“If you seek authenticity for authenticity’s sake you are no longer authentic.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
As the United States shifted from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy during the latter half of the 20th Century, former industrial cities suffered population losses to the suburbs and post-WWII boomtowns. Some of these cities were able to stay afloat while others went into permanent decline never to fully recover. Most experienced an increase in crime and a decrease in quality-of-life.
Following flight from the city core, an entire generation of Americans, Generation X (born roughly between the early 1960s and early 1980s), was raised in suburban environments which they came to resent as bland and homogenous. Alienated by the conformity of the ‘burbs,, this generation suffered a kind of postmodern malaise which in turn spurred a quest for meaning. Rather than uniting around a single cause like their parents and grandparents, Xers searched for meaning by seeking out a variety of ‘authentic experiences’.
One of the places that more adventurous GenXers sought authentic experience was in gritty but dangerously alluring urban environments. Rejecting the values of post-war America, many looked to the city as a place to reconnect with the hustle and bustle of diverse and ethnic neighborhoods.
This was a significant break from what might be seen as aspirational urbanism. Instead of returning to the city for economic opportunity, as had been the case since the inception of the Industrial Revolution, to the move to the city had transformed into essentially a lifestyle choice.
In her new book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Sharon Zukin assess the effects of this phenomenon by taking stock of her home city New York. Zukin, a Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, asserts that a true sense of authenticity has been lost. In the introduction she clarifies this assertion by stating
“Authenticity is not a stage set of historic buildings as in SoHo or a performance of bright lights as at Times Square; it’s a continuous process of living and working, a gradual buildup of everyday experience, the expectations that neighbors and buildings that are here today will be here tomorrow.”
Naked City highlights areas where gentrification has had the most impact on neighborhood character, including Manhattan’s Harlem and East Village as well as several Brooklyn neighborhoods. Despite their differences, each of these neighborhoods experienced a similar increase in real estate prices during the recent boom years. As is typically the case with gentrification, condo developers – often constructing projects far larger than commonly found in the area’s traditional landscape – descended upon these places once they had proved to be up-and-coming hip spots.
In a sense, a neighborhood like Williamsburg has become a victim of its own success. Located conveniently across the East River from Manhattan and full of convertible industrial spaces, Williamsburg is the quintessential model for post-industrial gentrification. With a keen sociologists’ eye, Zukin observes how the influx of hipsters from out of town looking for ‘authentic experience’ has ironically made the neighborhood too costly for long time working-class residents that gave it its appealing identity in the first place.
One of the most thought-provoking chapters of Naked City, titled A Tale of Two Globals, examines the small Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook – not long ago a crime-infested poor community. Red Hook’s sinister reputation subsided in large part due to the arrival of New York City’s first IKEA store in 2008. Zukin describes how the big-box store was fought tooth and nail by gentrifiers yet positively concedes that IKEA ultimately transformed a dead zone and lived up to its promise of hiring local workers.
Not far from IKEA, a group of Central American immigrants have been serving up snacks in traditional fare at a local soccer field since the early 90s when crack was still a major problem. The pupusa street vendors originally catered to immigrant families attending soccer matches on the weekends. Zukin details how the Salvadoran vendors gained popularity with the hip crowd when the word of the delicious authentic food spread over local food blogs. With their newfound popularity, the street food vendors attracted the attention of city regulators who then proceeded to make their life difficult, coming close to shutting down their entire operations.
The subtitle of the book alludes to urban deity Jane Jacobs, with whom Zukin shares the skill of making a compelling narrative out of describing urban development battles. Zukin is obviously influenced by Jacobs, but she also dares to be critical of her ideas. She posits that Jacobs focused too much on the built character of the street and did not give enough attention to the sociological factors effecting cities. Zukin might have a valid point: the popularity of Jacobs’ romantic notions of the city helped attract people back to the city in the first place, but in the process transformed them into idealized urban playgrounds. Jacobs’ message has even been twisted by developers and their pundit allies to the point where her ideas are used as marketing tools.
Zukin deserves much credit for taking on the complex issue of the authenticity of cities. Yet, by the end of Naked Cities, we are left with more questions than answers. Is it really so bad that New York has been gentrified? Has gentrification and increases in living costs been one of the determining factors in helping crime rates drop to historic lows? Certainly, a lower crime rate is better for quality of life but an increased cost of living is no good for the middle and working classes. At one point in her book, Zukin discusses Union Square Park and its affiliation with the local ‘Business Improvement District’ (BID). Union Square Park is in reality a privately run zone masquerading as public space. Is this where are cities are headed? Is this good or bad? A libertarian would say fine but a socialist would probably cry foul.
Although Naked Cities deals specifically with New York, the issues brought forth by the book are familiar to other American cities. For one, the ‘hipster’ culture, largely defined by Williamsburg in Brooklyn, has replicated itself in neighborhoods in other cities such as the Mission District in San Francisco and Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Though very different in character, the types of people attracted to these places generally share the same tastes in art, fashion and music, bringing their own form of cultural homogenization and conformity to once unique and authentic neighborhoods.
One thing is for sure – ‘authenticity’ in the true sense of the word has probably departed large parts of New York City for good. Once a representation of new beginnings, the city is well on its way to museum status. This does not mean New York will go away – it may become to the 20th Century what Paris is to the 19th Century.
When it comes to hope and aspiration, a true sense of ‘authenticity’ is probably best experienced in cities in the developing world such as China where opportunity abounds in urban centers. It can also be found, curiously, in suburban ethnic malls and strip-centers around Los Angeles, San Jose or Houston, or at farmer’s markets and neighborhood activities in less fashionable cities. But, increasingly, not in the once ‘authentic’ place now subsumed in what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dubbed ‘the luxury city’.
Adam Nathaniel Mayer is a native of California. Raised in Silicon Valley, he developed a keen interest in the importance of place within the framework of a highly globalized economy. Adam attended the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree. He currently lives in China where he works in the architecture profession. His blog can be read at http://adamnathanielmayer.blogspot.com/