4 Cities That Define America

by Nate St. Pierre on December 6, 2012

Yesterday NASA released new hi-res, night-sky images of Earth. The collection is called Black Marble – City Lights 2012; you should check it out.

While looking at the image of the United States, it struck me again, as it always does, at just how much power and influence is concentrated in such small areas. I’ve traveled all over this country, and one stereotype I’ve found to be true is that most people from the coasts know the coasts, and don’t really know much about what’s “in the middle,” which is the lumped-in term I’ve heard used for the Midwest, the South, the West, the Mountain States, and even the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve marked up one of the maps to illustrate (click to enlarge).

When people talk about the East Coast and West Coast, they’re usually not talking about literally all the cities along those coasts (even though they may not know it). They’re actually talking about an idea, a certain way of life and thinking. And that’s exactly why these four cities are so powerful, which we’ll get to in a minute. But first, let’s define the areas:

– East Coast (basically the northeast coastal cities): Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C.

– West Coast (basically the California coastal cities): San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, sometimes San Diego

– The Middle: everything else

You’ll see the areas above outlined in gray on the map. Within those outlines, you’ll also see the specific pockets of greatest power and influence in red. These are:

Technology: San Francisco Bay Area
Entertainment: Los Angeles
Media: New York City
Politics: Washington D.C.

These are the four cities that define America. And when I say “define,” I’m not talking about four places that are truly representational of how we as a country live. They are a big part of the way we live, but they’re not the only way. I’m certainly not downplaying or attacking these cities – they are some of the best things this country has to offer, and they help make up who we are as a nation. I do need to point out, however, that they wield an extraordinary amount of influence over the way that we see ourselves, and the way the world sees us.

These four cities define America because they define perceptions of culture. It’s true that the culture of a place like New York City is vastly different than Wichita, Kansas, and neither is “right” or “wrong” . . . but only one of those places gets to showcase their worldview on TV for everyone to see. Think about what that means for a minute.

When you think of any place in the world, of course you think about the geographical landscape, but what if you’ve never lived there, or spent any appreciable time there? More importantly, you form an idea of a place, and that idea is shaped first by your own experience, and if that’s limited, it’s shaped by things you’ve seen, heard, or “know” about that place.

So for the majority of Americans and the rest of the world, the idea of America is shaped by what we can see, hear and “know,” gathered through external sources. And for the United States of America, those sources are people and organizations that live the majority of their lives on the East Coast or West Coast, and most likely inside those four small pockets of influence in their respective fields.

And that’s why New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area get to define America.

It’s not good or bad, but it is what it is, and we would be wise to consider the source. After all, take a look at the map again. There’s a whooooole lot of different ways of life being lived outside those little red circles.

Agree? Disagree? Discussion welcome.

  • Financial Black Sheep

    My perception of each area of the United States is based on time zones, geography and history, unless I was able to see the area in person. I don’t see why anything needs to be described through a political or stereotypical way, especially from a stand-point based on Television. Why is it that only four cities describe the United States, when our whole country is based on diversity and culture and not just four cities?

    • Maybe if you read J$’s comment above, it’ll help clarify what I’m talking about a bit more? I’m not saying that those four cities *literally* describe the United States, but they are the ones that provide the input that the rest of us use to form our opinions of areas that we don’t personally know.

      I don’t know where you live, but when you think of Texas, what do you think of? If you’re telling me that visions of cowboys and drawls and ten-gallon hats and big hair and oil money and cattle and all manner of other things didn’t pop in, I’m not sure I’d believe you.

      And the fact is that all those things do exist in Texas (and also other places around the country, too), but the WAY you think about them, and the images associated, and the proportions to which each occur, and to some extent your perception of these things, have all been influenced by media and entertainment and politics (in this particular example). It’s just a fact of life.

      So my point is that whether we like it or not, or whether it’s fair or not, this is the way things work. And what does that mean for us? I’m not giving the answer, more so just asking the question.

  • J. Money

    Totally agree – and we (as in Americans on either coasts or the “middle” ;)) do the same with other countries too. Paris? Oh – that’s the Eiffel Tower. And cafes – do they have grass? Australia? Kangaroos. That’s all that’s there, kangaroos and Crocodile Dundee. They all live on an island that may or may not be big, I’m not sure. How many Kangaroos are there?

    Haha… basically all people have certain skewed views of all types of places depending on what we learn growing up and in our surroundings/media/etc.. The only way to *really* understand a culture is to go traveling the world or spending the time to research/etc. All super fun things to do, but usually only done sparingly.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go look up Chicago. I heard it was a pretty cool little town? 😉

    • J$, you managed to capture my point exactly. And now I’m wondering if Paris has grass…

      Also it was funny when you came to visit 2 winters ago and learned three things:

      1) Chicago is a very big city

      2) There is snow covering the northern Midwest most of the winter (usually), and even a bit of the Great Lakes freeze over

      3) When walking outside in Milwaukee in January, it can be so cold that it hurts to breathe

      Good times, my friend. Good times.

  • Financial Black Sheep

    J. Money is totally right when it comes to stereotypes and the way people generally think.


    I absolutely don’t think of big hats and drawls unless someone points it out. I have a friend from Texas and I think of her mostly (she has no accent and doesn’t wear a hat). I absolutely can’t think that way. I get in trouble all the time for thinking differently than the norm. I will give you my boss and professors’ numbers if you don’t believe me. That is the whole reason I started my black sheep site, because I cannot think like everyone else. I am just not wired that way.

    I get where you are coming from though. Living in Denver has gotten a lot of people asking me if I live in the Mountains. They don’t believe me when I tell them it was upper 60’s and 70’s the whole month of November. I am not arguing with you at all, just explaining that it is a shame to use stereotypes to explain America when there is so much diversity and culture out there.

  • caryn

    Fascinating post. I really enjoyed this, although less to do with Nasa’s release than your point. Regardless, we form stereotypes and generalize about things because it is what we’re told. It isn’t until you actually visit there and experience it for yourself that you truly understand what is out there, and allow yourself to see beyond the stereotype. Bali – you might imagine just a beach, or Africa- starving kids etc. but neither country is defined or limited to only that. People have trouble pushing out of their comfort zone and would rather rely on what they’ve heard than to experience change for themselves.

    • Your last sentence is a very good point, and true the majority of the time. That notwithstanding, even if you have the desire to go everywhere and do everything, you’re certainly very limited in what you can actually do. And for the rest of your perception, you have to rely on the information you gather.

      For you, going to Africa was so cool because you got to actually see and experience life there for a fair amount of time – you didn’t have to rely on anyone painting you a picture, with whatever bias that held. It’d be cool if more of us had the desire (and the ability) to do that kind of thing.

  • no1

    I live in one of the four cities you mentioned, but I don’t see it the way you do. If these four metros had their way the US would be quite a different place. For example, think about attitudes towards drugs, gun control, homosexuality, creationism, and so on. Instead, we are held hostage by the people in the South (especially) and other metros with smaller populations but a lot of political clout. I think a lot of the rest of the country showcases their worldview just fine through outlets like Fox News. The media may be based in NY and LA, but it’s not pushing the political agenda of (or even accurately portraying life in) these places.

  • Isaac

    I know this is about East/West coast, but as far as defining cities, not really sure how you can leave out Chicago and Dallas.

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