The Unbearable Sameness of Cities

What my journey across the United States taught me about indie cafés and Ikea lights.

Photo: Andrea K. Gingerich/Getty Images
Photo: Andrea K. Gingerich/Getty Images
Photo: Andrea K. Gingerich/Getty Images

The light fixtures were what tipped me off. You know the ones I’m talking about — you see them every time you go to Ikea, coolly geometric, and every time, you wonder if they’re worth the effort of getting them installed in your ceiling. (They’re not.)

I was in a non-chain coffee shop in Columbia, South Carolina. I was on a mission to the cities and towns closest to the geographic center of each state, and this was only stop No. 6 of 50, but I remembered seeing the same lights in coffee shops in Bend and Portland in Oregon, and innumerable others I had frequented while living in New York and the Chicago area.

This one small observation opened up the floodgates. I noticed the same kind of person was behind the counter: young and tattooed and bespectacled. The same kind of patrons: young and tattooed and bespectacled, clacking away on MacBooks. (Full disclosure: Your correspondent is young and tattooed and bespectacled, clacking away on a MacBook.) The WiFi passwords were all some cutesy variation on “coffee culture”: !Java!, TheGreatBambeano, that sort of thing.

I couldn’t stop noticing. I’d go on to see the same in Colorado Springs, in Fresno, in Indianapolis, in Oklahoma City, in Nashville.

And it wasn’t just the coffee shops — bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar. Every time I walked into one of these places, my body would give an involuntary shudder. I would read over my notes for a city I’d visited months prior and find that several of my observations could apply easily to the one I was currently in.

The establishments weren’t chains, though some were clearly spawned from the same local owner. Why did they all seem plucked from some gentrifying corner of Brooklyn? Why did so many cities I visited feel so damn similar?

Photo: Franziska & Tom Werner/Getty Images

Think for a second about an atom. You’re probably picturing a nucleus of a couple protons and neutrons, two-three electrons orbiting around. The more physics-minded may be envisioning a model where the electrons are really a probability cloud stippled around the nucleus. Either one’s fine. The number of electrons bouncing around varies, as does the size of the nucleus, but the structure remains the same.

Just as the essential structure of the atom is prescribed by nature, so, too, are there only so many ways to lay out a city, it seems, and most of them, weirdly, feel like atoms. Even in cities that sprawl, like Indianapolis or Oklahoma City or Little Rock, you’ve got your downtown nucleus, your gentrifying neighborhoods orbiting close to the center — artist and queer quarters — fading into outer circles of chains and strip malls and body shops constricted by the interstates.

If the city isn’t a state capital, it’s at least got a central courthouse and large administrative complex or college around which you’ll find coffee shops and sushi joints and higher-end bars for the after-work crowd willing to shell out $12 for some locally themed cocktail like “the Neighborhood” (that’s at the Fix Burger Bar in Worcester, Massachusetts).

Oh, and breweries. Thousands of breweries, springing up in recent years like mushrooms after a rain. These are not limited to cities of a certain size: The number of smaller towns — like Prineville, Oregon, population around 9,000 and home to two microbreweries — that have seen beer culture give them a second wind after the death of industry is staggering. “Everyone needs a place to drink,” went the common refrain. So what if most of these customers are newcomers brought in by invading tech companies like Facebook or Apple, who are looking to squeeze tax incentives out of municipalities in exchange for bringing in some construction jobs for data centers?

We’re just getting started. In every single city mid-size and above you’ll also find:

The barbecue place with lacquered-wooden tables that repel sauce, creating an atmosphere that is content to evoke the feeling of a roadside joint that roasts its hogs whole in a real pit for 12 hours, without actually providing that feeling in full.

The Asian-fusion restaurant that is either owned by one of the Vietnamese families who came to America after the Vietnam War, and therefore reasonably authentic, or promises sushi made by someone who just really loves Japanese culture, man.

The American bistro or brasserie whose innards can invariably be described as “steampunk by way of West Elm.”

The brunch place that plies you with the same mimosas and pickle-tinged Bloody Marys, with the same menu of dressed-up, oversauced leftovers of every brunch place. Eggs-whatever. Bourbon bacon. Avocado everywhere. Truffle fries? De rigeur.

Public murals that dare you to pass them without posing for a pic for the ‘gram.

Even the dive bars can blur together when you’ve been to enough of them. Zack’s Place in Little Rock, Arkansas, is not so different from the Whiskey Dix in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is not so different from Taps in Syracuse, New York, is not so different from the 5 Points Saloon in Columbia, South Carolina. Dark wood, Christmas lights, college insignia, and/or anti-authority bumper stickers plastered all over the place (union decals in the Northeast, specifically), chicken wings of varying quality, smoking still allowed in some and the smell of such lingering where it’s not. All establishments that are perfectly fine places to sulkily drink many beers that cost less than they would at higher-end joints.

There are exceptions. A place like Edna’s in Oklahoma City will feel like a breath of fresh air after all the sameness. Convivial bartenders, dollar bills wallpapered over the ceilings and walls, a truly mixed clientele of fleece-vested bros and retail chicks and stage workers, all downing Lunchboxes by what felt like the dozen, mugs of Coors Light with a shot of amaretto and orange juice dropped in. It tastes as delicious as it sounds disgusting.

A hypothesis: The reason so many of these joints feel harvested from Brooklyn is because they are. Or at least, they all have the same Brooklyn/Silverlake/Lincoln Park aesthetic because that’s what people want. In cities like Pittsburgh or Wenatchee, Washington, children who’ve gone off to seek their fortunes in America’s megalopolises are returning. Some are lured by cheaper costs of living and, in certain cases, more economic opportunity; some are obliged to care for aging parents or other family.

And is it so wrong to want to head to the little gastropub in what was once a bombed-out-looking warehouse, the one that reminds you of your days wandering the streets of Red Hook? Or if you haven’t spent time in one of those formerly hipster enclaves, is it such a crime to want to splurge on a $13 cocktail in a bar that has gone to great lengths to replicate Prohibition-era speakeasies? To treat yourself to a $5 latte at a bespoke coffee joint in your town of 3,500 in the middle of Nebraska?

Perhaps it’s inevitable, this sameness, when you’re taking a broad view of a country in which nearly 326 million people are strewn across 3.8 million square miles. A country which is connected by the light-speed of the internet and hundreds of millions of people looking at Instagram photos of bistros in Nashville, in Los Angeles, in Brooklyn, and going, “I want that.”

I finished my mission in seven months and returned to New York, resettling in Astoria, my home for nine of the ten years I’ve lived here. I have seen the proliferation of juice bars, “independent” coffee shops that share the same exact décor in my own neighborhood. The glassy monstrosities, those luxury condos no one who currently calls this neighborhood home is ever going to be able to afford to live in, have already taken Long Island City and are beginning their march upon my neighborhood. The bars are starting to take on the same flavor: trivia, free popcorn, local beers on tap, “quirky” decorations.

There’s no solution to the problem of this soul-dissipating uniformity, if problem is even the correct description. Yet you’ll still feel, walking into that cozy-looking bistro in Utica, a tugging in your gut, a whisper in the back of your mind that this somehow is all too familiar. Maybe you’ll shrug it off as déjà vu. But you’ll know different, deep in your soul: You’ve seen those fucking lights at Ikea.

The Unbearable Sameness of Cities