Best-Worst Lists - the Downside

CHARLES DICKENS, who wrote "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," might love August in the United States.

This is the month, after all, when city magazines in places like Atlanta and Boston offer their annual "Best and Worst" awards, cavalierly rating everything from restaurants to child-care centers. And this is the week when Money magazine hits newsstands with its seventh annual ranking of the best and worst American cities.

For recipients at the top, these lists produce jubilation. But consider the humiliation of those at the bottom - the cities, for example, that Money dubs "cellar-dwellers."

Placing first on Money's list of 300 largest metropolitan centers this year is Rochester, Minn. The magazine calls it a "clean, safe, and vibrant medical megacenter." At the bottom is Rockford, Ill., which lost points for having a 10 percent unemployment rate, a high crime rate, and "a crack-cocaine problem."

Rockford, with its strong Swedish heritage, its beautiful parks, its well-kept homes and well-groomed lawns - in last place? Surely the editors jest.

All right, I'm biased. I was born and raised in Rockford. My parents still live there. Although the city long ago lost most of the beautiful elm trees that arched majestically over streets and earned it the nickname "Forest City," it remains a clean, family-oriented place to live. Sure, it has vacant buildings and closed businesses. What city doesn't? But it also has its share of impressive new homes and flourishing new restaurants and businesses.

Not surprisingly, the rating has produced dismay and anger among civic leaders and residents. The president of the Board of Realtors, who gave a Money reporter a tour of the city, complained that the woman led her to believe Rockford would be high on the list. Equally puzzled, Mayor Charles Box told the local paper, "Last year the Civic League ranked us one of America's top 10 cities when they gave us the All-American award."

One friend, a lifelong resident and middle-school history teacher, dismisses the ranking as "foolishness." And a high school classmate who owns a local travel agency says he is "mystified." But, he adds, "Most of the people I talk to have the attitude I do. They say, 'Oh, who cares what Money's opinion is - we like the city.' "

A recent segment on the ABC show 20/20 also came to Rockford's defense. "We liked our visit here," the program's correspondent said, challenging Money's ranking.

Journalism thrives on lists and studies and statistics. Numbers and rankings make headlines and sell magazines and newspapers. Often they serve a legitimate purpose. Numbers can anchor a story, giving it credibility and perspective. Yet when misused, they sensationalize and distort.

Numbers can also be fickle. San Francisco, which ranked sixth on Money's list in 1992, tumbled to 77th place this year. Even worse, Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., dropped a whopping 105 points, from 108 to 213. Can any city change that dramatically from one year to the next?

While many lists are informative and entertaining, a few can be damaging. Beyond the potential harm a poor Money magazine ranking can bring to a city's reputation, what about the financial losses a "worst" rating can inflict on an honest business caught on the wrong end of a city magazine's arbitrary decree?

Yet something there is that loves a list - that silently begs to be told what's in or out, what to like or dislike, what to praise or condemn. How easy it is to cede authority to "experts," however political or personal their opinions might be.

Still, the places people live - their hometowns - ought not to be treated as consumer choices, like so many stoves or refrigerators or washing machines rated as "best buys" or "worst buys" according to a preconceived list of virtues. One might as well make best-worst lists of one's friends. The places people live are, to a considerable extent, places of the heart, and, as with friends, the heart often loves them for, and in spite of, its own reasons.

To pretend there must be an ideal place to live is to bring up the question: Ideal for whom? Dickens was right. Every time is the best of times and the worst of times - and similarly, every place is both the best of places and worst of places, and every hometown lover with a natural taste for variety wouldn't want it any other way.

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