Top 10 Cultural Centers Of The 20th Century (By Decade)


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.

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  1. 2000s- Either New York (cause of the bravery and patriotism shown after 9/11) or Boston (Red Sox finally won the World Series and the Patriots and Celtics also won titles that decade)

    2010s- Most likely as of now Rio De Janeiro (Hosts the World Cup next year and then the Summer Olympics 2 years after that).

    Also the 1980s should have been LA. Hosted the Summer Olympics in , Raiders, Lakers, and Dodgers all won titles in that decade as well!

  2. Jim this is a great article! I studied geography so I’ll share this among some of my geographer friends

    • Well, I studied pornography and… oh, wait. What did I just say? Damn… 🙁

  3. LA for the 90’s! Rap, Gangs, Minorities coming to prominence. Riots. Hollywood. World Cup Final.

  4. Any list is going to have some bias, especially when dealing with something as diverse as culture.My personal bias would say that as I am from London I would say that Seattle in the 90’s was of interest in the (mainstream) UK for all of about 10 minutes.

    Then we all went back to listening to our Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and Oasis albums, popping E’s and getting slight miffed at watching players like Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and David Beckham win the league for United again.

    The common theme between all of them – Manchester, England

    • OK… you don’t like The Cure or The Smiths, then? Or The Pogues? Thin Lizzy? Black Sabbath? Depeche Mode?

      • Well done on naming some bands who’s biggest successes were in the 80’s (apart from Sabbath who just generally rock in which ever decade they like) and only one of whom are from Manchester -The Smiths (two of the bands you named aren’t even from the same country; but I’ll leave it up to you to work out which!)

  5. Agree that London does not get the nod for the 60’s. The Beatles and Rolling Stones along should be enough to get the spot.

    I understand the idea t of New Orleans but 1920’s has to be Paris. Center of literature and art for the world and still influential in music (including jazz even if not as much as New Orleans). But the Big Easy never was the center of art and literature as Paris was that decade.

  6. since when did a top 10 website become obligated to write about anything outside the USA? I don’t go on the websites of any other country and whine that they don’t write about the USA enough.

  7. Sorry but I don’t associate any city outside of the United States or the UK with any era during the 20th Century. How would Tokyo represent the 90’s when everyone there was wearing the clothes that Americans wore in the 80’s? Paris? For having such a rich cultural reputation Paris really hasn’t changed all that much in the past 100 years (Parisians are still stuck up, condesending and smelly).
    Only England and the United States had any cultural relevance in the 20th century. I don’t see anyone wearing moose hats from Russia.

    • I’ve got a raccoon hat from Uzbekistan. Apropos of nothing, just mentioned it.

    • surely berlin gets a mention for 30s or 40s or possibly moscow as though they arent to be admired, facism and communism were definitley two of the biggest cultural influences of the century

  8. 60’s London all the way.

    This is quite a western list. Tokyo could’ve had a shout at either the 80’s or the 90′ s for its cultural effect on Asia

    • Tokyo’s affect on the 90’s culture is going to be limited greatly by the Lost Generation – the economic crisis that sank Japan’s economy in the early-to-mid 90’s.

  9. 1920’s would be Paris, hands down. The music, dance, film, and fashion.
    40’s Los Angeles. Movies, disney, aeronautics, and fashion.
    50’s NYC on a whole not just Brooklyn. Music, TV, art(all the euro artists who left went to NYC), TV, and books.
    60’s Split between London and San Fran. For all the same reasons but ill give it to london based soley on the film industry.
    70’s Los Angeles. Films (Star Wars, Jaws, etc) fashion, music, and of course TV.
    80’s LA, London, Tokyo, and NYC are much more than Miami. Just asking what was your drug of choice in the 80’s, just asking.
    Cant argue with the rest, but man you blew it on the ones Ive mentioned and Im sure others will come up with more than me.

  10. This is a great list! It’s a shame we have to wait 90 years for the Culture centers of the 21st century to be released.

  11. Pretty sure that London in the 60’s trumps San Francisco as a “Cultural Centre”…

    • I agree with you completely, 1960’s London was the birth of the Swinging Sixties.

  12. I like how this list was written, but I find it too American. Just my opinion.