There’s a tendency in urban genre writing to use an “Anywhere City, USA” setting but call it a specific real world city and throw in a specific location every so often. In naming a city I believe you enter a pact with the reader to use unique attributes of the city– or at least not to contradict them without explanation. A story set in our world or a very near version to our world causes the reader to weigh certain details based on the world we live in. So if you set a story in Seattle, but then make the city feel like San Francisco with more rain without a story reason, you’ve broken that pact with the reader.
A setting generally becomes “Anywhere City, USA” through omission. I think most writers do this (either on their own or in editing) to let readers overlay their own cities on the setting or because they don’t have the personal reference. If the former I’d personally prefer a fictional city with overtones of real ones, if the latter, there are ways to fix that. Everyone has used the internet to check up on a friend or former partner they’d rather not actually talk to– take those same skills and use them to stalk a city. Pretend you’ve just found out that you’re moving to that city in less than a month. What do you need to know? What sort of sources are you going to to use to get the information you need? Are you going to use the same guides that tourists use? No. You’re going to ask friends and look at blogs and maybe Yelp for your favorite kinds of food. You want anecdotal information, not tourist destinations.
“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” -Stephen King
You don’t need gobs of place detail– you just need the right kinds of detail. Readers will nitpick but forgive getting a street name wrong (though with Google maps and Street View you can usually avoid this if you’re not writing a different time period). But getting the little details wrong is a little like dressing your setting in a floral print sheet and sending it to the first day of middle school. It WILL be teased and WILL require years of therapy.
If I have a character enter a gas station mini-mart and have them pay for gas and a soda– that’s just a generic setting. If I mention the sign on the back of the door reads “Cerrado”, the character picks up a tamarind flavored soda and a display of De la Rosa Peanut Marzapan candy at the front counter– and you know the character is in Los Angeles, the details work to reinforce the setting. You want to pick out the small things unique to the setting to highlight. Every detail should have a reason for being there, either to reinforce setting, character, or plot. If you remove the setting, just like if you remove a character, a good story should collapse. A lot of times in a short story the setting operates as an extension of the main character because there isn’t room to do world building.
If you notice in my mini-mart example above, I chose to highlight things from outside the dominant culture. While it is technically possible for a white middle-class male protagonist to only interact with white middle-class males over the course of a day in Los Angeles– it is not the norm. You would need to have a good explanation as to why that happened if you did that in a story. Omitting all mention of cultures outside of the dominant one effectively white-washes a story. When you do that in a city setting with a strong non-dominant cultural presence in our world, it doesn’t matter if you intended to or not, it will always look like it is done on purpose.
Be careful to not fall into the Firefly trap either. I really like the show and it has a lot of lovely details that show the influence of Asian cultures including a Mandarin Chinese derived jargon. However– there are no Asian characters. Which is REALLY CREEPY if you stop to think about it. Showing the influence but omitting the people seems like everyone belonging to that culture was killed off prior to the start of the story and never mentioned.
Cultural awareness is not only in what details you use, it is in what details you consciously or unconsciously omit.