Seeking vivid descriptions of cities
December 31, 2013 6:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for vivid written description of cities (real or fictional) that are especially accurate or perceptive. Interested in any written (i.e. passages from books, magazines, possibly song lyrics; not looking for videos) description . I'm more interested in descriptions that capture the "feel" of a city, as oppose to something clinical or factual. Especially looking for passages where the author has strong emotions (positive or otherwise) about the city in question. Length-wise, anything from a few sentences to a few paragraphs. Thanks AskMefi!
posted by dragonfruit to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Calvino's Invisible Cities. It's magical and consists only of descriptions of cities.
posted by dhoe at 6:47 AM on December 31, 2013 [8 favorites]

Here Is New York, by E. B. White.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:48 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

chiming in on the E.B. White piece
posted by angrycat at 6:55 AM on December 31, 2013

Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk. (Sorry, don't have the book to hand so I can't give a specific paragraph, but you'd find one that fit your criteria very easily.)
posted by Salamander at 7:01 AM on December 31, 2013

Issue 51 of The Sandman.
posted by jbickers at 7:05 AM on December 31, 2013

Seconding Italo Calvino.
posted by serelliya at 7:25 AM on December 31, 2013

Left and Leaving - The Weakerthans
posted by esoterrica at 7:34 AM on December 31, 2013

It's pretty cliche, but there's a reason that passages from Carl Sandburg's 1914 poem Chicago are still used to describe the city.

"The poem sort of says 'Maybe we ain't got culture, but we're eatin' regular.'" - Carl Sandburg
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:43 AM on December 31, 2013

Free Air has some nice passages on Seattle, though it was written in 1919:

After breakfast, she went out on the terrace for the View.

In Seattle, even millionaires, and the I. W. W., and men with red
garters on their exposed shirt-sleeves who want to give you real estate,
all talk about the View. The View is to Seattle what the car-service,
the auditorium, the flivver-factory, or the price of coal is to other
cities. At parties in Seattle, you discuss the question of whether the
View of Lake Union or the View of the Olympics is the better, and polite
office-managers say to their stenographers as they enter, "How's your
View this morning?" All real-estate deeds include a patent on the View,
and every native son has it as his soundest belief that no one in Tacoma
gets a View of Mount Rainier.

Mrs. Gilson informed Claire that they had the finest View in Seattle.

Below Claire was the harbor, with docks thrust far out into the water,
and steamers alive with smoke. Mrs. Gilson said they were Blue Funnel
Liners, loading for Vladivostok and Japan. The names, just the names,
shot into Claire's heart a wistful unexpressed desire that was somehow
vaguely connected with a Milt Daggett who, back in the Middlewestern mud
and rain, had longed for purple mountains and cherry blossoms and the
sea. But she cast out the wish, and lifted her eyes to mountains across
the sound--not purple mountains, but sheer silver streaked with black,
like frozen surf on a desolate northern shore--the Olympics, two-score
miles away.

Up there, one could camp, with a boy in a deteriorated sweater singing
as he watched the coffee----

Hastily she looked to the left, across the city, with its bright new
skyscrapers, its shining cornices and masses of ranked windows, and the
exclamation-point of the "tallest building outside of New York"--far
livelier than her own rusty Brooklyn. Beyond the city was a dun cloud,
but as she stared, far up in the cloud something crept out of the vapor,
and hung there like a dull full moon, aloof, majestic, overwhelming, and
she realized that she was beholding the peak of Mount Rainier, with the
city at its foot like white quartz pebbles at the base of a tower.

A landing-stage for angels, she reflected.

posted by duffell at 7:46 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having been to Winnipeg a few times, I can say that The Weakerthans' One Great City! (I Hate Winnipeg) is perfect at describing the 'feel' you get in the city. Lyrics here.
posted by gursky at 7:57 AM on December 31, 2013

The book A Winter's Tale boils down to a beautiful lyrical description of New York City. It is heavy on the magical realism while still feeling very true to the place.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:00 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another Hundred People from the musical Company by Stephen Sondheim
posted by subsupra at 8:30 AM on December 31, 2013

John Steinbeck is your man.

East of Eden has some great descriptions of Salinas, CA

Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat have some great descriptions of Monterey, CA
posted by colin_l at 8:37 AM on December 31, 2013

Fictional cities are described by China Mieville in Perdido Street Station and in The City & The City. They're fantastical places but he makes them feel real.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:54 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Peter Straub's "A Short Guide to the City." Straub's work from 1985 to the present draws heavily on his childhood and adult experiences in and emotions about Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:05 AM on December 31, 2013

For more fictional cities: Camorr, a vibrant Venice-inspired fantasy city described in vivid detail from squalor to soaring towers in Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora.
posted by harujion at 9:09 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came to recommend Mieville's The City & The City. It's great, better than the Calvino bandied about above.
posted by klangklangston at 10:03 AM on December 31, 2013

Jacob Tomsky wrote about New Orleans in Heads in Beds. It is a memoir of sorts of the hotel industry, and since many of his years working in it were in NOLA there is one particularly vivid stream-of-consciousness passage describing the city. He said in an interview that it was lifted from a novel he had been trying to write years earlier, which explains how uncharacteristic it feels from the rest of the book. I borrowed it from the library so I don't have it with me, but it's worth checking out (literally).
posted by therewolf at 10:58 AM on December 31, 2013

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: My Lost City by Luce Sante (Bible of 1970s NYC).
posted by Violet Hour at 11:33 AM on December 31, 2013

In Colossus of New York, Colson Whitehead talks about how a city (in his example, NYC) exists differently for everyone in it, based on how things were when they first arrived, and how, when places close, or move, (or buildings fall down), we carry how it was before with us:
I started building my New York on the uptown No. 1 train. My first city memory is of looking out a subway window as the train erupted from the tunnel on the way to 125th Street and palsied up onto the elevated tracks. It's the early 70's, so everything is filthy. Which means everything is still filthy, because that is my city and I'm sticking to it. I still call it the Pan Am Building, not out of affectation, but because that's what it is. For that new transplant from Des Moines, who is starting her first week of work at a Park Avenue South insurance firm, that titan squatting over Grand Central is the Met Life Building, and for her it always will be. She is wrong, of course--when I look up there, I clearly see the gigantic letters spelling out Pan Am, don't I? And of course I am wrong, in the eyes of the old-timers who maintain the myth that there was a time before Pan Am.
Here's the link to the rest of that excerpt.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 1:46 PM on December 31, 2013

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente contains some very vivid descriptions of a fantastic city that people can only visit in their dreams after having sex with someone else who's been there.
posted by sigmagalator at 5:18 PM on December 31, 2013

Memory Mines from "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" (pp. 433-435), Vintage © 2004 Suketu Mehta, or really so much of the book.

The only event in the Bombay weather is the monsoon. The first rain comes early this year, in the middle of May. I can smell it coming, over the sea.
I say to the workmen in my flat, "It's going to rain."
"Now?" they ask, surprised.
Now. I know that smell.

And it goes on... One of my favorite books. The memoir is a love letter to that big, messy, amazing city.
posted by Gotanda at 5:34 PM on December 31, 2013

Raymond Chandler is an obvious choice for L.A. This is from The High Window:
Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.

In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.

Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.
I can't find a quote, but I think Richard Lange captures a similar but contemporary version of the city.

This snippet of lyrics from Randy Newman's I Love L.A. captures the gestalt of the city in and reduces it down to its essence but also acknowledges it's not perfect:
From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody's very happy
'Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day

I love L.A. (We love it)
I love L.A. (We love it)

Look at that mountain
Look at that tree
Look at that bum over there, man
He's down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain't nothin' like em nowhere
posted by Room 641-A at 6:12 PM on December 31, 2013

If you are interested in bygone times, Damon Runyon vividly evokes New York during Prohibition with his tales of speakeasies, racetracks, gamblers and dolls. I do not know how accurate said scribe is in his recounting and he may be merely lobbing the phonus balonus but his phraseology is more than somewhat distinctive, being known to one and all as Runyonese.
posted by Quietgal at 7:26 PM on December 31, 2013

If we're counting fictional cities, it doesn't get much more vivid than Jan Morris's pseudo-travelogue Last Letters from Hav.
posted by zeri at 9:31 PM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing to recognize about Chandler is that while he often gets neighborhood vibes right, he's often making up geography pretty wildly.

Dashiell Hammett gives a pretty good San Francisco, but it might have the same accuracy problems.
posted by klangklangston at 11:02 PM on December 31, 2013

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon features frequently vivid and poetic descriptions of (wait for it) Pittsburgh.

Also like half of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu is vivid descriptions of towns and places and the emotions the narrator associates with them.
posted by daisystomper at 11:41 PM on December 31, 2013

Dashiell Hammett gives a pretty good San Francisco, but it might have the same accuracy problems.

The OP is looking for "feel" over accuracy so in this case I think Dashiell Hammett is probably a good suggestion!
posted by Room 641-A at 6:46 AM on January 1, 2014

City of Quartz, by Mike Davis
Disneyland with the Death Penalty and My Own Private Tokyo by William Gibson.
posted by outlaw of averages at 1:40 AM on January 2, 2014

As many others have said, you need Calvino's Invisible Cities in your life. I did a big post last year about the book along with his other works -- they're all worthy of your time, but IC is especially marvelous, IMHO. One of the most beautiful books I've ever read.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:34 PM on January 2, 2014

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