Friday, April 12, 2013


Like the proverbial train wreck, yet another internet top ten list has gotten my attention. This one is called "10 Terribly Overrated Travel Destinations (And Where to Travel Instead)" and found on the HuffPost Travel Blog. Top ten lists like this one are meant to provoke and this one is no exception. The thing that surprised me about this list was how spot on some of the observations are:

The writer of the piece, David Ladsel, describes overrated Asheville, NC as a
physically and emotionally fragmented mountain town full of people who seem really annoyed by everything -- including your presence here.
My feelings exactly.

On the overrated state of Colorado he says this:
Denver is a weirdly bland, Midwestern snore, with an air quality problem.
Again I can't argue with him there. My lasting impression of Denver was that people in the Mile High City seem to live for the weekend when they can get the hell out of town and escape to the mountains, which according to Ladsel, aren't all that great either. He says Utah's mountains are better, less kerfuffle. I wouldn't know about that.

Here's what he has to say about Austin:
...a city whose entire purpose for breathing is to not be like everything else around it. When you're trying to set yourself apart from a place as large and as bold as Texas, you have to work really, really hard... Sprawling Austin is one of those unfortunate places that seems really smashing on paper. And then one ruins things by going.
Now I don't know Austin so it wouldn't be fair for me to judge. However a city I imagine would be very much like Austin is another college town which also happens to be a state capital, Madison, Wisconsin. In the numerous trips to our neighboring state to the north, we've often stopped in "Mad City" and for the life of me I can't ever recall not being disappointed there. I can't put my finger on exactly why but the idea of the place is so much better than the experience of it. I recently spoke with a family member who lives there and it was he who said that Madison is the most overrated city in the country. I'm afraid I have to agree with him, since I've never been to Austin, the number one overrated place on David Ledsel's list. He recommends visiting Houston instead of Austin while I would wholeheartedly recommend Milwaukee over Madison.

I've never been to the Caribbean of which he says:
Too many of the islands are depressingly violent, pathetically corrupt and / or hopelessly dysfunctional.
Or Vancouver:
there really isn't much below the surface -- nothing unique anyway.
I may not have been there but did get that impression of the city from the coverage of the Winter Olympics a few years ago.

How about Berlin?
The best reason for Americans to bother with pricey Europe these days is to roll around in the continent's colorful past. Berlin is too modern, too sterile, too expensive and too unsure of itself to merit much of your time or money.
Well that's true up to a point; Berlin is a difficult city, it's especially difficult to love. The city Ladsel recommends to visit instead is Prague, a very easy city to love with its picturesque vistas, serpentine passageways, and charm up the wazoo. Yet lovely as it is, Prague is a bit of a museum piece overrun with tourists, while Berlin is a real live city with a proud and devastating history which it makes no attempt to conceal. Contrary to what Ladsel says, the past is all around you in Berlin, it's just not the picture postcard variety of Prague's. The two cities could not be more different and one is certainly not more worth visiting than the other. Here's my take on Berlin from a few years ago.

Ledsel makes some fairly incomprehensible remarks about San Francisco which to me says that he has some kind of bug up his behind about the City by the Bay. As familiarity breeds contempt, his comments make him seem incapable of judging the place objectively.

Which brings up the best which I saved for last. I'll just let you read the whole entry for yourself on his seventh most overrated travel destination, Chicago:
Spend a little time in the Windy City and you'll come to know a people obsessed with the answer to a question nobody else has ever asked: "Is Chicago a world class city?" As a former local, I can help. The answer is no. Chicago is a handsome, reasonably entertaining provincial capital. This used to be enough for Chicagoans, but then it wasn't, leading to a period of time, beginning around the turn of the new century, during which all manner of foolishness -- from baffling things built by celebrity architects to a slew of obnoxious restaurants -- was unleashed upon the city. Suddenly, everything was pretty much the same, except now it was way more expensive. Yes, the city has some iconic cultural institutions and that beautiful lakefront. But look too far past the glittering Potemkin village at Chicago's center and you'll find yourself near or at the bottom of a sad pile of poor to average.
As a "former local", Lesdal has a take on the city your average tourist would not. Now you might expect that I, a lifelong resident and devoted lover and supporter of this town would be appalled by Ledsel's comments about my home town. On the contrary. I'm not appalled because he is right about many of his observations. We Chicagoans are indeed obsessed with the pointless concept of being a "world class city." World class prices do not a world class city make. No truly world class city needs to declare itself one. Our world class braggadocio and world class inferiority complex may in fact be our biggest flaws, or perhaps our greatest charm, depending on your point of view.

As for the "foolishness" quotient, well since the turn of the last century, my wife and I started having babies so I can't speak for the obnoxious restaurants. However I'd say we don't have nearly as many "baffling things built by celebrity architects" as Lesdal thinks. I for one would take our one truly baffling piece of "starchitecture", Frank Gehry's Millennium Park Bandshell, over Santiago Calatrava's über-baffling Milwaukee Art Museum any day.

David Ladsel's coup de gras comes next:
Instead...Go to Detroit. It's more honest. Also, there's a great art museum, a proper public market, some of the country's best architecture, the music scene is fun, the food scene is better than it has been in ages and the beer is better and much cheaper. Everything's cheaper. Also: Detroiters are friendly -- Chicagoans are just polite. There's a big difference.
Now you gotta admire the chutzpah of a travel writer today recommending his readers go to Detroit instead of Chicago. Frankly, even though it comes at the expense of my own city, I'm thrilled he singled out Motown. Still I'm not convinced; reading that passage makes me think either the author...
  • is simply a contrarian looking to evoke an angry response (which he did) or,
  • he has an ulterior motive like the Vikings of old who named a fertile island above the Arctic Circle Iceland, while naming a frozen tundra Greenland or,
  • he really means it.
I hope the latter is true because the city of Detroit to put it mildly, has seen better days, and could use someone sincerely blowing its horn. Everything he said about the Motor City vis a vis Chicago is true, well, except the part about Detroiters being friendly while Chicagoans are merely polite, I mean come on.

I do however take great exception to his last thought about Chicago where he states that the part of the city outside of downtown is "near or at the bottom of a sad pile of poor to average". Clever and pithy as that sentence reads, it's nothing more than the author spouting off a well worn cliché. It was put forth perhaps most famously by A.J. Liebling in his scathing evaluation of this city written in 1952 called: Chicago: The Second City. In a book comprised of a series of essays from The New Yorker, Liebling called Chicago:
  • a theatre backdrop with a city painted on it... 
  • a boundless agglutination of streetsdramshops, and low buildings without urban character...
  • Radio City ...set down in the middle of a vast Canarsie...
..and a lot of other unflattering things. Liebling, guilty of exhibiting his own brand of New York provincialism, nonetheless was dead on with some of his observations of Chicago in the early fifties, some of which hold true today. As someone who spends 50 percent of his waking life in the glittering part of the city and the other 50 in the sad pile, I consider myself something of an expert on the subject. Not a day goes by when I don't discover something new and exciting, mystifying or terrifying about this city, both parts of it. Beyond the steel, glass and stone towers of Chicago's center you'll find the lifeblood of this city, both the good and the bad. It's all there to discover for anyone willing to take the time. Of course it's just the every day lives of nearly three million souls that go on around that sad pile of poor to average outside of the Potemkin village. How dull and mundane that must be compared to a place where you can hear some fun music and can get a cheap beer.

The wholesale dismissal of the city that lies beyond the sound of the bells of Holy Name Cathedral, or the pell-mell dissing any city for that matter, displays a great deal of journalistic and intellectual sloth, even for someone just writing an internet top ten list. 

And yet, who doesn't enjoy getting one's digs in every once in a while? If you can't take a punch, then stay out of the fight as I always say.

It's the Chicago way.

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