What Makes a City Great

I lost count a long time ago of the number of times  I've been to Paris. Having lived in Europe for 12 years, then made regular visits back to the Old Continent since moving back to the US, they all start to run together -- to a certain extent. The wonderful thing about a world class city like Paris, however, is that there are limitless new things to discover with every visit.

For example, I had never been inside the fabled Opéra Garnier, home of the national ballet and opera companies. The opulent decor is reminiscent of the Versailles palace, and my friends and I relished the thought of kings, queens and emperors  for generations sitting in those seats and witnessing some of the world's greatest performances.

Every time in Paris, or Rome, or London (among others), I find myself asking what makes a city great. The afore-mentioned cities are indisputably three of the world's greatest, and arguably THE greatest in Europe. Why is it that tourists flock to these cities by the thousands? Having spent time in all three of these, with the full intention of further visits, I see a common thread:


Hanging out at "Les Berges"
Hanging out at "Les Berges"

Cities the size and age of Paris, London and Rome must continuously reinvent themselves, not only for the obvious reason that the infrastructure must be able to bear the staggering growth rate, but also in order to maintain a sense of vitality, a collective sense of bien-être. Otherwise, any city could virtually collapse under the weight and strain, as indeed some seem close to.

Every time I'm in these cities, most recently Paris, I marvel at the creative energy that goes into maintaining this collective sense of well-being, this je ne sais quoi that makes people proud to call the city home. This was my first time in recent memory to be in Paris in the month of August. For several years now, the city of Paris has been hauling in thousands of tons of sand and creating a small beach on the right bank of the Seine, complete with palm trees, chaises longues, snack bars and music. Weather permitting, every night sees a beach party with dancing, crêpes and plenty of camaraderie. And it's not a drunken, out of control fête; the feel was downright family friendly.

Modern art at La Défense
Modern art at La Défense

A little farther west, in front of the Musée d'Orsay, an area called "Les Berges" has been created for outdoor relaxation and togetherness. Hundreds of square beams, not unlike railroad ties, have been used to create various kinds of sitting areas, platforms and picnic areas, along with fun and creative activities such as monkey bars, mazes painted on the spongy asphalt-like surface, or giant chalkboards actually inviting grafitti. People of all ages could be seen, from family birthday parties to friends enjoying a leisurely picnic with a bottle of wine, from lovers taking a stroll to cyclists, skateboarders and roller bladers taking advantage of the open space.

In front of the famous Hôtel de Ville in the 1st arrondissement, beach volleyball courts occupy the large square, and players by the hundreds sign up for a time slot.

It is no secret that Paris is a great patron of the arts; but creativity goes far beyond art, and from this writer's perspective, it is heartwarming to see a city government that continuously works to create an inviting place to be -- not only for its millions of annual visitors, but also for its residents who, for whatever reason, can't be at the Côte d'Azur in August.