The four cities that matter most in the United States?

If you had to pick the top four cities that matter the most in the U.S. based on the industry that they represent, which cities would you pick? I’d argue for these four:

– New York City: money/finance/Wall Street
– Los Angeles: culture, such as TV and movies
– Silicon Valley (taking San Jose up to San Francisco as one mega-city): technology
– Washington D.C.: power

Beyond those four areas, things get murkier. Other cities like Chicago or Philadelphia are clearly important, but they’re diverse enough that they’re not synonymous with a specific industry. A city like Las Vegas is well-known for gambling, but would you rank gambling as more important than money, culture, technology or power? And frankly, you could also choose New York City for other industries such as publishing or journalism.

Likewise, you can absolutely have an impact in (say) technology outside of the Bay Area–think Boston, Seattle, or Austin–but it’s probably easier to drive technological change in the Bay Area.

Looking at it from the other direction, if you consider other large areas of the economy like energy, health care, or education, you don’t immediately think of a specific city associated with those industries.

I find this “four city” theory interesting. For example, you might consider politics or current events through the four city lens for insights about how the different areas interact with each other. Or you might look at a city like Detroit that has been known for the car industry, and consider what causes a city to thrive or not. Or you can look at how the United States interacts with other countries, and break down that interaction by money, culture, technology, or power. Or you might ask yourself whether you want to live in one of those four regions, or decide that you deliberately don’t want to live there.

Do you agree or think I’m crazy? I’d be curious to hear what other industries or cities people would propose adding, or if you think I’m completely off base.

35 Responses to The four cities that matter most in the United States? (Leave a comment)

  1. Matt,

    This is a great thought piece. I would argue that D.C. isn’t truly deserving to make the list. The power that is there is temporarily there. Meaning that the congressmen, and other politicians don’t actually live there. The real political power, it seems, resides with the residents of Ohio and/or Florida who have enough political clout to swing a presidential vote, so maybe a city there would be more appropriate.

    • Suggesting a “swing city” in Ohio or Florida is an interesting way to look at it. On the other hand, D.C. has the FCC, the FTC, the EPA, etc. and the Pentagon to back things up. I sort of feel like D.C. is an unusual case, in that it can boost or reduce the power of the other cities, but I’d still put it on the list.

      That does raise another question: how would you rank the four cities from most powerful to least powerful?

      • Agreed, I wouldn’t discard DC so quickly. You have the White House, the Senate, the Congress, State Department, CIA, Pentagon… and therefore every government contractor and every non-profit and lobby in the world has a presence here. Also, let’s not forget the important local presence of the UN with the World Bank, IMF, WHO America, IADB, also headquartered in DC.

        • I would certainly rank New York as the most important of the four cities followed closely by Silicon Valley. I would add Chicago. Diverse industry is its strength. Whereas LA or Silicon Valley could go the way of Detroit, it seems unlikely for Chicago. Chicago has more CEOs than any other city.

          As for D.C., I certainly understand the importance of political power, but I think its overrated to say that it is concentrated in a city for which the politicians don’t actually reside. I think if you were to ask an average Washingtonian they would not consider themselves in powerful city.

          That’s like saying that Dover, Delaware is most important because American Airlines, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Ford, GE, JP Morgan, Walmart and even Google have corporate shell corporations there. It’s just on paper.

          Following the same DC logic, one would conclude that Sacramento should be on the list because two of the four cities that matter most are in California and Sacramento is where the political power “exists” in California.

          I’m not saying that political power is not important. I’m saying that it is not as concentrated in DC as most people think. DC is the greatest shell of all time. If DC were so powerful we would have a single political party system.

  2. @Anthony,

    But the political machine that grooms candidates and presents them to the voters in Florida and Ohio is firmly entrenched in D.C. and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

  3. I agree with your choices. I believe DC has the most power, since it’s able to influence the other 3 quite substantially through legislation. While the other 3 have high concentrations of TV, media, tech, etc., they can be replicated or replaced much easier by other cities, not so with DC.

  4. Depends on what you mean by “matter” I guess. Does it have to matter the same to everyone?

    Ann Arbor matters most to me because I was born here and lived most of my life here and there’s a lot to like about.

    Detroit matters most to me because no matter how much you kick it, it’s never quite down for the count. I love Detroit to death.

    Hamtramck matters most to me, because I spent four great years there as part of a large Polish family who kind of “adopted” me and I had all kinds of experiences I could never have anywhere else at any other time. (Hamtramck is a city surrounded on all sides by Detroit; used to be the third largest concentration of Poles outside of Poland and Chicago. Lot of war refugees settled there)

    But most of those wouldn’t matter to anyone else. Does being “powerful” or representative of some industry make a city matter, or is it the place it holds in the hearts of its residents?

  5. This would be much more interesting if you tried to determine the top for ZIP (postal) codes. Or even the top four area (telephone) codes.

  6. Aww Matt you dissed Las Vegas, but I understand that because unless you live here you would not know that the real reason Las Vegas should be on your list is not gambling which is actually only a little over 1/3 the revenue and something locals rarely do. (We call it donating ☺)

    In the 1990s, 58 percent of a Las Vegas resorts’ revenue came from gambling. Last year it was just 37 percent.

    We are a town of nearly 2 million, yet we are the largest small town in America. Be careful burning bridges here, you may find out readily how small this town really can be.

    So why should it be on your list?
    It is not the tremendous access to the outdoors (National Geographic featured us on the cover of best outside destination cities), or our Mt Charleston; which hosts six of the seven world climate zones.

    It is not the entertainment, which is no longer just shows like Cirque/Celine and Donny and Marie, but large concert venues bringing in the best bands from all over the world – think Rocking Rio, Life is Beautiful and the MGM Village for starters or old classics like The House of Blues. It’s not our First Friday, which has exploded into a renaissance scene of art and culture once a month. It’s not even the many weekend events or our beautiful Smith Center where I have seen Wicked, The Book of Mormon and Ray Kurzweil speak.

    It is not the groundbreaking work on green solutions, or Elon Musk or that we are the very melting pot that the US always claims it is, but never quite achieves. In Las Vegas (for the most part) race/color/creed/religion/sexual orientation no one cares. The worst thing you can be here socially is closed-minded or a bigot. It is not even the 35,000 restaurants that claim there home here. Which notably makes Las Vegas the NY Fashion District of the Chef set. Not to mention the beautiful architecture, pools and venues contained within.

    It’s not about technology, never mind that every Casino and game facility is on the cutting edge of technological innovation in their own way. It isn’t even about being home to one of the largest Data Centers in the world, which even has been a host to Google’s Postini. (Switch)

    The list could go on and on –Dragon Boat Races, Lake Mead, Opportunity Village, Wine Festival, Lee’s Liquor anything, or the new bike/walking path connector to Lake Las Vegas, which is an entity all to itself.

    No it is not any one of these things. The thing that makes Las Vegas a best city, is its ability to disrupt — well itself. Vegas does not hang on to the past (sometimes to residents’ chagrin). It invents, it reinvents, it challenges boundaries and limits and creates new industries and never runs out of ideas or creativity.

    It takes what is old and makes it new or it completely destroys it and watches as the phoenix rises out of the ashes. It is the perfect balance of conservatism and libertarianism, with many others in between. It is one of the few place left in the US where you can come to town, readily access infrastructure and create something new, amazing and visionary.

    And inside all this crazy glitz and glitter and constant change lies a people that are some of the most generous I have ever met (try to volunteer around here) and off-strip some of the most down to earth. Las Vegas is a bubble, but a bubble of the best kind, it offers an easy environment in which to live, love and thrive.

    I could write a whole article on this (and well maybe just did), but trying not want to overstay my welcome. Just suffice to say, come to Defcon next year and maybe you will get a chance to see we are much prettier on the inside than the outside and we have a pretty great outside.

  7. Nashville.

    Mostly because it’s the hub of the music industry, and thereby has a huge influence on the soundtrack to our popular culture.

  8. Great top 4 recognitions Matt. I have often wondered how best to define Kansas City Missouri and Kansas City Kansas into a particular catagory.
    Our top primary business has pretty much landed over HallMark Cards and the birthplace of Walt Disney. And ofcourse the Kansas City Star…
    We have a wide base as far as federal employment but we seem to have no well known or defined base.
    Like most we have restaraunts and a few shopping centers.
    We don`t have a strong focus on Legal or Politics, No focus on Technology, No major Clothing industry, No Theatrical or Movie / Studios as New York or Los Angelos, We are not a major Gambling hub as Las Vegas,,, We aren`t the big style cowtown we were numerous decades ago either.
    So who or how would you define Kansas City ( Either One ? ) ?
    Matt I can see how you defined the 4 cities as you did but seeing that you defined these coastal cities and I am in the middle I pose the question, “Kansas City is ?”
    I even “Googled” this question and I still found the question to be “?”

  9. The capital was once in Philadelphia and is now in DC. The industries listed are movable. Instead I would focus on industries that can not move because of needed farmland or natural resources. Overlay that with natural defenses and my top 4 would be:

    Anaheim, Kansas City (MO), Honolulu, and Seattle. Honorable mentions Memphis, New Orleans, Houston and Philadelphia.

    I choose food and safety over everything else because well I have to be alive and nourished to enjoy the rest 😉

  10. One city of those 4 has it all. Money, power, culture, both pop culture and what I consider the real thing. And while Silicone Alley isn’t quite Silicone Valley, there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin ‘ on.

    Deference on political power, only because the electeds vote there but who holds the paper? One can argue the stand out bits and pieces, but there’s gotta be a center of what universe we find ourselves in. That would be NYC. I’m pretty sure.

  11. Hi Matt –

    I think industry, and its location and duration are highly unstable (as can be power). The cities you mention above, over 100 years ago, would not have mattered as much (or at all, NYC being the exception) compared to cities where industries of that time thrived and drove the nation. So I think you’re talking about a constantly moving needle – even though the movements are not quick in our lifetimes.

    To me, the best things any city/geo area has to recommend itself are culture, education, and a trade route. These three things bring [actual] diversity, arts, research … the building blocks of industry & technology and the things that will create and build stronger cultures. I’m not terribly concerned with concentrating power in a single geo, and believe that hinders, not helps, our nation.

    The four cities that matter most to me (in the US), unordered, are Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans.

    LA, SF, NYC are all obvious – hubs of culture, education, diversity, industry, etc. New Orleans is a jewel of a different kind, and hard for me to describe why I feel such an affinity for it. Having lived in the south, and come from a long line of southerners (though not from New Orleans), it just always feels like home for me when I’m there. And I want to save it – I want to make sure that it’s rich culture is neither washed away by floods, storms and poverty, nor whitewashed and gentrified by rebuilding. I’d love to see more attention paid to these kinds of places – they exist all over the country.

  12. As an Australian I can’t really comment as an insider as to how a US citizen would see their own country. But going back to the DC question, this has my vote as the city that matters most in the US and the world. Not just for the power of the Pentagon, White House etc, but because besides the impact of the internal political machinations of the country, for some unknown reason – almost all nations on earth and their internal governmental structures have psuudo-corporations registered there, which has piqued my curiosity and its obviously vitally important to the world and how it manages and organises itself. So as a world citizen, I have to vote for DC, but the DC outside the internal politics of the nation.

    Next to that, its Silicon Valley for sure. Technology now rules and affects and influences the world more intrinsically than any nation or government or entertainment industry, and SV is the beating heart of the tech industry of the planet.

    So they’re my two votes for two most important cities in the world – not just the US.

    • Steve, thanks for your perspective. From my side, it feels like Wall Street/banks and L.A./RIAA/MPAA are still more powerful than tech, but it also feels like tech is growing in influence or power. My main concern is how to avoid the technology industry doing bad things once it becomes more powerful and influential.

  13. The greater Boston area is #1 in the following:
    – Medical Community (hospitals, research)
    – Universities (Harvard, MIT)
    – History (Revolutionary War, Tea Party)
    – Sports (Go Pats!, Celtics, Sox, Bs, Marathon)

    I’d recommend switching LA for Boston.

  14. I agree with your choices. since it is able to influence the other 3 quite substantially through legislation. they can be replicated or replaced much easier by other cities, not so with DC.

  15. Hi Matt, I agree with Washington D.C. and its power. For me personally:

    Los Angeles – Entertainment, TV, movies
    New York – Business, money, stock exchange
    Seattle – Museums, parks, culture, relax
    Washington D.C. – Power, administration, control

  16. Chicago is also good for money and business. LA is good for music, in addition to TV & film.

  17. I wonder which 4 cities people from the US would consider the most important in England?
    Can you name 4 – and why those 4?
    Failing that – how about Europe?
    1. London

    • Interesting! For Europe, I’d go with:
      – London (money/finance)
      – Paris (culture)
      – Berlin or Brussels (power, depending on the country vs. EU level of granularity)

      but it’s not clear which city stands categorically for technology in Europe. Maybe Amsterdam? The Netherlands has the highest per capita rate of people owning websites, after all, and a strong tradition of freedom of expression (e.g. XS4ALL). What do you think?

      • I would agree with that four
        – London (money/finance/and culture)
        – Paris (culture)
        – Berlin (power and engineering/technology)
        – Brussels (EU)

        Not an industry but Rome…

    • The UK is tough Neil. With London having 7m residents and only Birmingham even exceeding 1m beyond that, its hard to really point to a major city of influence beyond London.

      For Europe, I’ll take a stab:

      London – Finance
      Paris – Culture
      Dublin – Technology
      Brussels – Politics

    • Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal.

      Wait…I don’t think I answered that right!

  18. Midwest – food

  19. I’d put Washington #1, based on political power and global influence…both positive and negative.

    After that:

    LA for the entertainment culture, since it’s still a big thing in the Western World.
    New York because if I don’t put it, I think Jay-Z will personally hunt me down…oh yeah, and Wall Street.
    As far as #4 goes, I’d probably go with Houston for the energy sector…y’know, since you Americans love oil and such. It’s kind of a tossup between them and Silicon Valley to me, though.

    Now, since someone else asked this, I think I’m obligated to represent Canada and ask the same question. Here would be my list:

    1) Toronto as the financial capital.
    2) Ottawa because it’s the real capital and it’s Washington’s little brother.
    3) Montreal, because I’m pretty sure poutine is an industry all by itself. If not, we’ll say culture.
    4) Grande Prairie, Alberta … it’s the only city in the Oil Sands region, which is big business here. Most people would probably slot one of Vancouver, Edmonton, or Calgary in at #4 but I just can’t ignore one of our biggest exports.

  20. I love the post. Maybe Florida ( I know it is not a city) but THE place for UK tourists?

    And also the hub for race car parts manufacturers?

    If we did this for the UK I would say

    London: Financial
    Manchester: Music and Football (OK culture and art sounds better)
    York: Beauty and history of rural England

    Moving over the channel, I would say Frankfurt for the Motor Manufacturers of the World HQ

  21. Don’t rule out Nashville, TN on your list either. HUGE growth in Nashville and all kinds of businesses are exploding out of there.

  22. biotech = boston

  23. London: Finance/Culture/Political power
    Oxford/Cambridge: Academic excellence
    Manchester: Sport/Media/Culture (BBC recently moved here)
    Birmingham: Industry

  24. Have a strong desire visiting Silicon Valley, Matt. Hope it be, soon.

  25. These are mine;

    London = Money/Finance
    Italy = Culture
    Greece = Culture
    Dublin = Technology

  26. Don’t forget Chicago. Chicago is the logistics center of the United States. Next time you fly into Chicago, look down and you’ll see that it’s all railroad yards and warehouses as far as the eye can see. In Silicon Valley it’s easy to forget that somebody has to manufacture and distribute all the stuff that you can order from Amazon.