What Makes You a Local of Your City?

We’ve all had this moment before.

“I know this city much better than you, because I happen to be a local.”

Let’s take a short moment to reflect on the last word of that sentence (and count how many redundant times I’ve written it in this rant…)

Back in the day when travel took ages, it was pretty easy to define ourselves as someone who came from “this city” or lived in “that city” for most of our lives. For most of the world, too, where many people still don’t have the opportunity to travel to places far and wide, this is still something you can prove, maybe because you have an interesting localized accent or know certain local secrets.

For many of us caught up in the jet-set globalizing world, however, it is becoming more and more of a sought-after premium to do things the “local” way. Airbnb, after all, is thriving off of properties that allow you to “live like a local” wherever you go, and the broccoli you bought at Whole Foods tries to prove it’s more local than the carrots you got across the aisle.

It’s easy to define local produce. Not the same case for an urban dweller, however.

When it comes to things like produce and shared rooms, it’s easy to say what’s local and what isn’t. For grocery shopping, it’s a physical measurement of how far away your food has come from to make it to the shelf — a broccoli that took 67 miles to get to you is clearly more local than the carrots that were trucked 200 miles away. For the hospitality industry, it’s as easy as saying that the property you live in is not a commercial property that is catered to the traveling businessman, but rather in a residential area where locals live.

But here is where the tough part comes. When you live in a city, and everyone around you says that they are a local, who do you believe, and why? We have reached an odd stage in humanity where the old lady who lives in the apartment below you has lived in her unit for over 40 years, yet still has no idea about the hip local restaurant that was opened across the street from you. And that man with an Australian accent who lives across the street from you might know more about your city than you ever could, because he has taken the dreaded bus to work every day for the past 10 years. Perhaps that one guy you work with knows the local slang and pays particular close attention to the weird smells and sounds that make your city different from another, but that can easily be learned just by paying close attention to your urban surroundings.

Where am I going with this? Defining what it means to be a local, in my opinion, has become a very grey topic of discussion for our metropolitan environments. It’s something I noticed after launching Urbane, the mapping project I launched where we label neighborhoods not by their physical name, but by the social descriptions that embody what they are.

Most recently, for example, we decided to map out Philadelphia, a city where we can truthfully say that none of our co-founders are from. Armed with a barrage of e-mails from local contributors, we set forth with creating a map that describes neighborhoods the way a local might explain to a visitor.

“How did a group of guys from California create a map of Philadelphia from a local’s perspective?”

Many folks in Philadelphia were impressed by the knowledge that we set forth in our creation, including the staff at Federal Donuts, a trendy New American joint serving Korean fried chicken and donuts that recently just got listed in Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly list:

But even here in this Tweet, we see that magical word again. A noble effort at mapping Philly, especially for non-locals.

Just by collecting knowledge on local neighborhood events, Yelp reviews, and Google Street Viewing the hell out of certain areas, we were able to gather data on the city that normally is reserved for individuals who have lived in the city for a prolonged period of time. But as you can see in this example, if folks didn’t know we weren’t from Philadelphia, they might have thought that someone local designed the map.

The conclusion? It doesn’t take 100 2-hour long interviews with 80-year old historians to gather the kind of information that many people perceive to be local, because we think that people don’t really have a very clear sense of what being local even means. If you know the hotspots and community happenings, for instance, you could potentially get away with saying that you’re from the area — yet we’re still enthralled with aiming for urban experiences that are the most local as a badge of honor.

In future posts, I’ll be writing more about this interesting topic that highlights one of the cornerstones of the subject of urban identity, and how the endless discussions of what it means to be local permeates the way we picture our world today. You can reach me directly at @1commuter if you have any thoughts to share.

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2 Comments

  1. Looking forward to your next posts! I traveled around major cities in Europe for a year staying 2~3 months in one city. I and my friend were always debating when we can start saying “I live here” instead of “I’m visiting.”

    1. Totally agree – I think it was the hardest reality to face when I was traveling around Europe. Please stay in touch!

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