Some cities are centers for particular kinds of activity. Such a city subtly sends you a message related to that activity - by the things you see walking down the street, by the snippets of conversation you overhear, and many other ways. A city's message, he argues, comes from the fact that there is something people in that city tend to consistently view as more important than other things, and this attitude is catching. It's a three-way cycle:
- People move to that city because they value what it values above other things, and because it is a center for that activity
- People in that city value that thing because the city is a center for it, and because a lot of them moved there because it was the thing they already valued more
- It is a center for its activity because it is known for it so people move there to do that thing, and because people living there are encouraged to value that thing, which in turn encourages the activity itself
To really know a city's message, Graham says, you probably have to live there for a while. As examples, he gives the paces he has lived, and the messages they send:
- New York City: You should make more money!
Silicon Valley: Be powerful. And start companies.
Berkeley: Live better. Enjoy life.
Boston, especially Cambridge: You could be smarter. Read more, learn more. Develop ideas.
He also gives a stab at interpreting the messages of some places he's been to but hasn't lived in, while acknowledging that he's not sure and that a local might interpret it more accurately. For example, he thinks the message Paris was sending him was "do things in style; appreciate art and beauty". And not all cities send a coherent message, because not all cities are focused in that way.
Where do live? What message is your city sending you?
Have you lived somewhere else that sent a clear message? What was it?
Edit: To clarify, in case you don't click through to read Graham's essay, in his formulation a city's message is both the thing it suggest you should aspire to, and the thing that people generally respect and honor most, and think is cool. So the coolest, most honored & respectable thing you can be in Silicon Valley is someone who started a now-influential company; in Boston, it's a smart person who had a great idea or created something new; in New York, it's being rich.