The Stories Cities Tell Us: Listening to London, New York, Hong Kong and LA

A VIEW FROM THE TOP

Cities are always speaking to us, just not in words. They speak through the cityscape that helps to define them as places—the stone, brick, glass, wood, metal and technology in their buildings and streets—and through the people who populate them. By paying attention to the details of the built environment, you can learn how to listen.

Here are a few stories some of my favorite cities have told me.

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London: How to Get Lost in a Good City

I’ve learned that the best way to get to know a city is on foot, in the early morning, before it’s had a chance to completely wake up. I travel often for business, and rather than go for my morning run in an anonymous hotel gym, I try to run the streets of whatever neighborhood I find myself in. In London, that’s usually near the heart of things in the West End and the City: Big Ben, the Tower, St. Paul’s and Buckingham Palace. You’d think that around so many landmarks, it’d be tough to get lost. But I always seem to find a way.

On foggy mornings especially, London’s medieval street plan is a maze. 

On foggy mornings especially, London’s medieval street plan is a maze. Stained glass and gargoyles loom out at you one moment, followed by safety glass and digital ads the next. Even some of the street names are puzzling: Throgmorton, Wormwood, Threadneedle. There are stories behind them all, but the story behind Threadneedle is one of my favorites. It’s the story of London in miniature.

The name comes out of the Middle Ages, either from the child’s game of Thread the Needle, which was once played there, or the coat of arms over the door of the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, an ancient trade guild that long ago evolved into a combination of posh private club, civic society and charity. The Bank of England, which sits at one end of the street, is still sometimes called the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, and there’s more than 5,000 tons of gold bars in vaults deep below Threadneedle’s paving stones. Look up from the street, and you can see the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie and other modern skyscrapers in the distance, all of them symbols of London’s continuing importance as a global financial hub.

When I run in London, I always give myself an extra half hour to find my way back to the hotel. On the surface, I am annoyed by the inconvenience of getting lost, but deep down I suspect that I am counting on it. The less rational part of my brain that kicks into gear when I run is the same part of the brain that suspends disbelief during a good book or a movie. It doesn’t care about getting to work on time or getting fit. It’s just on the hunt for more stories.

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New York: The Old Pro

I live in New York, and the one thing that consistently amazes me about the city is that it still functions so well. When you look at it from the outside, you don’t expect it to. It’s rusty and grimy. The glitziness from the 1980s (and in some cases the 1880s) is still there, but so is a heavy patina of age.

To see the real city underneath, take a trip on the subway during rush hour on a weekday. Amidst the heat, the crowds and the hurry, New York has a way of reminding you that the global currents of power and finance still flow through its heart.

Despite the crowds and the clutter, people still come to New York to rewrite the rules and remake themselves.

If you’re commuting on the famously overcrowded Lexington Avenue Line, get out at the 14th Street—Union Square station and take a walk around. You’ll see a cityscape that hasn’t changed much since the late 19th century. So many of Union Square’s buildings are historic landmarks that it’s likely to look the same in another 125 years, too.

New York City itself is a lot like this. The narrow, crowded streets and neighborhoods are too full at this moment in history to admit much that’s truly new. But within that established structure, the city outperforms just about anybody. America’s media and financial industries still emanate from Midtown and Wall Street. The art galleries and fashion houses of Chelsea still set standards of global taste. And despite the crowds and the clutter, people still come to New York to rewrite the rules and remake themselves.

Think of New York as an elegant old timepiece. It’s expensive, beautiful, functional and unchanging. And with the proper care, it’s set to run forever.

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Hong Kong: Riding on the Back of the Heat

The first thing that hits you about Hong Kong is the heat. You step out of the overly air-conditioned airport and it hits you like a wave of sleep. Cumulatively, I’ve probably spent several weeks in Hong Kong on business, all of it lulled by the humid air. And when you wander around near asleep, you also wander close to dreams.

You step out of the overly air-conditioned airport and it hits you like a wave of sleep. 

A friend once took me water skiing in a bay near the city. The skyscrapers and the port and all the signs of civilization would have been visible if we could’ve seen around the low mountains in front of us. But despite this, I felt enchanted, totally outside time. I’d read somewhere to watch out for sharks in the South China Sea, but I found myself looking instead for the undulating backs of ancient dragons swimming through the water.

Hong Kong has every reason to be split up into neighborhoods as rigidly as New York or London. There’s the sharp divide between Hong Kong’s past as a British colony and its current status as part of China. There’s also the divide between the sections built to host the temporary residents passing through on business and the streets that meet the daily needs of its permanent inhabitants. But none of these feel sharply divided from each other in space, or even in time.

There’s a hike just outside the city called Dragon’s Back. From the ridge, you can catch a glimpse of everything the island offers. On one side of you, there are the skyscrapers, looking like a fleet of spaceships that have landed in a primeval jungle. Closer to the port—dotted with ancient-looking junks, houseboats and massive, high-tech freighters—you can pick out the spires of old buildings from the height of the British Empire. On the other side of the ridge, you can look over an unblemished South China Sea. Somehow, the heat blurs it all together, and the whole city melts into one continuous dream.

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Los Angeles: Forum for the Future

Before 2010, if you looked out the window of your plane on its descent into LAX over Inglewood, you’d see a vast expanse of concrete with weeds growing up through the cracks. What you were seeing was the parking lot of the Forum. Originally built in the late 1960s to bring pro hockey to LA, the Forum has been through a few booms and busts over the last half-century before becoming what it is today: a citywide icon, a soon-to-be home to the returning LA Rams and a buzzing concert venue. The Forum’s story is in many ways LA’s story.

To start with, the parking lot means as much as the building. The ancient Roman Forum was built at the center of a dense tangle of streets designed for foot traffic. But LA’s Forum has only ever existed at the center of tracts of open space, designed not for feet but the wheels of cars.

In the 1960s, building a 17,500-person event space in the midst of then sparsely populated Inglewood only made sense if you knew people were going to drive from afar to see the LA Lakers play basketball or Elvis Presley play the guitar. Whenever I see the Forum’s parking lot, I am reminded that LA is the world’s first great driving city.

Inglewood itself has all the essentials of what makes LA so great, too. The Inglewood cemetery, directly across from the Forum, is a small repository of great Art Deco and Spanish Revival architecture, as well as the final resting place of some Old Hollywood glamour, like Edgar Bergen and Betty Grable, and immortal musical talent, like Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. If I’m in the area, I make a point of driving past the giant donut on the roof of Randy’s Donuts, an iconic example of Los Angeles’s more playful side. (For what may be the weirdest—and my favorite—LA landmark, take a look at Clownerina).

Before its current revitalization, the Forum arguably peaked in the 1980s. As a former Angelino, I remember going there to see the “Showtime” Lakers, who won five championships that decade and seemed to make it to the playoffs every year. Their games were almost like red carpet events, attended by the likes of Jack Nicholson, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.

Today, LA is in evolution mode. 

Faced with a dwindling fan base, the Rams left for St. Louis, Mo., in 1995, and while the Forum kept going as a venue, it fell into disrepair, like many of Los Angeles’s great central neighborhoods.

Today, LA is in evolution mode. Cutting-edge skyscrapers are shooting up from the city center, and once-decaying satellite neighborhoods, like Mid-City, have been adopted by communities immigrating from across the globe. As an unapologetic foodie, I couldn’t be happier. Each new international community that makes LA home brings its own distinctive cuisine with them. LA’s Mexican food is still the best anywhere, but the offerings in Japanese, Korean and Central Asian food are quickly catching up.

The fate of the Forum has changed, too. After a full renovation of the venue, the Rams are coming back to Inglewood and the parking lot is once again pristine, a sight which no doubt brings joy to the hearts of native Angelinos weaned on a culture of the automobile—and to this New Yorker who sees every descent into LAX as another homecoming.

This is the third in a series of articles on storytelling by Paul Suchman, global chief marketing officer at CBRE.

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