold, isolated cave in the inner-ring suburbs north of town. He saw them stroll in the walkable streets, enjoy their warm, cozy rowhouses, and frolic in well-lit public spaces, with their toddlers and pets in tow. Design-wise, Whoville was made up of a single high-density, low-height, mixed-use neighborhood. It was like a pedestrian-friendly cul-de-sac, and offered a safe, sustainable, and socially cohesive community. Who wouldn’t want to live there?
But that kind of living comes at a premium—the Grinch had learned that the hard way. He’d been a resident of Whoville back when the parks were a bit scruffy and housing was dilapidated. But it had been affordable, and the only home he had known. And then the Whos arrived. The potholes were promptly fixed and the park sparkled. Quaint cafés started opening up. But the rents also started rising. And the Grinch, who couldn’t even afford the right sized shoes, was priced out. That’s why he decided to steal Christmas. (The Grinch tended to vote Democrat, so his War on Christmas, some would say, was inevitable.)
He eventually ended up giving all the things back because he was an introspective guy. But it was only when finally got a seat a the table—when woke little Cindy-Lou Who invited him to share in the town’s newfound prosperity—that Whoville truly became an inclusive city.
For ‘90s kids who were raised by Nickelodeon, cartoons were all about the suburbs. From the inoffensive staples like “Doug” and “Rugrats” to the weird gems like “Rocko’s Modern Life” and “Angry Beavers,” the detached single-family home was the universal establishing shot. Then came “Hey Arnold,” breaking all the rules. The original TV hipster just happened to have the coolest urban life you’d ever seen (his bedroom had rooftop access!). Beyond Arnold’s crowded boarding house was Hillwood, a dense, unpolished, diverse, and eminently livable city that promised its viewers—especially kids in the suburbs—that life in the big city had everything you’d ever want.
If you’re like me, you’ve always thought Hillwood was just a cartoon version of New York City, and the brownstones, towers, bridges, taxis, and subways support that. But don’t be fooled: This is so much more than a concrete jungle. Look for the right clues and you’ll notice that it’s really an amalgamation of Brooklyn, Seattle, and Portland (and one that’s probably located in Washington State). That explains all the easy access to adventures in urban and natural settings alike, whether it’s daringly taking a bus to the end of the line, exploring an old train station, taking a road trip across the West, or escaping to the densely forested island in the river.
Sure, things aren’t perfect in Hillwood, but when something goes wrong, the strength of the community really shines through. Teachers’ strike at P.S. 118? When the kids realize it’ll cut into their summer vacation, they take it upon themselves to broker a compromise between teachers and the administration. Subway breaks down? The passengers’ panic gives way to everyone holding hands and singing a song.
And then there’s the time the city pulled off a spectacular feat to make a kid’s dream come true. When light pollution threatens to drown out a comet that only appears once every 70 years, Arnold and his BFF Gerald launch a grassroots campaign to darken the night sky. It’s a nailbiter, but at the last minute, the people of Hillwood heed the call, turning out their lights as Sally’s Comet flies by overhead. It’s a place where anything is possible because of its built environment, its natural one, and the people who live there. How could you say no to a city like that?
I'm all about the cities of the future, but in fictitious worlds, they often either appear dystopian or are set in a time period so far away that nothing is recognizable. So the city of San Fransokyo in Disney's cutesy superhero movie Big Hero 6, apparently set just a hundred-some years from now, is a welcome take. It's a fantasy-land for urban and tech nerds alike, combining the easygoing charm of San Francisco with the energetic, high-tech allure of Tokyo, without foregoing their traditional architectural gems. Cherry blossom trees and rowhouses line the neighborhoods, connected by a trolley line. Paper lanterns dot the store fronts of downtown. And Japan's Torii gates give the Golden Gate Bridge a pinch of Eastern flair.
Judging by the clear, blue skies, I can only assume that San Fransokyians have accomplished the very thing our current world is striving for: curbing climate change. San Fransokyo has embraced renewable energy, using floating wind turbines to power the city. They've also got this public transit thing down, with options to travel by cable car, by high-speed rail, or by boat. Though it appears cars are still in abundance—perhaps they're zero-emission?
The 19th-century vegetarian proselytizer Henry Clubb dreamt of a utopia where acolytes could dispense of meat-eating's spiritual evil. From the plains of eastern Kansas, he called on his hundreds of East Coast followers, promising a futuristic cluster of eight-sided stone villages designed, he said, for optimal light infiltration.
"Hasten, you lovers of carrots, you eaters of unbolted grain!" he said. If you just sent some cash, "Octagon City" could be yours to inhabit.
Living on veggie bowls in a geometric compound, armed with frontier amenities and unflappable self-righteousness: sounds like the #vanlife of the 19th century, except instead of Instagram you'd broadcast adventures via newspaper screed and never check your makeup. Sign me up!
Sadly, Octagon City proved more of an OG Fyre Festival. Settlers arrived in 1856 to find infertile soil, rampant mosquitoes, and a damp log cabin. The freaking sawmill hadn't even arrived. A few pitched tents—"some of cloth and green bark just peeled from the trees," according to one account—but the city slickers, including Clubb, could not adapt, even when the country's spiritual fate was at stake. Most fled back to New York or succumbed to disease within a year. An idea before its time? Most definitely. Just Venmo me $15K—I know a good spot in the Exumas.
As a child, I devoured L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. The best-known, 1900’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was his first and served as the inspiration for the 1939 film starring Judy Garland, as well as 1978’s The Wiz. Fourteen more books followed. By the second, the wicked witches are all dead and Ozma—half-girl, half-fairy—has regained her place as Oz’s rightful ruler. And nowhere sounded better to nine-year-old me than the Emerald City and its environs under Ozma’s rule. Take this description from 1910’s The Emerald City of Oz, the sixth in the series:
No disease of any sort was known among the Ozites…There were no poor people in the Land of Oz, because there was no such thing as money…Each person was given freely by his neighbors whatever he required for his use…Each man or woman, no matter what he or she produced for the good of the community, was supplied by the neighbors with food and clothing and a house and furniture and ornaments and games.
I still want to live there, but my adult self is suspicious. Could the Emerald City in fact be the embodiment of gentrification and the urban-rural divide, where only the very privileged live, while others must inhabit what Baum described as “not-so-pleasant” places far from the metropolis? While others have delved into the dark side of the Emerald City, I might have to put on some of the Wizard’s reality-warping green-tinted eyeglasses and look away.
When Cao Fei debuted RMB City in 2007, it stood out as novel: Her video involved Second Life, yet somehow, it wasn’t stupid-pointless. Ten years later, everyone’s long since moved on from whatever that whole thing was, but RMB City still shines as a video artwork. The artist captured a moment in time when China’s hyper-development was only just coming into global view. The Beijing 2008 Summer Games were still a year off, but Herzog & de Meuron’s famous Bird’s Nest Stadium makes an appearance in RMB City; so does Rem Koolhaas’s puzzle-shaped CCTV Headquarters building, which dangles from a crane. The video depicts a twee jumble of symbols for China both old (pandas and temples) and new (pollution and missile defense), but more importantly, RMB City represents an early achievement in planning-as-video-game. Some of China’s insta-cities look like they were designed in much the same way.
Live in RMB City? People did for years. The city elected five different mayors, the last of them an amazon named Supernova Sibilant. An opera created in RMB City toured IRL. The last dispatch from the city’s official blog came in 2011, a protest of some kind: “Fair Pay for Deity!” Maybe the city failed to meet Deity’s demands.
“Sesame Street” saw New York as an urban paradise in 1969—long before the back-to-the-city movement came into vogue (or before the show moved on up to pay-cable HBO). And it is practically NYC, but all of the math is a lot easier and the alphabet gets told through street signs.
If you want to make a case for “Sesame Street” being the original purveyors of the creative class, look no further than their list of musical guests. If you want a model for how to fight against neighborhood displacement, look no further than when Maria stands up to Ronald Grump when he swindles Oscar the Grouch from his prime spot to build a trash can high-rise called Grump Tower. Big Bird saw the rural-urban divide coming, fictionally and in real life, long before we all started musing about the Big Sort.
Most importantly, the adventures of Elmo, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, and all the other characters around the block showed kids cities as places of kindness that welcome people with an open spirit and invite children to play and explore the streets with a feeling of freedom. I’m eagerly awaiting an upcoming documentary this year called Street Gang—based on the book chronicling the history of “Sesame Street”—to learn more about how cities shaped the humanism of Jim Henson’s puppeteering (and also how one of the show’s producers, Joan Ganz Cooney, went from producing documentaries on poverty as a journalist to seeing television as a way to fix it by teaching children). The line between fiction and reality became a simple as taking your imagination and applying to world in front of you with a sense of wonder.
Los Angeles (Blade Runner version)
Okay, so Ridley Scott’s dystopian vision of a future L.A. might not be the most obviously appealing fantasy city. Blade Runner’s host city is usually shown in darkness, pummeled by rain and wracked by violence. Look more closely, however, and you’ll notice an exciting, liberating city thriving in the murk. Scott’s Los Angeles is a thrillingly diverse, polyglot place that’s full of excitement and stunning architecture. Citizens come from across the universe—the visual impression the city gives is as much East Asian as American—and the densely built, neon-lit metropolis seems to have a rollicking social life, offering plenty of good street food and populated with self-consciously hip bars packed with ludicrously dressed fashion victims. Transit spotters will note that the city has even found a way to lessen congestion by transferring much traffic to airborne, apparently exhaust-free people carriers and cars that emit not fumes, but vapor.
This isn’t the future at all, really. Scott’s city comes across as a 1980s suburbanite’s nightmare vision of contemporary New York, viewed with mixed fear, fascination, and longing from behind the proverbial picket fence. It’s partly intended to repel, but the city offers some of the few chances of freedom available in Blade Runner’s brutal, oppressive world. The city may be an updated knock-off of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but at least it’s one where the underlings get to have a little fun. When the film’s replicants manage to escape from hellish exploitation in the Off-world Colonies, it’s the city that offers them cover and a playground as they seek out their creators. The movie’s child-like genius J F Sebastian is able to rent out an entire ornate building downtown (Los Angeles’ Bradbury Building, playing itself) and run it to the ground, essentially undisturbed. And even if the city’s overlords are malevolent, they have the good taste to live in Lloyd Wright’s stunning John Sowden House, rather than some fictionalized version of the Trump Tower, which opened the year after the film reached theaters.
The film’s themes are dark, of course—not least the fears that the urban exploited (as represented by the replicants) may be out to both seduce and attack their oppressors. Still, Scott’s barbed take on Los Angeles is one of the most seductive celebrations of the 1980s megacity out there. I’d move in tomorrow.
Kentucky Route Zero
Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click computer game influenced by the work of Southern gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and David Lynch.
The search for the mysterious, subterranean passageway begins at a darkened gas station, with a dog in an old straw hat. “Both have seen better days,” reads the text describing the dog and the hat. The attendant is a blind man named Joseph sitting in an armchair, and you are Conway, a tall, slim trucker with a loping gait and a shearling coat, looking to make a delivery to Dogwood Drive—a place you can only reach via Kentucky Route Zero.
Laura Hudson, writing for Slate, described traveling through the world of Kentucky Route Zero this way:
“A surreal, melancholy journey through the crumbling dream of a lost America. Not the mythical, rose-colored American past popularly championed by would-be demagogues and wistful racists, but the crushing and very contemporary realities of debt and displacement that have left countless ordinary people falling through the cracks of the American Dream.”
The game doesn’t romanticize decay, hardship, or country life, nor does it employ tired stereotypes. Ordinary people speak like ordinary people, and sometimes like poets. The game contemplates space and human engagement with it: there’s a “Table of Psychogeographical Anxieties/Address Correlations” and a “Trust for Imagined Architecture.” And though the world is hard and poor, it is startlingly, inescapably beautiful. A tall black oak burning on a hill, the blind gas station attendant’s description of the sunset he can feel on his neck, and even the lonely highway. KRZ is concerned with work, change, debt, and dealing with them, with transience and rootedness, and relationships formed between strangers drifting by. It’s slow and dark and lovely. If I were choosing a fictional world for a fun vacation, I’d take the fantastical architecture and cotton candy clouds of Winsor McCay and Little Nemo’s Slumberland. But the world of KRZ has more to teach about living in this one. —Natasha Balwit
What’s your favorite fictional city? Tell us in the comments.