The actual definition of "urban fantasy" appears to be a contentious topic; personally, I define it as the conjunction of "urban" and "fantasy", and the additional constrictions that this seems to me to imply. While I don't really want to open that particular can of worms, it does mean that when I read UF, I tend to care quite a bit about how well the author has managed to capture the city.
The first issue, of course, is which city the author decides to place their story. Someday, I'm going to create a map, because I find the results rather surprising.
Almost every UF I've read takes place in either the US or the UK, and if the setting is the UK, is practically invariably in London. Seriously--I've read at least a dozen series that take place in that one city alone. Within the US, there's rather more variance; New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans are, of course, thoroughly covered. For unknown reasons, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle tend to be favourite picks as well. After that, it gets rather more random: Boston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Tempe, and plenty more that didn't occur to me while I was writing this. And yet for many, even the books that don't have glaring errors in their version of urban life, the book could just as well have taken place in AnyTown, USA.
Why, then, is the spirit of the city so rarely captured? Why does Kate Griffin's London feel so real that I can breathe its air? Why am I able to hear the traffic and clamour of Felix Castor's world, but New York and Chicago and Seattle remain distant to me, no matter how many books I read in these cities?
Although I grumble about it, I can understand the obsession with London. The history is so rich, so ancient; it is a city built upon itself, a city that is vibrant with noise and life and culture, yet steeped in ghosts; a self-contradiction, in which the new glass skyscrapers stand proudly next to ancient and forgotten walls, their foundations dug into soil where rivers once flowed and Roman walls once stood. And, as far as I know, all the authors live, often were born, in that city. The impression I get is that once you come to London, you don't really ever leave. As a peripatetic American, I find this solidarity, almost impossible to imagine. This stationarity creates an incredibly rich, divided, multifaceted culture to the point that even different neighborhoods have distinctive accents (http://www.dialectsarchive.com/england).
And then we have America. America, the melting pot; America, the imperialist, who drove the ancient cultures into obscurity; America, obsessed with replacing old with new. The ghosts whose shadows have not been completely obliterated reach back only a few hundred years. Maybe that's part of the issue--the newness. More problematic, I suspect, is the unending push forward; the desire to forget the past. But I don't think that's it. Even with our push towards bigger and better, each city has a distinct flavour: the bizarre mixture of eco-liberals and conservative Christians of Denver; the shadowed and often downright shady history of Chicago; the industrial push of New York, its contrast between the promise of the Statue, the superficial shine of the upper East Side, and the teeming life in the Bronx.
So, then, if these cities have all this hidden character, how does it keep getting lost? I've begun to wonder if the bane of our cities is also slowly weakening our urban fantasy: none other than the dreaded suburban sprawl. After the umpteenth time reading about a magical detective whose car is more trouble than it's worth, I started wondering if the writers had actually lived in cities--had realized that public transportation exists(!), walking is usually the fastest choice, and driving is an unholy disaster imported from the seventh circle of Hell? Why does no one mention the sounds, the clamour, the smells? The bands of tourists gaping and pointing? The constant honking of impatient drivers? How do these protagonists manage to have all these confrontations within that mythical creature, the Deserted City Street? Have these authors ever been to these cities?
So, then, do all these urban fantasy cities lose their identities in "Generalized Americanness" because the things lost in the push for the new, in the restless search for the American dream? Or is it simply because so many of these authors aren't writing from their experience? I'm not really sure. Sometimes, I feel that I would rather read about the adventures of a suburban wizard in a vividly drawn environment than experience this same television-bland urbanness again and again. Don't get me wrong--while it's less common than with the London books, I occasionally find a book (Already Dead springs to mind) that transports me to the protagonist's world. And however many books take place in AnyTown, USA, it's a relief to know that, no matter how rare the circumstance, there are still urban fantasies that capture the soul of the city.
My goal is to find them all.