Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The List

January. The month of The List.

Forbes recently published a curious one: Top Ten Most Lustful Cities in America. They asked ACNielsen for a per-capita index of over-the-counter contraceptive purchases in major U.S. markets for the past 52 weeks. Denver came in first. Salt Lake, Seattle, Portland, and Buffalo also made the list, suggesting that snowy and rainy climates = more boot knocking.

Tourism and economic development offices usually love this stuff, often jumping on such lists for promotional materials and slogans. When Men’s Health named Baltimore the Healthiest City in America in 2006, city officials went gaga. Never mind the fact that Baltimore was also named one of the most violent places in America that same year. Which begs the question: Can a place averaging over 200 murders annually truly be healthy?

It’s interesting to consider, then, how these indexes come into being in the first place. The Forbes list gauges sexual activity based on condom use, rather than say, pregnancy rates or STDs. The latter would tell a very different story, I imagine.

Men's Fitness editor Neal Boulton admitted to USA Today that the Healthiest City survey of 2006 was far from scientific. His team measured “healthy” on a number of factors, including the amount of public park space, access to health care, air quality, and the relatively small number of fast-food restaurants. Boulton went on to say that Baltimore had become safer, more prosperous, and more conducive to fitness.

The City Paper in Baltimore presented the flip side to this healthy vision with its annual tally of murder victims. The city ended 2007 with the highest murder rate in eight years: 282. The paper tracks the murders each week through a column called Murder Ink. They also provide an online map of the locations, names, and histories of the victims. When you click on the link, a staggering number of virtual blue pushpins flood a map of the city. Click on a one of the tabs and you get a simple but powerful record of the lost life:

Feb. 10, 2007, 6:20 p.m.
Dwight Evans, a 32-year-old African-American man, was found sitting in a chair in an annex of the Evans Temple Memorial Church of God at 2435 E. Madison St. in East Baltimore. He had been shot in the head. Evans, who sold various goods out of the annex, died at Hopkins Hospital at 6:38 p.m.

Mar 4 2007, 8:48 p.m.
Anthony Brown, a 20-year-old African-American man, was sitting in a car in the 700 block of North Curley Street when several men with guns approached the car from both sides and started shooting at him, hitting him numerous times in the head and body. Brown died at Johns Hopkins Hospital at 9:30 p.m. This is at least the sixth person murdered in a car this year.

Reading through this particular list today, I started thinking of other indexes and ways to measure a place. Years ago, the King of Bhutan in the Himalayas developed what he dubbed the Gross National Happiness index. Rooted in Buddhist doctrine, the GNH asserts that there were better ways to gauge a city’s true worth than its Gross Domestic Product or its per capita income. The well being of individuals should rank higher on the national development agenda.

Interestingly, journalist Eric Weiner was on the Diane Rhem Show today publicizing his new book The Geography of Bliss. After reporting on war and destruction around the world, Weiner took a year to seek out happy places and to assess what makes them that way. Rather than mapping murders, Weiner looks at the human need to map happiness:

Where we are is vital to who we are. By "where," I'm speaking not only of our physical environment but also our cultural environment. Culture is the sea we swim in. So pervasive, so all consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it. It matters more than we think.

With our words, we subconsciously conflate geography and happiness. We speak of searching for happiness, of finding contentment, as if these were locations in an atlas, actual places that we could visit if only we had the proper map and the right navigational skills. Anyone who has taken a vacation to, say, some Caribbean island and had flash through their mind the uninvited thought "I could be happy here" knows what I mean.

So how would U.S. cities measure right now if you based the study on wellbeing and citizen happiness?

In the meantime, we can occupy ourselves with the existing lists. I wonder how Denver will cash in on their recent award as Most Lustful City...Perhaps a national ad campaign based around the slogan:

People are doing it in Denver!

It would definitely need to incorporate a reinterpretation of the Denver city flag: