Friday, April 1, 2011

The Destruction of Authenticity since the 1980s (continued)

Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places by sociologist Sharon Zukin is a must read and a fascinating, enjoyable book. She writes as a devoted New Yorker, exploring community gardens, Latino pupusa vendors, Harlem, IKEA, cafes, farmers' markets, and public spaces, all relevant to debate here in Ward 6.

Much of the debate about DC development is structured by three unhelpful dichotomies: 1) density vs. historic preservation/NIMBYism, 2) change is inevitable vs. nostalgia for the past, and 3) inhuman, modernist urban renewal (à la Robert Moses, left photo) vs. the nurturing of urban neighborhoods (à la Jane Jacobs, right photo). These dichotomies, as with most, obscure significant trends and urgent debates. My post "When is Density just the Density of the Wealthy?" discusses the first dichotomy. In her discussion of the second and third, which I describe below, Zukin demonstrates her amazing observational powers.

After the Second World War, Robert Moses came to represent the powerful urban planner, who bulldozed the past and recreated the city (and the suburb) for the car building new bridges, public housing projects, and highways. By the 1950s, communities resisted this demolishing "urban renewal." In 1955, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society began its fight against plans to destroy row houses to make way for highways, large government office buildings, etc. Jane Jacobs represented this resistance and the desire to create real, authentic community in opposition to faceless development. Zukin documents how the dichotomy of Moses vs. Jacobs no longer applies because developers and government officials have now fused Moses' corporate/government city with Jacob's urban village.

Zukin does a wonderful job criticizing the narrowness of our term "gentrification" because it does not capture the collective investment at stake. Not only developers, but even more importantly members of community organizations, public housing leaders, new immigrants, artists, hipsters, community gardeners, and so on have turned sometimes dangerous, crime-ridden areas neglected by any investment ("planned shrinkage") into places where many people now want to live. And this is the problem.

Worldwide, cities and developers have realized that they can attract new businesses, tourist dollars, developer investment, the wealthy's extra income, and so on by creating neighborhoods that people like to visit and live in. The Washington City Paper just had a glowing article on the benefits of developers creating such neighborhoods. DC officials, developers, and businesses work together to brand and develop such new neighborhoods or, for example, the Capitol Hill Historic District and "make markets" that draw, hopefully, large corporate investments. All these cities are in competition with each other, desperately trying new strategies to appear really different and unique, when, in fact, they are becoming more and more the same. Cities are becoming more homogenous with their food trucks, similar restaurant scenes, quirky parades and festivals, screen on the green, and statues of donkeys/elephants/other city-brand mascots. In the end, "upscale development triumphs over authenticity," a corporate city has been built around the core of an urban village.

We consumers are part of this too because we seek neighborhoods that seem authentic to us -- with dive bars, quirky cafes, high-end restaurants, sleek lounges, great bookstores, underground art spaces, and so on. When identities are unstable, we turn to authenticity, which "differentiates a person, a product, or a group from its competitors; it confers an aura of moral superiority, a strategic advantage that each can use to its own benefit." Some people's authenticity is recognized as acceptable or more profitable and changes the neighborhood by driving up rents and driving out check-cashing stores, fish-fry restaurants, cheap diners, and mom-and-pop stores to be replaced by "a cultural climate where older, poorer residents fell unwelcome, if not downright threatened." Thus, city officials, developers, corporate businesses, and the creative classes have used authenticity to create a city that many of us might not want to inhabit.

Zukin is not a pessimist. She sees our desire for authenticity as a great resource. We must go beyond the old Moses/Jacobs and all the other dichotomies. Zukin argues that we should preserve not only historic buildings but also historic, diverse communities. DC's median household income is $58,553 (2008), which means that 50% of District residents make below $58,533. This means that most DC residents cannot afford the upscale communities being created. How might we think more broadly about authenticity to include all residents' right to the city? Zukin suggests "limits on rent increases, government-backed mortgage guarantees for store owners," low commercial rents, "special privileges for start-up businesses and young apprentices that will maintain crafts and trades, street vending, and even gardening." To my mind, we should also not allow all the energy that we have put into creating a community we want to live in be privatized, corporatized, homogenized, and up-scaled.


  1. I think Zukin's observations are spot on and quite interesting, but Zukin misses the broader economic construct that enabled that 'autheticity' and now takes it away. I also think Zukin's policy prescriptions would have disastrous unintended consequences.

    What is authentic about government regulation demanding Zukin's view of authenticity? To propose such regulations as the solution seems comical, given the conditions that enabled the authenticity Zukin speaks of.

  2. Intriguing question about the nature of authenticity. The closing of the KFC over at Pennsylvania SE and 15th certainly means the loss of a certain kind of authenticity for the neighborhood. Not one valued by many new residents, I imagine, but it was part of the identity of the old neighborhood.

  3. "Zubin argues that we should preserve not only historic buildings but also historic, diverse communities." But what historic community are we talking about in Ward 6? The Capitol Hill Historic District and areas nearby were largely settled by working class people, some better off than others. Racial makeup varied over time, but from the standpoint of employment, education, religion and mores, it was a fairly homogeneous place. Could it be that what we all want to preserve is not a "historic diverse community," but to check change--that has produced diversity--at some undefined but feared tipping point. Could we now be in an interim period of diversity initiated by fierce competition for formerly unfashionable, working class housing?

    Sometimes a history check is useful. KFC surely wasn't part of the old neighborhood. It arrived like an alien spaceship, stayed a bit and flew off. If the Wallach School had been built for both white and black children alike, as someone said earlier, Richard Wallach would never have allowed his name to be associated with it.

  4. @anonymous. The only diversity we are getting with these exorbitant house prices and the ongoing assault on public housing and the social safetynet is limited to all the different flavors of salarymen and salarywomen.


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