Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why didn't Chicago make the Forbes 2014 "America's Coolest Cities" rankings? Segregation, population loss, and a flawed model.

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Last week, Forbes released its 2014 list of the "Coolest Cities" in the United States.

Washington D.C. came out on top. L.A. tied with San Jose. Chicago came up short.

Huh?

Some accused Forbes of clickbait trolling. But that explanation is too easy.

If you look closer, Forbes spelled out the statistical criteria they were using based on data provided by three of the savviest cultural tastemakers around: Sperling's BestPlaces, Moody's Analytics, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So let's break this "hip urban center" formula down in their own words:
We considered entertainment and recreational amenities as well as each city's "foodie" culture.
I'm not gonna delve into the Yelp database to add up total numbers of entertainment hotspots for 20+ cities.

Forbes' "foodie" culture ranking, on the other hand, is easier to analyze:
With the help of Sperling’s we also included a “foodie” factor, based on the number of restaurants and bars per capita. We gave preference to cities with a greater percentage of local spots–chain establishments like TGI Fridays tend to be less exciting than home-grown bistros. The “foodie” measure also factors in the number of farmer’s markets, breweries and CSAs per capita.
The problem here is that Forbes is ranking based on percentage rather than total number.

For example, X number of craft breweries in a city population greater than 2.7 million (like Chicago) has a smaller skew than X number in a city less than 1 million (like the majority of the Forbes Top 20).

It's not like there's a dearth of local restaurants, farmer's markets, breweries, and CSAs in Chicago. Plus, by these criteria alone, Portland should have been number one (let alone in the top 20 to begin with).

But this isn't the only place where favoring percentage over total population skews the data:
And we factored in age, drawing on U.S. Census Bureau data and favoring places with a large population of people aged 20-34.
There are two flawed assumptions with this statistic:

1. That the population percentage matters more than the total population of that age group. Though the Forbes data is from 2014, as of 2009, the majority of the cities listed were under 1 million people:

  

2. That the 20-34 age bracket within each city is both monolithic and interchangeable across other cities.

What this "millennial" factor doesn't account for is racial/ethnic identity, primary language spoken at home, income level, education level, occupation, or marital status. These all shape someone's likely consumer habits, as the specific interests of the "average" San Francisco 28-year-old aren't going to be the same as the "average" San Antonio 28-year-old.

This "specific interests" factor matters because much of what's "cool" is in the details, particularly when it comes to the ones Forbes is measuring, such as the comparatively-expensive "foodie" food and "craft" alcohol. Hell, theater and art ain't cheap, either.

Not all young people are on board with these trends (certainly not in Chicago). Thus, ranking percentage/concentration of young people and presuming that it fully correlates with a percentage concentration of a city's measurable cultural amenities gives a different picture of "cool" than measuring some sort of range of "cool vs. not cool" consumer habits among a city's total population of young people.

(nevermind if that's even possible)

Forbes' failure to account for demographic divides within the 20-34 age bracket is curious given another major factor in their "cool" scale.
Using Sperling's Diversity Index, which measures the likelihood of meeting someone of a different race or ethnicity, favoring cities with greater diversity.
This is an interesting variable choice. Forbes' explanation?
We think cities with a cultural mix are more interesting in terms of restaurants, shops, and events–as well as simply providing the opportunity to get to know someone whose perspectives may diverge from your own.
While I personally agree, the history of cultural cool is a bit more complicated than that.

The very notion of "cool" or "hip" as argued in John Leland's Hip: The History can more or less be summed up by this decade-old New York Times review as:
...an outgrowth of the process whereby Europeans and Africans built a new country side by side, inventing identities as Americans "in each other's orbit." That they did so as social unequals is what made things interesting -- blacks developed their own insular customs and code-speak, which were appropriated, if not totally understood, by curious whites, whose own customs were copied by aspirational blacks, whose artistic flowering during the Harlem Renaissance enthralled white bohemians, and so on and so forth, creating a "feedback loop of hip" (Leland's words) that has engendered all manner of mutant hipster poses, from Dizzy Gillespie's French-existentialist specs-and-beret get-up to Lou Reed's quasi-ironic proclamation ''I wanna be black."
Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in America, and countless books and articles can attest to the city's longstanding commitment to ethnic and racial segregation. So by Forbes' measurement here, Chicago's missing presence in the Top 20 totally makes sense.

Paradoxically, Chicago's segregation played a crucial role in a number of culturally-recognized benchmarks of "cool" ranging from the Blues to modern comedy.

The most recent examples of this may be the rise in popularity over the last few years in Drill and Footwork. Both subgenres incubated in predominately black Chicago neighborhoods, and eventually, names like Chief Keef and DJ Rashad (RIP) spread to international recognition...with a little help from predominately white music writers and music nerds, of course.

But there's one more Forbes variable to take into account that drives the nail into Chicago's "cool" coffin:
Finally, with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Moody’s Analytics, we ranked the cities based on population growth since 2000, as well as on how much of their recent growth was due to net migration, since cities with greater influxes of new people tend to be more desirable.
As Chicago lost 6.9% of its population between 2000 and 2010 (the lowest since 1910), and the greater Cook County lost 13,000 residents making six-figure salaries, its easy to see why the city's ranking would've plummeted here.

So now that we've broken down the basics of the Forbes model, does it mean anything? No and yes.

To a certain extent, what Forbes really measured with their "coolest" American city criteria are economically-thriving cities that have the highest concentration of novel experiences to consume.

Chicago may be in rough financial shape as a whole (and definitely in large swaths). But in terms of artistic expression, it probably has the 3rd greatest number of things to see and do on any given night in America compared to New York and L.A., and that output is far cheaper to access here than those cities.

Broadly speaking, calling something "cool" more or less operates on a "know it when you see it" working definition, even when trying to disambiguate the meaning beyond temperature (even Forbes acknowledges this).

I'm sure the "what is cool?" debate will continue for decades to come, regardless of what I have to say about it.

But if there's one thing we can all agree on, Moody's Analytics will never be cool.

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