Frederick Wherry, PhD in Sociology from Princeton University, is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is both a cultural sociologist who researches markets, as well as an economic sociologist who examines the motivating meanings in and from the market place. He has studied markets in Thailand, Costa Rica, and Philadelphia to better understand how cultural identity affects and improves opportunities within the global and local contexts.
In this book, Wherry holds that community stakeholders (local residents) can transform their neighborhoods through creativity and sweat equity, thus enhancing a neighborhood’s economic vitality and symbolic reputation/distinction (Bourdieu, 1989). The neighborhood in this case is Philadelphia’s Centro de Oro, or as was known from the mid-80s, “the Badlands,” a neighborhood beset by media’s binary narrative of “problem solvers” or “trouble makers” since the mid-80s. These nonmaterial constraints helped negatively shape not just how outsiders perceived the neighborhood, but how the neighborhood perceived itself. “Theirs is the story of how arts and culture contribute to neighborhood change” (21).
How do public “goods” replace public “bads”? The first thing necessary, per Wherry, is an understanding that art and culture are not discrete from economic development; the two are symbiotically related, thus the “branding” terminology and process. Tours and cultural workshops (“cultural encounters”) humanized the neighborhood, acknowledging its history and rich cultural opportunities in order to shift the preoccupation from the “ghetto” to “the realness, the authenticity, and the cultural assets to be discovered in ethnic neighborhood life” (24).
Wherry also suggests we see the “cultural stock exchange” as more than money. It has the value of “anti-stigma symbols, collectively held symbols spurring group solidarity, and political connections that can pave the way for government funding of other community projects” (44). Such community projects do include corporate sponsorship, a sign of inclusion in our capitalist democracy. Recall the fight for civil rights included the rightful claim for participation in the marketplace. Today, some Centro de Oro business owners see the future in the barrio’s cultural offerings, while others see no connection.
Creative milieus attract a wide range of people from everywhere, and per Becker (1984), rely on multiple actors to make the whole thing happens. “A vibrant art world brings neighborhood residents in contact with the middle class, an interaction often missing in highly segregated, poor communities” (49). Still, though, the mainstream art world is very different. It and the barrio have qualitatively different perceptions about resources and their best uses.
Ultimately, Wherry says, “Ethnicity sells” (135). However, the fight for perfect authenticity can hamper economic viability. Ritual performers choose between: inauthenticity, which requires change, or demise. Wherry submits it’s a “mistake to equate the marketing of authenticity with the unadulterated commodification of culture” as “artistic license becomes a weapon for the economically weak” (138).