Signs of the Places

I was early for a talk by Irving Wladawsky-Berger at Harvard Law School a couple hours ago (just one among many terrific talks that go on around here) when I got in a conversation with Victoria Stodden about localities. Both of us have lives and affections split between Cambridge and California. As the weather gets colder and more miserable here in the Northeast, long-time Californians yearn for the warmth and ease of our western homes. She spent twelve years at Stanford. I lived in the Bay Area for sixteen years (all within a couple zip codes of Stanford) and in Santa Barbara for another eight. In fact, I still live there. And here. Makes for fun comparisons.

In the midst of the conversation Victoria brought up Cities and Ambition, a piece by Paul Graham from May of this year. I brought up what Paul wrote about Silicon Valley — not in that piece (which is still terrific), but somewhere… maybe in a talk at eTech or something… about how you can get off a plane at SFO and sense an invisible generator nearby, like the one in Star Wars that sustained the ice planet Hoth. It’s the tech generator that energizes the Valley and makes it a produce tech and wealth like nowhere else.

But Victoria made the more important point, about what makes Cambridge so amazing, and why I feel just as energized here as I did in Silicon Valley when I lived there — but in a different way. Paul explains:

  I’d always imagined Berkeley would be the ideal place–that it would basically be Cambridge with good weather. But when I finally tried living there a couple years ago, it turned out not to be. The message Berkeley sends is: you should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized. It’s probably the place in America where someone from Northern Europe would feel most at home. But it’s not humming with ambition.
  In retrospect it shouldn’t have been surprising that a place so pleasant would attract people interested above all in quality of life. Cambridge with good weather, it turns out, is not Cambridge. The people you find in Cambridge are not there by accident. You have to make sacrifices to live there. It’s expensive and somewhat grubby, and the weather’s often bad. So the kind of people you find in Cambridge are the kind of people who want to live where the smartest people are, even if that means living in an expensive, grubby place with bad weather.
  As of this writing, Cambridge seems to be the intellectual capital of the world. I realize that seems a preposterous claim. What makes it true is that it’s more preposterous to claim about anywhere else. American universities currently seem to be the best, judging from the flow of ambitious students. And what US city has a stronger claim? New York? A fair number of smart people, but diluted by a much larger number of neanderthals in suits. The Bay Area has a lot of smart people too, but again, diluted; there are two great universities, but they’re far apart. Harvard and MIT are practically adjacent by West Coast standards, and they’re surrounded by about 20 other colleges and universities. [1]
  Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York’s is finance and Silicon Valley’s is startups.

I moved to the Bay Area in 1985 from Chapel Hill, another college town. I had lived for most of the previous eleven years there and in nearby Durham. Upon arriving in the Bay Area I looked with my teenage kids at Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Palo Alto, and decided to land in the latter for two reasons: 1) my company’s office was there, and I didn’t want to commute; and 2) my kids took one look at Palo Alto High and said “This is Stanford High. We want to go here.” And it was done. (One kid went on to UC-Berkeley and the other to UC-Santa Cruz, for what that’s worth.) All due respect for Chapel Hill and Durham, Carolina and Duke — places I still love and miss — Palo Alto and the Bay Area are a whole different game. There my horizons opened in many directions, and so did my kids’. It was energizing and stimulating in the Xtreme.

Then came the opportunity to come to Cambridge.

Wow. When we were thinking about getting an apartment here, and putting the kid in a local school, David Weinberger advised thusly: “Just remember that this is the most intellectually stimulating place in the world.”

He was right. I remember one rainy day walking across the Harvard campus, between one interesting gathering and another, and saying to my wife on the phone, “It was clever of God to hide all this great stuff under such shitty weather.”

Paul again:

  One of the exhilarating things about coming back to Cambridge every spring is walking through the streets at dusk, when you can see into the houses. When you walk through Palo Alto in the evening, you see nothing but the blue glow of TVs. In Cambridge you see shelves full of promising-looking books. Palo Alto was probably much like Cambridge in 1960, but you’d never guess now that there was a university nearby. Now it’s just one of the richer neighborhoods in Silicon Valley. [2]
  A city speaks to you mostly by accident — in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I’ll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones.

Me too. But the Silicon Valley ones are way above average, and cover topics no less interesting. Same goes for the Santa Barbara ones. (UCSB turns me on too, and that’s just of SB’s many charms.) Or the London ones. Or the Copenhagen and Amsterdam ones. No place has cornered the market on Interesting.

Nor is Cambridge the extent of it here. As I write this my ass reposes in a leather chair in a reading room at the Boston Athenaeum, where our family goes often to feast on books. (One librarian calls our twelve-year old the library’s “best reader.” Based on consumption volume alone, I wouldn’t dispute it.)

Anyway, I’m just enjoying being amazed at both Cambridge and Boston, and appreciative of my time here. And of Paul’s provocative observations. Need to chew on those a bit. Good conversational fodder there.


  1. vanderleun’s avatar

    Ah, yes, the Boston Athenaeum. And those chairs. And the vast room at the top. I loved that place when I worked around the corner at Houghton Mifflin.

    Really one of the world’s great reading spaces.

  2. vanderleun’s avatar

    You get to the top floor. Then you get up on the walkway. Then you walk all the way to the nave at the back and pile up the books on the table.

    You’re never coming out. Order Pizza.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Yah, it’s a very special place. I love getting lost in it. The “drum” stacks, though a challenge for a slight claustrophobe such as I, has the spicy stink of mature books, which seem to be aging as if in a wine cask.

    A recent thrill was going through histories of civic decisions made a hundred years ago, in archives from various states. Fun stuff.

  4. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    College towns are actually being looked at more and more longingly by ‘ex-urban’ types–folks who have lived in the big city, love what it has to offer, but cannot deal with some of the problems of a big city (namely public education, traffic, crime and cost). College towns, with their compact ‘central’ areas of a campus town, intellectual and cultural offerings, and, well, for lack of a better world, “life” or “energy” of students walking about, eating here and there, etc. are really starting to offer an alternative to high cost cities.

    We live outside of Washington (actually in the country) but I sit and say to myself (many times) that I could sell this house even in the down economy, take the profit from it and buy a huge house in a half a dozen midwestern campus towns and send my kids to school for no cost. As more and more jobs become truly portable, i.e. done from the basement or wherever, you really have to start asking ‘why am I paying seven figures for three bedrooms and public schools that are a war zone’.

    Anyway, interesting to hear about Cambridge. I actually mentioned that to the wife the other day as a possible place to live given all the energy and stimulation about, but I understand the cost of housing is pretty crazy and the quality rather so-so for the money.

  5. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Chicago: “You should be more interesting”?

    I found this essay about Chicago… and it’s about the only one that a few pages of Google got me that made any sense.

    The winters in Chicago give you time to work on projects that would otherwise be put off enjoying the weather in more hospitable climes. For example, the worlds first BBS system was invented because a snow storm left Ward Christensen and Randy Suess with time on their hands.

    We’re not pretentious because we’ve always got work to do, and then it’s time to play.

  6. Chip’s avatar

    Good piece
    With family in both Boston/Cambridge and now Los Altos/Palo Alto I enjoyed it very much.

    Also family splitting time between Chicago/London

    Grew up in a college town, once I had keys to family car “lived” in the stacks at the University Library
    All pre-internet, but same idea of being able to roam and chase ideas


  7. Doc Searls’s avatar


    I used to work with Zenith Data Systems when they were out in Schaumberg. Or, I should say, when they existed. Anyway, they used to tell me that the second hardest recruiting job was getting people from elsewhere to come to Chicago — and the hardest job was getting them to leave. It’s a great city.

  8. Pauly’s avatar

    As a Chicagoan (didn’t know you were too Mike), what resonated was the lack of pretension and the strength of the melting pot, which to me is the strength of the US in general. But to me Chicago disappoints and underachieves to some extent (and maybe that’s subjective and what drives us). There is a sense of NYC-lite in the “make money uber alles” ethos (doubt me? why is the big remaining wealth generator here largely trading and options?). And even more disappointing for someone like myself in the technology/software space, I think Chicago is easily outranked in per capita technology jobs (and possibly not just per capita but even in absolute terms with other smaller cities). When I go to the Bay Area or Boston or Austin I can feel the tech-driven difference. And this is what IMHO makes it difficult to recruit technologists here: lack of critical mass. But as a midwesterner I love it here and feel compelled to mention another NYC strength which is also a Chicago one (NYC lite again alas): as a center for the arts…

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