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Michael J. Critelli

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Rediscovering the Joys of the Urban Environment

Posted: 02/22/11 04:34 PM ET

I have lived 43 years in cities. Although Darien, Connecticut, where I have spent the last 19 years, has 22,000 residents, it has a pace of life, values and amenities resembling New York City, where many Darien residents work. Edward Glaeser recently published a great book entitled The Triumph of the City, which concludes that cities are one of humankind's greatest inventions. I agree.

I love living in cities, the bigger the better, for many reasons:

Cities confront unique challenges that spawn innovative solutions.

Cities' unique challenges arise from their population density, traffic congestion, diversity, cost-of-living, competitive populations, and smaller living spaces, compared with suburban and rural areas. These challenges spawn innovative solutions.

For example, cities like New York invent retail services that recognize that apartment refrigerators and countertops are too small to store more than 2-3 days worth of foods and beverages, particularly perishables. As a result, green grocers who are open 24x7 and are conveniently located for almost everyone in New York, become secondary food storage areas for apartment dwellers.

Cities make better use of normally unused living and exterior spaces. My wife had a Murphy bed (stored in the wall during the day) in her Chicago apartment. I had modular clothing bins stored under the bed. Our New York rooftop, like many city rooftops, had a first-class pool, restaurant and health club, open almost every day. On winter days, we could still swim in a heated pool under a retractable dome. Cities have created opportunities to practice sports normally played in suburban or rural areas. New York's Chelsea Piers created a space in which golfers could hit drives into the Hudson River. A company called Adventure Golf Services converts rooftops into golf practice areas. Cities use commercial lobbies as revenue-producing public plazas. IBM, and Sony now have Manhattan public plazas which are great meeting places.

Cities provide sports bars initially because people watch major sporting events and recreate the experience of having a beer and eating burgers, potato chips, and popcorn in front of multiple TVs too big for their apartments.

Cities draw vital work from diverse populations.

Since 1979, I've lived in New York for 10 ½ years and spend significant time in Boston, Washington, D.C., and LA. I enjoy visiting New York, Boston, and Washington because I get around there via taxicabs and other forms of public transportation. New York cab drivers typically come from whatever part of the world is undergoing political turmoil. I learn things from cab drivers that give me great insights and never appear in mass media.

Boston and Washington tend to have more stable cab driver populations. Boston has many drivers from Morocco and other North African countries. Washington draws drivers from Sub-Saharan African. Both cities give me most interesting conversational opportunities.

In Los Angeles, I get the most insight from the Hertz rent-a-car people who take me to and from Hertz's lot. They are from Latin America, and I get a great understanding of what life is like for them.

In New York, specific ethnic groups target certain service areas. Koreans developed expertise in small grocery and produce stores, flower distribution, and nail salons. Indians dominated the news stands. Of course, Greeks dominated the diners.

These immigrants are ambitious and want to assimilate into America, but probably like my grandparents more than a century ago, they are between two worlds, America and their country of origin. They clearly understand the global political system and economy far better than even the most well-educated Americans because they are integral to global commerce. Especially when sending money back home.

Cities empower people.

Cities attract people who escape stifling environments elsewhere. Young people, specifically young women, move to cities to have freer, more anonymous lives. However, they learn about others who start businesses, create innovative products, and succeed at the highest levels of the entertainment world.

They also live out dreams. Our older son tested his stand-up comedy skills at Caroline's on Broadway in New York. Our younger son became a great chess player at New York's Marshall Chess Club. Our daughter got the chance to record a track for our film at Paramount Studios' music record studio in Hollywood. Each of them fulfilled a dream in an urban environment.

As we move forward with Gyre Entertainment, and our feature film From the Rough, we want to celebrate the successes of people who live in cities. We need to applaud their resourcefulness, energy and passion, and empowerment. It's time to celebrate urban opportunity, not just danger.