The 20th century is still recent enough (and documented enough) that you can look at each decade and see clear patterns as to where the real movers and shakers were, culture-wise. As it turns out, one specific area dominates popular culture for about ten years, until another area takes over and changes everything.
So which cities in could be intrinsically identified via decades of the last century? Let’s find out. Starting with the beginning and moving on to the end, here is an examination of the most influential cities of each decade.
10. London (00’s)
In almost every way, London was the city that typified the first decade of the 20th century. London was the center of the British Empire on which “the sun never set.” There was an excitement there, not only in industry but also in ideas. The women’s suffragette movement, which was highlighted in the film Mary Poppins, was in full swing with several societies. This was also a time when a thriving theater industry was not only turning out great Shakespearean performances, but also outstanding original works. Winston Churchill even had a string of fictional bestsellers. Making the whole world England? Indeed.
9. Detroit (10’s)
Despite it’s current desolation, Detroit used to be a hotbed of cultural advancement, never moreso than in the 1910’s. Think about it. Henry Ford not only started to mass produce the Model T, but also introduced the minimum wage. The moving assembly line, first used in 1913 by the Ford motor company not only was revolutionary to industry, but also would be a turning point in the modernization of war. Detroit was instrumental in changing a horse-drawn carriage society into one populated with affordable automobiles. Detroit was also at the epicenter of a burgeoning labor movement in the United States. Throughout all of this, the Motor City was starting to really make the 20th century a modern one.
8. New Orleans (’20s)
They don’t call it the “Jazz Age” for nothing. The world that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about, of riches and parties gone wild, was the party before the whole Great Depression thing showed up as the ultimate buzzkill. The music and sounds of 1920’s New Orleans would inspire the “Swing Kids” during Hitler’s Germany. When you go to New Orleans today and get that “old world” vibe, you are witnessing a mere glimpse of what the ’20s was like in the Big Easy. This was a culture that influenced an entire world. More importantly, it was a culture that largely came from a burgeoning creativity within the African-American community.
7. Chicago (’30s)
If you are truly honest with yourself, you can’t even think about the 1930’s without conjuring up at least one mental image of Depression-era Chicago. This was the Chicago of Al Capone and Elliot Ness. The city had a style in the ’30s which is still copied and celebrated to this day. The culture of liquor-running, speakeasies, and “Tommy Guns” is practically mythologized in modern-day life and cinema.
The Second City in the 1930s was a cultural and sports mecca as well. Don’t forget that the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was a showcase of the height of innovation and technology of the time. The city also had sports teams in the NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball, before that was a regular thing for most cities. The 1930s and Chicago are a time and city which will forever be linked.
6. Philadelphia (’40s)
In a tough time in American history, the nation had to be typified by a tough town. That was when Philadelphia answered the call. The Philadelphia Story, starring Katherine Hepburn, showed the beauty of a town on the precipice of leading a country into a World War, which would later be typified by Naval vessels rolling out in Philadelphia’s own shipping yards.
More than that, the City of Brotherly Love served as a reminder of why America fought a war of freedom from the tyranny of a madmen. Philadelphia stood as the birthplace of freedom in a America, with the Liberty Bell standing as a flawed symbol of greatness. In New York City, they famously celebrated the winning of World War II. However, in many ways, the works and ideals shown in Philadelphia was where it was actually won.
5. Brooklyn (’50s)
When you think about the 1950s, you think about a post-war society full of hope and clean-cut families on the verge of prosperity. You think about Leave It To Beaver and the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. However, Americana in the 1950s was just as typified by things like baseball, hot dogs, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn in the 1950s not only represented all of those hard working families with the small-town ideals which you see in sitcoms, but also the winds of change which could not be stopped. Brooklyn is the heart from which Billy Joel sang about in We Didn’t Start the Fire. It was a heart that was emboldened when Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier by playing for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. In an era more complicated than it would let on, Brooklyn was the story of America in the 1950s.
4. San Francisco (’60s)
If the Brooklyn Bridge can accurately be looked at as the symbol of 1950s America, then the Golden Gate bridge can be looked at as the symbol of the ’60s. In 1967, the counterculture movement descended upon the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, kickstarting what has been dubbed the “Summer of Love.” There, flower children and hippies sparked artistic, as well as musical movements.
The anti-war movement also fermented at the nearby University of California at Berkeley (which is still seen as a meeting ground of left wing ideals.) San Francisco in the 1960’s was also home to strange occurrences such as the “Zodiac Killer.” If you were going to make a movie about the 1960s, a shorthand way to show the environment would be to simply place the setting in San Francisco.
3. New York City (’70s)
New Yorkers do not actually remember the 1970’s fondly (at least not the ones who lived through it.) It was a time of severe financial crisis, with the whole city teetering on bankruptcy. However, when you think of the images of the 1970s, a lot of them would travel to New York regardless. This was the era of Saturday Night Live’s original Not Ready for Primetime Players, the era of disco and punk rock music. Both of those genres had burgeoning scenes in New York, from Club 52 to CBGB’s.
In sports, this was a time when George Steinbrenner brought the New York Yankees back to prominence with free agency and his “Bronx Bombers.” Also, these were the days of gritty crime that has since become a caricature in every buddy cop movie made since. In short, New York City summed up pretty much the entire decade of the 1970s. The city’s residents might not like the decade, but they will continue to remember the ’70s forever there.
2. Miami (’80s)
Whatever you may think of the 1980s, you are more than welcome to think of Miami, Florida. If you want to associate Miami with violent drug trafficking, you have no farther to look than Miami Vice and Scarface. If you want to remember when Miami was a relevant sports town built on swagger, look toward Jimmy Johnson’s Hurricanes and the rock star good looks of Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.
On the other hand, if you think that Miami is nothing more than a retirement community, then you have whole DVD collections of The Golden Girls to look back on. Everything about the ’80s was built on violent excess, and much about 1980s Miami reflected that to a T.
1. Seattle (’90s)
Somehow, all culture in the 1990s seemed to drift towards the rainy northwest of Seattle, Washington. The grunge era had arrived and was heralded by such bands as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins, and Mudhoney. These bands and their “grunge look” inspired suburban children to spend sixty dollars for a plaid shirt at stores like Goldsmiths. Furthermore, Seattle seemed to launch a new, somewhat cooler era in sports, with Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez holding down the Seattle Mariners. There may have been an Arkansan in the White House, but the nation took its cultural cues directly from Seattle.