SECONDARY CITIES: THE RISE OF THE UNDERDOGS

Pittsburgh; Leipzig; Bordeaux; Leeds; Cincinnati; Bristol; Eindhoven; Baltimore; Adelaide. No matter how well-travelled you may be, bar a personal connection to one of the aforementioned, the average Joe would struggle to muster up a list of more than two or three attractions each boasts. We’ve come to know these places as ‘secondary cities’; truth is that many of them are third, fourth (or lower) when placed on the same bill as a New York or a London; but is it fair to judge a city on the number of forests that need be pulped to produce its guidebook?

Duke Studios, Leeds

As the mobility of the creative class increases, and savvy travellers seek new experiences, previously overlooked cities are thriving in their relative obscurity. A MacBook-wielding creative from the west coast of the U.S. will likely know very little about Leeds, but that doesn’t mean a few days spent there wouldn’t be an enlightening experience.

‘It is is the most influential art school in Europe since the Bauhaus,’ artist Patrick Heron would proclaim in 1971 of the Leeds College of Art; the school where Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth started their illustrious careers in the 1920s. Today there are cultural enterprises, creative co-working spaces, and social projects forged by the arts; there are independent design stores, craft breweries, and public art initiatives by the bucketload.

Opened last summer, Art Hostel has been conceived by community arts organisation East Street Arts, and adds some creative grit to an accommodation scene familiar with cosy boutique spots like 42 the Calls. Art Hostel is far from luxury, but staying in any of its individually artist-designed rooms will put back into the community; help stoke the fire that’s already burning under the city’s thriving DIY art scene. Some 4,000 miles away in the United States’s 30th most populous city, art is at the core of another fascinating accommodation project — albeit a tad more luxurious.

Art Hostel, Leeds

With Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum as inspiration for how art can revitalise an underdog, wealthy art collectors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown set about fusing art museum and hotel in the city they called home: Louisville, Kentucky. Unlikely the first city to slip off the tongue of a hot-decking millennial. Something about the unlikely pairing was right, though, the power couple’s 21c Museum Hotel chain now taking in Cincinnati, Bentonville, Durham, Lexington, Oklahoma City and Nashville (hotels in Kansas City, Indianapolis and Miami are underway).

‘There are a lot of cities in the country without a great hotel and they happen to be in secondary cities. It’s sort of an untapped segment of the industry,’ Wilson explains to The New York Times. ‘We are about revitalising city centres. We thought if we were able to be successful in downtown and make the city centre more interesting to live and work in, we’d be preventing sprawl.’ The esteem of 21c’s host cities may be on the up (Brooklyn and Los Angeles have been touted alongside planned Miami, and soon-to-open Nashville), but there’s no doubting the impact that the duo have had on some of those less fashionable destinations; there’s a buzz about ‘second cities’ that just won’t seem to go away.

21c Museum Hotel, Bentonville
21c Museum Hotel, Bentonville

A report from 2012 noted that 48.4% of the workforce in Durham, North Carolina, was made up of the creative class. Already the site of a 21c, the city’s former former Home Savings Bank — a resplendent mid century architectural wonder — has recently been converted by L.A. design studio Commune (who are behind countless hip hotspots that include Ace Hotel DTLA and the brand’s Panama City bolthole, American Trade Hotel) into The Durham Hotel; a millennial-minded stopover that ticks boxes like indie vinyl, design magazines, coffee program, yoga, and raw bar.

The Durham Hotel
The Durham Hotel

These shining lights attracting creative nomads to lesser known cities are not rarities, mind. Ace Hotel recently took over a century-old former YMCA building in the heart of Pittsburgh, and hot new brand The Pendry is following its San Diego debut with a major restoration project on Baltimore’s historic Recreation Pier; the Maryland city in the midst of shaking off the frightening image that The Wire (and plenty of real-life crime) bestowed upon it. Founded by Mario Tricoci and Kevin Robinson, Aparium is a brand marching design-led offerings into cities like Milwaukee and Minneapolis; with the latter also seeing Radisson’s new Red brand open its second property geared up to the ‘millennial mindset’.

Like Leeds, though, Minneapolis is a quietly brooding hotbed of arts and creativity. Americans probably know it, some savvy Londoners might, but how many international travellers are fully versed in the hipster credentials of a Minneapolis; a Charleston; Sacramento; or Portland Maine? And herein lies the appeal of secondary cities — for globetrotters increasingly in search of new experiences, cityscapes that none of their pals have yet Instagrammed, the lure of new scenes and cultures is impossible to resist.

Ace Hotel Pittsburgh
Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

Of course, it’s not just homegrown scenes that are putting once unfashionable cities on the travelling creative class’s radar — it seems like not a week can pass where you haven’t stumbled over a think-piece penned by a teary creative saying their final goodbye to New York or London; pastures new (and cheaper) awaiting those who’ve decided they want to be able to swing a cat. ‘There’s no joy left in this city,’ laments Allison Robicelli, co-owner of Brooklyn bakery Robicelli’s. ‘This is not the New York I grew up in. I finally started to realise … I’m going to be working 90 hours a week for the rest of my life just to get my bills paid.’

Which is why she and her husband Matt are taking their highly-regarded dishes, like social media hit Nutelasagna and Buffalo chicken wing cupcakes, down to Baltimore. Our friend Minneapolis, too, welcomes another culinary force who cut his teeth in the Big Apple — former executive chef of esteemed Cafe Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, returning home to open Spoon & Stable; the first restaurant in the Minnesota city ever to be nominated in the James Beard Foundation Awards’s Best New Restaurant category. If something is keeping you in New York, chances are you might find it somewhere else you least expected.

Upfest: Bristol Street Art Festival

Back in Britain, Leeds is being joined by Bristol in rivalling London’s traditional alternatives Manchester and Brighton — the south west home of Banksy, trip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass a breeding ground of sustainable startups, community art projects, and forward-thinking food and drink; it recently trumped cities like Reykjavik, Paris, and Barcelona in a ranking of ‘Most Inspiring Cities’. Across the border in Scotland, Aberdeen and Dundee are putting up a creative front to Edinburgh and Glasgow’s long-standing pre-eminence.

Centre Pompidou Málaga © Nicolás Pinzón
Centre Pompidou Málaga © Nicolás Pinzón

In fact, second-tier cities the world over are asserting their own singular dominance. Adelaide has beautifully-designed culinary hotspots to rival Melbourne; Leipzig (or Hypezig as the press have dubbed it) has Berlin on the ropes with its party scene and artists flocking to cheap studios; Bordeaux (named number one on Lonely Planet’s top Cities for 2017 list) is proving there’s plenty more than its namesake to raise a glass to; Medellín is coming out of Bogotá and Pablo Escobar’s shadows; and Malaga’s pop-up Pompidou gallery is reaffirming the birthplace of Picasso as one of Spain’s most important art destinations. In The Netherlands, home of a world-class design academy and the annual Dutch Design Week, Eindhoven, is a cradle of contemporary creativity and a worthy contender to the two famous ‘Dams; whilst Porto continually proves that London or Berlin’s priced-out creatives should think twice before heading down to its country’s revered capital.

Those arty types packing their hand-crafted artisanal bags in Shoreditch or Williamsburg might be motivated by a better quality of life, but those who haven’t already spent time in a metropolitan underdog will be in for a nice surprise. It’s the reason design-minded hoteliers are unafraid of setting up shop in a city that’s reluctant to roll off the tongue, and the reason creative scenes are thriving in cities once dubbed ‘sleeping giants’. Identity. Working class roots, ascending above adversity, a tough skin developed in the shadows of better-known neighbours … so called second-tiered (and third-, fourth- or more-) have a well-rounded character inimitable by their famous friends and foes. Tread easily, respect their heritage. The rise of the secondary cities may be upon us, but nobody needs a new primary.

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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.