"Coolest city" rankings don't tell the whole story
Forbes recently named Bethesda America's 17th coolest city, causing some to wonder if Montgomery County is becoming Portland on the Potomac. While their ranking and definition of a "city" are suspect, there's still plenty to be excited about.
The magazine based their rankings on several factors, including the number of restaurants, availability of recreational amenities, cultural diversity, and unemployment rates. Houston topped the list, followed by DC, while Baltimore was #14. Cities normally touted for their coolness, like Minneapolis and Austin, were lower on the list, while hipster capital Portland was nowhere to be found.
Not surprisingly, people in the area are confused. "Did someone redefine cool or cities or Bethesda?" wrote county planner Claudia Kousoulas on the Straight Line blog. A commenter on Bethesda Patch grumbled that Bethesda is "still pretty much white bread." And the Huffington Post has a poll asking whether the title should have gone to Fairfax.
However, this prize doesn't belong to Bethesda alone. When Forbes says "Bethesda," they're referring to the "Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick Metropolitan Division," a term used by the Census Bureau to break down the larger Washington metropolitan area. It contains Montgomery and Frederick counties. The rest of the region, including D.C., Northern Virginia, and Prince George's, Charles and Calvert counties in Maryland, belongs to the "Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metropolitan Division."
Left: Denver is a less cool place than Montgomery County, according to Forbes.
Right: Portland didn't make the list at all. Photos by the author.
Forbes has lavished Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick with many plaudits in recent years, including 2nd Smartest City, 9th Geekiest City, 5th Most Secure Place to Live, 21st Best-Performing City, and even 2nd Most Livable City. Montgomery alone has gotten its fair share of awards too, being named Utne Reader's "Most Enlightened Suburb" and making the Atlantic Cities' list of Creative Class Counties.
Still, very few people would conceive of Montgomery or Frederick counties, which together cover an area over 60 miles long, as a single "place," let alone a city. After all, some people in Kensington won't even go to Wheaton, a mile away. As a result, the Columbia Journalism Review has called Forbes' use of Metropolitan Divisions manipulative and wildly misleading.
But is that the magazine's fault, or the Census Bureau, who drew these lines in the first place? As Jarrett Walker points out, the boundaries of both metropolitan areas and cities are often arbitrary and have no relation to actual communities or social or economic connections.
The Census may lump Montgomery and Frederick counties together, but as a resident of Silver Spring, I spend more money in and have more social ties to DC than I do to Frederick. However, not only is it in another Metropolitan Division, it's in another state, sort of.
"Portland on the Potomac" deserves a fitting theme song. Video (mostly) by the author.
Whether or not Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick deserves to be called one of America's coolest cities, the facts supporting that title still hold. With 1.2 million residents, it's comparable to the metropolitan area Salt Lake City. It has one-fifth of Maryland's jobs and 600,000 jobs and just 5 percent unemployment, compared to 8 percent nationwide.
Montgomery County has a majority-minority population with 164 countries represented in its public schools. It's got everything from the headquarters of a major media corporation to punk houses and a town lovingly called the "People's Republic." The county is even planning to build one of the country's largest rapid transit systems.
We may not be the coolest, and we may not be a city in the proper definition, but there's still plenty to be proud of. And unlike Portland, the sun actually comes out in Montgomery County.
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