Finding A Sister City Is A Bit Like Dating

It seems most decent-sized cities in the U.S. have a "sister city" — a companion community in a foreign country. Some even have more than one. But how these cities end up selecting each other is a lot like the dating scene.

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Russia is cracking down in its gay and lesbian citizens and that's led to calls for boycotts of next year's winter Olympics in Russia. Some have also demanded that U.S. cities end their relationships with their Russian sister cities, those include Chicago and Moscow, Los Angeles and St. Petersburg, and Charlotte and Voronezh.

While that's a serious subject, it's also sparked a lighter question. How did these sister cities find each other in the first place? Well, it's like dating. Here's Ben Bradford of member station WFAE.

BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: Just like modern dating, there's even a service for those cities that want a little help finding a partner.

MARY KANE: And we hope to pair up very successful relationships.

BRADFORD: Mary Kane is the president of Sister Cities International, which was started in 1956 by another president, Dwight Eisenhower. Kane says peacemaking was the original goal.

KANE: It was an effort after World War II, focused on German and Japanese cities, so that people would get to know each other and understand that we have a lot more things in common than we don't.

BRADFORD: Today, more than 100 countries participate and sister cities are common enough to reference on TV. Here's an ESPN commercial where SportsCenter's Bristol, Connecticut headquarters welcomes a cultural exchange from sister city Bristol, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESPN "SPORTSCENTER")

BRADFORD: Except they're soccer hooligans. The two Bristols aren't actually sisters, but some that are might surprise you. Los Angeles counts Tehran, the capital of Iran, among its sisters. And Mobile, Alabama has a relationship with Havana, Cuba. Kane says only one country is off limits.

KANE: We actually follow the guidelines of the State Department and the only one that we cannot pair up sister cities with is North Korea.

BRADFORD: You can see who's matched up on Sister Cities website. It looks like a mix between a social network and an online dating site. Five hundred U.S. cities, 1900 connections, 140 countries, unlimited possibilities. That's what it says. There's a cheery blue box in the top right corner where you can search for cities seeking cities. I clicked the box and I'm typing in North Carolina.

One match. Concord. Concord seeks new relationships in the following regions, Central America and Western Europe, specifically Costa Rica, Scotland and Spain. And look, it tells you what the city is looking for in a relationship - virtual cultural exchanges, festivals, organizing global travel exchanges. John Dunlap(ph) is the head of Concord's search committee.

They've been looking for a couple of years for a new partner. He wants to find a place that has about the same population, around 70,000 people, with good tourism, hospitals and schools. Last year, they found a city in Scotland.

JOHN DUNLAP: I thought we were really moving forward. I thought we were going right down the right path and the people I'd been talking to in that area in southwest Scotland were acting very excited. And they took it to a meeting of their officials and the first thing they asked is, well, what can they do for us financially. And I was like, well, you know...

BRADFORD: Gold diggers. So that was over. Dunlap says there can be economic benefits to a sister city like trading ties, but cultural exchanges, school trips, meetings between officials, those are most important.

DUNLAP: We need to have cultural interactions. We need to find out what other people think about us and we need to expand our vistas. And that's really, I think, what the Sister Cities program is all about.

BRADFORD: There are other benefits. Visitors from Concord get a golf discount when they visit their only current sister city, Killarney, Ireland, and vice versa. That kind of bond takes time, of course. There's a courting period before cities tie the knot with a formal agreement, usually one to two years. During that time, they're just called friendship cities. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford in Charlotte.

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