Chicago, IL by Ben Ross

Posted on February 28th, by matt_schiavenza in City Project. No Comments

Photo by Ben Ross

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Other cities:

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden
Boston, MA by Ella Chou
Toronto, Canada by Erik Schomann
Washington, DC by Sarah Hassaine
Beijing, China by Jeff Crosby

Our next entry brings us to the Windy City, Chicago and our ambassador, Benjamin Ross. Ben, 31, is currently pursuing a PhD in Urban Sociology at the University of Chicago and also works as a Chinese interpreter in the health care and legal sectors. Originally from Kansas City, Ben has lived in Denver, Lawrence, KS, and Fuqing and Fuzhou in China in addition to Chicago. He is the author of, a blog covering cities and urban issues in both China and the United States.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Chicago in the first place? What keeps you there?

Ben Ross: After three and a half years living in China I wanted to return to the cultural familiarity of the Midwest. But I also wanted a vibrant, cosmopolitan, metropolis. Chicago is the only city in the world which fits both those criteria.

MS: What are the best things about life in Chicago?

BR: When it comes to exploring diverse neighborhoods, Chicago might be the best city in the world. Whether you’re looking for posh high-rise living with fancy restaurants and shopping, an art district crawling with hipsters in tight jeans, a thriving gay/lesbian community, a Puerto Rican barrio, a vibrant Chinatown, or a working class, blue collar neighborhood with American flags on every house, you’ll find it somewhere in Chicago. Due to the city’s urban density and excellent public transportation system, most neighborhoods are ideal for pedestrians and you can almost anywhere without a car.

Then there’s nightlife. Bars, clubs, restaurants, celebrities, excitement…Chicago has it all. It’s an ideal party town, whether you’re into sports, indie-rock, beach volleyball, all, or none of the above, and if you’re young and single dating options are endless. Chicago is also arguably the most affordable major city in the US. As the nation’s third largest city, Chicago also has many of the same cultural amenities found in New York or Los Angeles, but rents are cheaper and accommodations are more spacious.

MS: What are the worst things about living in Chicago?

BR: Winters are cold, very cold. For most locals, winter is just a fact of life. People bundle up, turn up the thermostat, and continue with their business as summer awaits. But for those used to a warm climate Chicago winters can be a drag.

Also, there is very little ‘outdoorsy’ stuff to do. By this, I don’t mean that Chicagoans spend very little time outdoors; in fact, the outdoors (especially in summer) is one of the main draws of the city, but it is all in an urban context. If you enjoy barbecues, baseball games, street festivals, biking, and walking, Chicago is top notch. But if your entertainment lifestyle revolves around hiking, camping, skiing, and mountain climbing then Chicago is sure to disappoint.

MS: If you were the mayor of Chicago, what would be on your agenda?

BR: Chicago has one of the better public transportation systems in the country but there is still much room for improvement. The strength of Chicago’s transit system is that it is accessible from pretty much everywhere within city limits as well as most of the inner-ring suburbs. The weakness is that much of the rolling stock and infrastructure is out of date, dirty, slow, and inefficient. This has the unfortunate effect of deterring many people who would otherwise use the public transportation system. As mayor, I would lobby the federal and state governments to invest more money in capital improvements for the system.

In addition, while Chicago’s downtown and North Side are alive and vibrant, the same cannot be said for the West and much of the South Sides. If I were mayor I would focus on redeveloping the South and West by providing tax incentives for businesses (from both the suburbs and out of state) to relocate to those areas.

Photo by Ben Ross

MS: What’s something about Chicago that can’t be found in a guidebook?

BR: The most charming characteristics of Chicago are found in its neighborhoods. Yet, the most popular tourist attractions are conveniently centered around downtown. Because of this, many tourists never leave the downtown area. This is not to say that downtown Chicago isn’t worth a long visit (it definitely is) but there is far more to the city in the expansive neighborhoods sandwiched between downtown and the suburbs.

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Chicago?

BR: Somebody between the ages of 22 and 40 who likes to walk, has strong opinions about their sports teams, isn’t particularly granola, enjoys ethnic food, doesn’t mind the cold or noise, and appreciates the arts, public parks, and beer.

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Chicago?

BR: Anybody who either hates the cold or derives most of their entertainment from “outdoorsy” activities (see above)

MS: What’s something about Chicago that runs contrary to popular perception?

BR: Chicago is sometimes viewed as a black and white city with little diversity, and with an economy stuck in the past glory of heavy manufacturing. But it’s actually one of the most ethnically, racially, and economically diverse cities in the world. Chicago has the world’s biggest Mexican population outside of Mexico and Los Angeles, more Poles than anywhere outside of Poland, and the largest Chinatown in the U.S. outside of New York or San Francisco. It is home to some of the country’s most expensive real estate as well as some of its worst slums. The economy is diverse, with robust white collar and service industries, and even some vestiges of the industrial age. Look for any segment of the American population, and you’re bound to find it in Chicago.

MS: Is Chicago suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

BR: Chicago is ideal for young professionals and empty nesters, and especially suitable for anyone who is single. Due to its professional lifestyle, I generally don’t recommend Chicago for college students, although Evanston (just north of the city limits and home to Northwestern University) certainly fits the bill. Because of the general low quality of public schools, Chicago can also be rough on young middle class families who are often faced with the dilemma of either spending tens of thousands of dollars on private school or moving to the suburbs.

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Chicago’s future?

BR: As economic restructuring has depleted most of the Rust Belt region over the past several decades, Chicago has been one of the few cities in the area to emerge as a winner. Much of the Midwest’s service industry has congealed in Chicago and this has been the primary reason for the massive influx of young professionals. A the same time, things aren’t looking so bright for Chicago’s working class.Census figures released earlier this month showed a 200,000 person decline in Chicago’s population, the overwhelming majority of whom were working class African-Americans. As the Downtown and Northside neighborhoods continue to gentrify and attract more and more affluent residents, many neighborhoods on the South and West sides are losing residents at an alarming rate. The future of Chicago will likely be based on how these trends interplay and are managed by city officials and business leaders.

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

BR: Chicago is my favorite city in the world. I’m biased, but there you go. Right now, there is no other place I’d rather live. That being said, the only other major urban area in the U.S. that sizes up to Chicago is New York. Boston and San Francisco have the cultural capital but are much smaller, and LA lacks the urban feel and public transit. If I had to make a list, it would include the aforementioned cities, minus LA, and including Montreal.

MS: Can you sum up Chicago in a word, phrase, or sentence?

BR: It’s the cosmetropolis of the Midwest

Questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms should be directed to matthew.schiavenza (at) or in the comment section below. Thanks!

Humor and Satire

Posted on February 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Self-Promotion. No Comments

Earlier this month a satire piece I wrote lampooning a professor of mine attracted some attention when the popular New York gossip blog Gawker reported it as a straight news story. Needless to say the whole episode amused me- and happily also Professor Thurman- to bits.

Since then I’ve noticed that two additional blogs have weighed in. The University of Pittsburgh newspaper published a paragraph describing the incident and wrote “satire or not, the publication was clearly trying to boost hits for its website. In other news: Sidney Crosby, Michelle Obama, astronauts, naked women, naked men, Chuck Norris. ”

Very funny. Of course we write with the intention of boosting hits for our website. I’m sure the Pitt students feel the same about their own site, as does everyone else who publishes their thoughts online. For every Emily Dickinson who prefers to write in total obscurity there are a million scribes who recognize the value in reaching a wide audience.

That being said, neither I nor the editors at The Morningside Post expected my post to generate much attention at all. I thought that the 250-odd students who knew Professor Thurman might get a couple laughs out of it and was as shocked as anyone when Gawker and The Huffington Post picked it up. After all, if I was truly looking for attention I’d come up with something much more scandalous than a story about a professor with a strict late policy.

In another comment, the Student Press Law Center warns that authors such as myself are at risk of being sued for libel if we fail to explicitly identify pieces as satire. Perhaps I’m being naive, but one of the reasons satire works is that it resembles actual news- if I had made the fictitious elements of the story more outlandish people would not have found it as funny or interesting. Prior to publishing the piece my editors assured me that the satire was obvious, hence my shock when Gawker didn’t get it.

For one thing, how many people who mug students in broad daylight have the tact to remove their homework from the bag? Secondly, no professor to my knowledge would include a snarky comment about the crime if one of his students had just been mugged. These two facts I thought would be sufficient in setting off everyone’s bullshit detector.

Then again, these days media sources who compete for content don’t always take the time to read the stories they link to carefully. For Gawker, the publicity they received made their loss of face- such as it was- totally worth it.…

City Links

Posted on February 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Housekeeping. No Comments

Just a little housekeeping note: for links to all the city posts, just check the right sidebar- the links are there underneath the blogroll. And stay tuned! More to come.…

Beijing, China by Jeff Crosby

Posted on February 25th, by matt_schiavenza in City Project. No Comments

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden
Boston, MA by Ella Chou
Toronto, Canada by Erik Schomann
Washington, DC by Sarah Hassaine

We head back to China for our next installment and visit its ancient and hip capital, Beijing. Originally from northern Virginia, Jeff Crosby first came to China as part of a college Chinese program in 2000. He’s basically stayed ever since, living mostly in Yunnan Province and now in Beijing. Jeff has worked as a translator specializing in Chinese art over the past eight years and now is a consultant for Chinese and foreign companies on cultural exchange, media projects, and event planning. Jeff reports that he’s doing something really big now but says it’s a secret :). He can be reached at jeff (at)

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Beijing in the first place? What keeps you there?

Jeff Crosby: I moved to Beijing for the first time in 2005 for a job, and I moved back up recently to chase some new opportunities. I guess that’s what brings a lot of people here. Of course, this wasn’t my first city in China. I came to China back in 2000 out of curiosity and a vague idea that I might find a more interesting life here.

Nowadays I can actually make a decent living off the translating and consulting without actually having to be in Beijing, but this is a place where you’re constantly bumping into new opportunities, meeting interesting people and constantly reassessing your own accomplishments. I think that’s what I really take from this city.

MS: What are the best things about life in Beijing?

JC: Definitely the people. This city is flooded with some of the best minds in China. Most of the materialistic people (aka chasing the big salary of payday) flock to Shanghai and Shenzhen, while the dreamers come to Beijing. All the artists, musicians, wannabe writers and just downright interesting people are getting drawn in here from across the country and the world. And they do it right when they get here. There’s a great music scene, tons of great art to see, and great restaurants from all over.

That and the lamb kebab shops. Nothing beats ending a hot summer day in a hutong with your pant legs rolled up, a pile of juicy lamb kebabs and a mini-keg of ice-cold cheap beer.

MS: What are the worst things about living in Beijing?

JC: The physical environment is just awful. Air pollution, traffic, crowding, a harsh climate, you name it. The green space has been improving but it still has a long way to go. Even when you get out of the city, the nature is not much to look at. And that’s the real drawback of living here. You absolutely must get out from time to time to take in some nature.

Oh, and don’t forget the dust storms. The dust storms suck.

MS: If you were mayor, what would be on your agenda?

JC: The traffic! The traffic situation definitely needs a lot of work. Not just more public transportation (which is much better these days), but also better management of traffic lights and general flow. Also, one of my first edicts as mayor would be a moratorium on knocking down old buildings. Beijing has lost so much of its heritage recently, and that has to stop.

MS: What’s something about Beijing that can’t be found in a guidebook?

JC: That could be a really long list. Beijing is full of great stuff to see, and it’s all overshadowed by the twin giants of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Dongcheng District, with its back-alley chicken wing joints, hole in the wal jazz bars, and boutique design shops is the real overlooked gem of the city. I’ve also been having a lot of fun exploring all the alleys and restaurants around Dongsi these days. My next mission is to explore the vast network of underground tunnels and bomb shelters.

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Beijing?

JC: When I’m in second-tier cities such as Kunming and run into young aspiring expats, I tell them to go and spend a few years in the big city. The tier one cities like Beijing and Shanghai are just light years ahead of the rest of the country, and it’s hard to get a grasp of what’s happening in this country without living here for awhile. The opposite applies as well. I’d say, if you’re in a place in life where you want a challenge and a bit of an adventure, then you’ll fit in right here.

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Beijing?

JC: I’d stay away if you have a narrow comfort zone. You can definitely pamper yourself out here, but you’re always going to have to deal with the harsh physical reality. I guess that’s the case with most big cities. Also, if you’re likely to get sucked into the expat scene, you’ll be wasting a trip. It’s huge and fun, with lots of great parties, but what’s the point of coming all the way out here for something you can find at home?

Jeff in Beijing

MS: What’s something about Beijing that runs contrary to popular perception?

JC: In the rest of China it’s considered this massive, soulless behemoth, which I think is totally wrong, at least the last part. I can’t say I really know what people think of it in the West, because my own preconceived notions about it were blown away about a decade ago when I first passed through. I do show a lot of foreigners around the city though, and I think most people are impressed by how vibrant the cultural scene is.

MS: Is Beijing suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

JC: I couldn’t imagine trying to raise kids here. Pollution aside, there’s the bureaucratic nightmare of getting your kid into a good school, and then you have to figure out the logistics of getting him there every morning. I feel bad for all the local parents who have to brave the traffic nightmares every day and then line up outside the school to pick up their children. Most of the expat families to do it live in walled compounds outside of the city and pay astronomical prices for international schools.

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Beijing’s future?

JC: Yes and no. It’s a very exciting place with a lot going for it, but it’s just not sustainable. This whole region of China is on the verge of becoming a desert, and there’s no way it can sustain the massive population it has now (closing in on 20 million). I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see the capital moved to another city in the next decade or so.

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

JC: Honestly, I’d probably go back to Kunming in a heartbeat if there were enough opportunities there to support me. My time in China though has turned me into a big city guy. I could see myself living in a place like New York or Paris.

MS: Can you sum up Beijing in a word, phrase, or sentence?

JC: 牛B!…

Anna Campana

Posted on February 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 6 comments

Anna Campana was the sort of person you wouldn’t notice at first. Short with salt and pepper hair and a dumpy frame, she sat most afternoons at the bar outside Salvador’s Cafe in Kunming with her ubiquitous glass of gin and tonic and cigarette. In a city with many outsized personalities, Anna was usually very quiet; she seemed content to watch the world go by. I got to know Anna on the occasional lazy weekend afternoons I’d spend at the cafe, catching up on the all the town’s latest gossip and hearsay. Sometimes, she’d be so cantankerous as to not welcome conversation at all, but as always Anna would sit comfortably in her own skin, not needing to insert herself into the hubbub surrounding her.

I suppose I am not the best person to write an obituary for Anna, who died two days ago after a lengthy illness. There were others who knew her far better. A trained nurse, Anna worked with the homeless in Kunming with tremendous compassion. When a fellow foreign friend went through a bitter divorce, Anna was there to help him and his two young children get through it. Characteristically, Anna never trumpeted her kindness to others; she never once, in my memory, boasted about it. It was simply something that she did. Anna was someone who truly gave more to life than she expected to get out of it.

I’ll best remember Anna as a frequent contestant in Kunming’s pub quizzes, an event I occasionally hosted. On one such occasion she objected- loudly- to a question whose answer she perceived to be incorrect. I don’t remember what the question was, but I do remember seeing Anna, a middle-aged Swiss woman who stood barely five feet tall, slam her paper and pencil on the table with tremendous fury and then give me one of the bitterest looks I’ve ever received in my life.  Of course, I found this to be completely hysterical, which only enraged her more. The next contest though Anna would come back and compete, yet again, for the standard prize of twelve bottles of Beerlao.

On the penultimate night I spent in Kunming I organized a farewell gathering at The Box, my favorite pub located just a few doors away from Salvador’s. Anna walked in and planted a kiss on my cheek. For one of the first times I had seen, her eyes twinkled as she smiled. “You will be missed!” she said in her heavy Swiss German accent before exiting the bar and wandering back toward her favorite perch at Salvador’s.

No Anna, you are the one who will be missed.…

Washington, DC by Sarah Hassaine

Posted on February 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Image courtesy of

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Other cities:

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden
Boston, MA by Ella Chou
Toronto, Canada by Erik Schomann
Beijing, China by Jeff Crosby

Next we go to the nation’s capital- Washington, DC, and our next ambassador, Sarah Hassaine. Born in Algeria, Sarah grew up in San Diego and moved to Washington to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Washington University, which she completed in 2009. A renaissance woman, Sarah is a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine as well as the chair of Washington’s Network of Arab American Professionals and a member of the Young Professionals of Foreign Policy organization. By day Sarah is the Business Manager for the Middle East North Africa department at Internews, an international non-profit organization that does media development around the world. Sarah lives in DC with her husband and can be seen on Twitter @shassasine.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to DC in the first place? What keeps you there?

Sarah Hassaine: I majored in International Relations and came to DC for related job opportunities.  I wanted to be in the hub and be part of the action.

MS: What are the best things about life in DC?

SH: There is never a shortage of things to do – always an event to go to! Also, the city is very international and attracts ambitious and intelligent people from all over the world.

MS: What are the worst things about living in DC?

SH: The sirens! I feel like you will always hear an ambulance! But moreover the cost of food and produce and just living is expensive.

MS: If you were the mayor of DC, what would be on your agenda?

SH: Fix the roads and all the potholes – add signs on the streets!

MS: What’s something about DC that can’t be found in a guidebook?

SH: Busboys & Poets! There are 2 in DC – check these restaurants out!

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for DC?

SH: Someone energetic with an appreciation of culture and history.

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for DC?

SH: Someone who does not want to do anything – DC is not the city that you stay cooped up in front of the TV

The lovely Sarah with cherry blossoms.

MS: What’s something about DC that runs contrary to popular perception?

SH: That people are boring and ugly ;)

MS: Is DC suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

SH: It is best for university students and older.  DC is a transient city so I would say it is best for ages 20+ to 40ish.

MS: Do you feel optimistic about DC’s future?

SH: I would love to see representation! And a council that is not corrupt.  I am optimistic because so many neighborhoods have been rebuilt, reconstructed and repainted.  The “ghetto” is getting smaller.

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

SH: San Francisco

MS: Can you sum up DC in a word, phrase, or sentence?

SH: Inspiring.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms should be directed to matthew.schiavenza (at) or in the comment section below. Thanks!

Beyond Borders

Posted on February 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Me. 2 comments

The first job I ever had- aside from a regrettable stint as a camp counselor- was working at a Borders bookstore in Palo Alto, California. This was in the summer of 1999, the year I graduated from high school. The sole objective of the summer as decreed from my parents? Get A Job. And so I went looking.

I was at the Borders one day when I saw an ad that spoke to me: ‘You spend all of your time at bookstores. Why not work for one?’. Why not, indeed? I applied and was called in the next day for an interview. After unnecessarily trying to impress the middle-aged store manager of my bookstore bona fides (‘actually, A Farewell to Arms is a better representative of Hemingway’s minimalist style than The Sun Also Rises’) I got the job on the spot.

Photo by Flickr user futantgeneration

The Palo Alto Borders was one of the nicer ones around, but it was not without controversy. The store had bought and renovated a beloved old movie theater that had gone out of business and the Palo Altans- never one to miss an opportunity to grandstand- declared the chain bookstore an abomination. In addition, the rise of Borders and Barnes & Noble were considered a threat to the independent bookstores in the area, especially a popular Menlo Park shop called Kepler’s. Before the ubiquity of online alternatives like Amazon, big box chain retailers were the bete noir of civic-minded citizens across the nation’s cities and college towns. Borders was indicative of the trend- it lacked soul and character, no matter how many musical performances or schoolkid readings the store organized.

But for a bookish kid chomping at the bit to go to college, Borders was the perfect place to work. My fellow employees that summer ranged from a Stanford grad student who moonlighted as a dot-com entrepreneur, a middle-aged New Yorker who had once played drums in a local punk band and had none of his original teeth (‘lost ‘em all in bar fights and hockey games’), an ex-con once hauled away by the police for violating his parole, and an HR manager who never talked- ever. On my breaks I would wander the aisles of the store, always removing my name tag so that customers wouldn’t disturb me, and pick up books like a lawnmower scooping up blades of grass. I’d sit in a corner and gaze at titles I could barely read and couldn’t understand.

Borders also had an extensive music section and in an era when Mp3s were still a novelty I gleefully used my employee discount to augment my CD collection. My partner in crime for this endeavor was a tall, black colleague ten years my senior whose knowledge of classic rock knew no bounds. Before closing time he would ask me if I had a certain Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground, or Grateful Dead album and when I said I didn’t, he’d say “it’s so great” in a soft, reverential tone which almost subconsciously would induce me to buy it. The stack of CDs in my room grew so large that my parents began wondering out loud whether there was anything else I might like to spend my money on.

The Borders in Palo Alto, in theory, was identical to the Borders’ in San Mateo, in San Diego, in New York, in London, in Melbourne. That’s the whole point of a chain, really. But the Palo Alto store was the setting for many of my most cherished teenage memories. There was the morose anarchist who taught me how to make cappuccinos and mochas (‘and this is for the yuppie fucks who need chocolate in their coffee’) There was the time sitting First Daughter Chelsea Clinton walked in with two well-built bodyguards in tow, calmly rejecting the one Borders employee with the cojones to ask her out on a date. There was the customer who commandeered our in-store PA system and pretended, with convincing accuracy, to be a commercial pilot (‘we’ll be taking things up to 30,000 and making a left right around Denver’). There was the time that I successfully persuaded my 21-year old colleague to buy me a six-pack of Coronas, only to realize that I had nowhere to hide it in my home.

Whenever I’m back in the Bay Area I make a point to stop in to the Palo Alto Borders, as it’s a convenient place to loiter while waiting for friends. None of the people I worked with are still there, and the CDs- which once occupied a massive chunk of the ground floor- are mostly gone, swallowed by the all-powerful iTunes. But just as I did when I was 18, I walk through the aisles, picking out books that draw my attention, and find a comfortable place to sit and read. For all I know, Chelsea Clinton could walk in and I’d not notice.

So it is with sadness that I read the other day that Borders filed for bankruptcy and plans to close many of their stores. I have no idea if the Palo Alto one will survive, but something tell me that it’ll eventually go, too. One day I’ll walk down University Avenue and see that what was once Borders had since become a clothing shop, or maybe an office building. I wonder if the same Palo Alto folks who raged when Borders came would feel vindicated by its departure. I doubt it- because there’s nothing good about a bookstore closing, about a little slice of culture and of memory- for me anyway- washed away forever.…

Toronto, Canada by Erik Schomann

Posted on February 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

Image courtesy of

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden
Boston, MA by Ella Chou

The fifth entry of this series brings us to Toronto,  the financial and cultural center of Canada. Today’s ambassador is Erik Schomann, alternatively known as the ‘oyibo’ in Nigeria, ‘infidel’ in Pakistan, ‘laowai’ in China, ‘der Kanadier’ in Germany and ‘German guy’ in Canada. Schomann is the quintessential universal foreigner, always comfortable in his skin and definitely at home in a city like Toronto, where he returned after several years living and working in China. Schomann currently works in the use of new media technology to meet the educational needs of the 21st century. His blog on the subject can be found here.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Toronto in the first place? What keeps you there?

Erik Schomann: I first moved to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) after my parents, brothers and I, moved back to Canada from our life in west Africa in the mid-1980s.  Since then Toronto has been a base through many consecutive moves including ones to Germany, Pakistan and China. Today, as I start to plant roots, Toronto seems the most appropriate place to be.

The more appropriate question is the second one and aside from being the financial hub of Canada (a fact that to me, only means it should be easier to find work), the cultural life of this city is about as vibrant as any major metropolis.  The city has more annual events than one could possibly attend fromTIFF to Nuit BlanchePaddle the DonDragon Boat FestivalsPride ParadesCarribana and the recently renamed Symphony of Fire.  World class museums, orchestras, stage shows, comedy clubs. The Blue Jays, the Raptors and a slew of other professional sports teams. Home to some of my personal favourite major and indie music acts such as MetricBedouin SoundclashJohn Moore. If you’re bored in this city, it’s your own damned fault.

All of this aside, the main thing that keeps me here is, ironically, a feeling I usually only get being away for a while and after finally coming back, there’s an unshakable feeling that I’m home again.

MS: What are the best things about life in Toronto?

ES: Oh, there’s so much but I’m going to go with the food. UNESCO ranked Toronto as ‘the most ethnically diverse city in the world‘, and one of the best ways for me to celebrate this, even if only superficially is though the wide and varied culinary experiences available. As in many North American cities, Torontonians don’t say what they want for dinner when suggesting a dining spot, they say what region of the world they have a hankering for. Ethiopian on Monday, Lebanese on Tuesday, Italian/Portuguese fusion on Wednesday, El Salvadorian on Thursday, TexMex on Friday, Vietnamese hangover food on Saturday and German sausages on Sunday and that’s just for breakfast. The following week, you could do it all again if you wanted or start from scratch with food from regions you never even knew existed.

MS: What are the worst things about living in Toronto?

ES: The Toronto Maple Leafs.

Seriously though…

The city transit system, especially to the satellite cities would have been embarrassing even at the beginning of the 20th century let alone now. This usually translates to overcrowding and extended waiting periods when using the system and couple this with the extremes of winter temperature and simply put, if you don’t own a car in this city, you’re fucked.

MS: If you were the mayor of Toronto, what would be on your agenda?

ES: As I just mentioned, the GTA transit system(s) are in shambles. If you are coming into the city from a suburb such as Mississauga, you are dealing with three separate transit authorities and required to pay three separate fees. Mississauga Transit will charge you $3.00, the Government of Ontario (GO) Trains that link the cities will charge another $3.50. and then the Toronto Transit Commission will charge $3.00. That’s $9.50 to get into the city. Double that for a return trip. Compare this to the fact that most parking is in the $10 dollar range and you begin to understand why Toronto has the worst traffic in the developed world.

I’d work with the province and the different municipalities in the GTA to amalgamate the systems, share costs to lower them overall and send those savings off to the bus rider to make transit a more feasible option throughout the year. I’d also add more bike lanes.

I’d also look into Hamburg, Germany’s experiments into clean burning incineration facilities with co-generation plants to deal with the cities growing waste disposal and energy needs (our trash was shipped to Michigan until the end of last year and long term solutions have yet to be found. Additionally, contracted energy deals have the province selling electricity at a cheaper rate to US clients than we sell to ourselves).

MS: What’s something about Toronto that can’t be found in a guidebook?

ES: Canada hates Ontario. Ontario hates Toronto. Toronto hates the Maple Leafs.

While around the country, politicians score points by trashing ‘Toronto elites’, they are still contributing to the fact that this city takes up way too much of its share of the national political agenda. Toronto considers itself first to the rest of the country and big city attitudes are resented in small town Canada where liberal cosmopolitanism is viewed with distrust and distaste.  One feature of Toronto seems to have a tendency to soften even the opinions of the harshest Torontophobe and while it actually is in the guide books, its definitely one of those things you need to go to in order to fully appreciate.

I’m talking about the Toronto Islands that create the harbour and shelter it from the flighty temperaments of Lake Ontario.  The islands are a massive parkland with beaches (clothing optional), bike paths (that really are for bikes and other wheeled things. Signs asking people to walk on the grass are not just there for the bemusement of European tourists but because pedestrians get in the way. Really, get off the tarmac, please.), sports fields, water sports and secluded anchorages, an amusement park, restaurants and public bbqs on picnic grounds.

Forested and populated by small furry animals, the Islands are an amazing getaway where a fifteen minute ferry ride teleports an exhausted and beleaguered urbanite to the quietude of a sequestered nature retreat for revival and renewal all without ever leaving the borders of Canada’s largest city.  While to many, the best part of the city is the part that isn’t like a city at all, people who don’t like Toronto feel no qualms with liking its islands. Everyone I’ve ever taken there, especially the ones who thought they knew Toronto have the same response: “I never knew”.

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Toronto?

ES: Toronto sells itself as a home for all types. For the most part, this is true.

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Toronto?

ES: If you don’t like people with lifestyles, values, beliefs, races and creeds that differ from your own, Toronto is probably best avoided. On the other hand, if you deny the human effect on climate change, if you say things like ‘not all Muslims are terrorists but most terrorists are Muslims’,  if you like slagging public health care without anything but Fox facts to go on or if you think hand guns are the answer to personal security, you won’t have to avoid Toronto because Toronto will avoid you.  Oh, people will talk to you and they’ll smile and be polite, as Torontonians do, but you won’t have many friends.

Photo by Walter Stanish

MS: What’s something about Toronto that runs contrary to popular perception?

ES: It is a Canadian city and our winters are harsher than most other places but one little known factor actually makes the city more livable and less extreme than other cities in the region. It is east of the ‘snowbelt’ meaning it receives substantially less snow than other Great Lakes cities including Chicago, Detroit and definitely less snow than Buffalo.

MS: Is Toronto suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

ES: If I were raising small kids right now, I probably would want to find somewhere outside of the city and not the suburbs either but that’s a personal thing. Toronto’s a fine place to raise a family too. The city has accessible parkland and open spaces as well as city-run and privately-owned facilities to appeal to and meet the needs of all age groups. You see this not so much in clusters of demographics doing different things in different places but mainly in the way most major events in Toronto, like the Canadian National Exhibition, the International Jazz Festival, Summerlicious/Winterlicious, the Sunday Serenades, the Cavalcade of Lights, Olympic Hockey Gold Medal celebrations and definitely Family Day events are pan-generational.

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Toronto’s future?

ES: Yes! It is the model for global citizenry. This is a bit of a grand interpretation of life in this city and perhaps exaggerates its importance but due to its diversity, to me, it serves as a microcosm for humanity and the idea that we can live peaceably in a vibrant global society that respects, nurtures and cultivates new and old cultures.  It’s not without its problems but the multicultural climate has been studied here by authorities in places where the experiment has been less than successful.  If Toronto can do it, we all can (assuming we want to. I’m looking at YOU, Arizona!).

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

ES: On Facebook, I list my home town as Hamburg, Germany and that’s mostly because its been a constant, a place I’ve always been able to return to when so many other things in my life have changed. I love Hamburg but I’ve never pictured myself living there for long stretches at a time. In Canada, I’ve made Vancouver, Kingston and Montreal my homes at some point in my life and still I prefer Toronto. I would like to live in Halifax, Nova Scotia mostly because I’ve never been and have heard great things. Outside Canada, the only other city to have captured my imagination in a way that Toronto has would be Kunming, China and given the opportunity to move back, I’d probably take it.

MS: Can you sum up Toronto in a word, phrase, or sentence?

ES: ‘Toronto the Good’

When this phrase first appeared in the 19th century, it was by no means a compliment. Meant initially as in insult by its much racier Canadian cousin city of Montreal mocking Toronto’s puritanical streak with it’s Victorian morality and pubs that closed down at nightfall, the city was dubbed ‘the Good’ in order to emphasise how boring the outpost was.  Well, today, it isn’t as boring as it once was. Athough many Canadians outside Toronto view it as a moral wasteland, it shouldn’t be compared so much to the mores and values of rural Canada but to the mores and values of other global cities and in terms of crime rates and overall livability, based on a human development index, we see the moniker still fits today.

With this blog’s author a native of San Francisco, perhaps this article by a woman from SF moving to Toronto will help clarify a bit of what life in this city is like for new comers to this city.…

Boston, MA by Ella Chou

Posted on February 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Image courtesy of

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Other cities:

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden

Our next entry features Boston, Massachusetts- one of America’s oldest and most charming cities. Ella Chou, a native of (the also old and charming) Hangzhou, China has lived in Beijing, New York, Washington DC, and Copenhagen in addition to Boston. She’s currently a graduate student in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard University, focusing on law and comparative politics. Ella can be seen as a guest blogger this week for James Fallows at The Atlantic- check out her posts here and here.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Boston in the first place? What keeps you there?

Ella Chou: Harvard. And Harvard.

MS: What are the best things about life in Boston?

EC:$25 College Card to Boston Symphony Orchestra, which gives me access to most of BSO concerts throughout the year. Charles River, no explanation needed.

MS: What are the worst things about living in Boston?

EC: In Cambridge, bars close at 2 AM.

MS: If you were the mayor of Boston, what would be on your agenda?

EC: I would plant tulips all over the city’s green.

MS: What’s something about Boston that can’t be found in a guidebook?

EC: I haven’t read a guidebook, but I guess it doesn’t tell you about the bean bag couches in the Harvard Law School library, 4th floor. A perfectly cozy and comfy place to be on a snow day.

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Boston?

EC: Those who likes the fine arts and enjoy classical music  have the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Isabella Gardner Museum in addition to the Boston Symphony and Lyrical Opera; those who enjoy fashion and shopping w have Newbury Street and Copley Place; those who like sports have the Red Sox(!!!) and the Patriots, the Head of Charles and the Harvard-Yale Game; those who likes nature have Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond just half an hour away. If you like history, well, does this need any elaboration?

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Boston?

EC: How could anyone detest all of the above?!

MS: What’s something about Boston that runs contrary to popular perception?

EC: I don’t really know what the popular perception of Boston is, the accent maybe? I find the Bostonian accent quite endearing.

MS: Is Boston suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

EC: I’d say Boston might not be the best place for older people, just because of the winter snow.

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Boston’s future?

EC: Sure!

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

EC: Copenhagen

MS: Can you sum up Boston in a word, phrase, or sentence?

EC: A historic city that has kept itself young.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms should be directed to matthew.schiavenza (at) or in the comment section below. Thanks!

Shanghai, China by John Pasden

Posted on February 16th, by matt_schiavenza in City Project. 1 Comment

Image courtesy of

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Other cities:

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver

Our third entry of the series takes us out of the United States entirely and to the Asian metropolis of Shanghai, China. John Pasden, 32, grew up in Tampa, Florida and came to China in 2000. Never planning to stay long, John ended up marrying a Chinese girl, going to graduate school in applied linguistics in Shanghai, and getting deep into the language learning industry, overseeing the lesson content at ChinesePod. John’s website, Sinosplice, has helped many foreign residents of China (including yours truly) better understand China and the Chinese language. John currently has his own Shanghai-based learning consultancy called AllSet learning.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Shanghai in the first place? What keeps you there?

John Pasden: My life in China started in Hangzhou (southern China, not far from Shanghai).  When you’re in Hangzhou and want to do more than just teach English, you go to Shanghai.  I also happened to fall in love with a lovely young lady from Shanghai, which gave me that push I needed.  (Hangzhou is very comfortable; it can be hard to leave!)

MS: What are the best things about life in Shanghai?

JP: Shanghai is as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be, as Chinese or as foreign.  You can speak Chinese non-stop, and you can live entirely within an English-speaking bubble, if you so choose.  It’s also incredibly modern and international.  I’m from Florida.  I’ve learned a lot more about other countries here in Shanghai than I ever did in Florida.

MS: What are the worst things about living in Shanghai?

JP: See some of the “best things” above.  The city is also incredibly driven by business.  You can feel everyone around you rushing, always rushing.  “Time is money,” the ubiquitous too-quick pace seems to be saying.

MS: If you were the mayor of Shanghai, what would be on your agenda?

JP: Enforce traffic laws.  Give tickets for bad driving and brazen disrespect for the law.

MS: What’s something about Shanghai that can’t be found in a guidebook?

JP: The face of ever-changing Shanghai.  You can’t map dunes in the desert, and you can’t print in a guidebook what parts of the city are getting torn down and what’s going up where.  Still, some of my friends that have visited Shanghai found it a very interesting and rewarding experience to wander through some sections of Shanghai that are being torn down to make way for for new highrises or shopping centers.  There’s this morbid fascination with the urban destruction, like you’re a stranger crashing a funeral.  But I think the disappearing parts of the city want to be mourned, or at least chronicled by photographers.

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Shanghai?

JP: An entrepreneur.

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Shanghai?

JP: A struggling artist.  (Go to Beijing!)

MS: What’s something about Shanghai that runs contrary to popular perception?

JP: Shanghai doesn’t have to be expensive.  You can live really cheaply here, but obviously not by renting an apartment in the French Concession and hanging out at expat bars.

MS: Is Shanghai suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

JP: It definitely feels like a city for young adults.  Kids have too few places to play, and the elderly can find it something of a blur.

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Shanghai’s future?

JP: Yes.  It’s got a lot of problems, but it’s so abuzz with activity.  All the economic activity here is not just about greed; as corny as it sounds, this city represents a better modern life for many.

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

JP: Kunming, Qingdao, Kyoto, Vancouver, San Francisco, or New York City.

MS: Can you sum up Shanghai in a word, phrase, or sentence?

JP: Better city, better life.  (Oops, sorry.)  Time is money.  Do something now.…