Sharon Zukin writes great books. They’re incisive, well-written, thoughtful, sober, serious, and important. In this work, she presents six New York City case studies to examine these major topics in urban development: authenticity, gentrification (a term lacking the nuance necessary to describe the collective investment in question — she prefers Loretta Lees’  “super-gentrification” ), “destination culture,” minority struggles for a right to the city. She names capital flows and state power as drivers of, and media as at least complicit in, this aggressively consumptive agenda.
“Though this [“authentic”] city pays its respects to both origins and new beginnings, it does not do enough to protect the rights of the residents, workers, and shops–the small scale, the poor, and the middle class–to remain in place. It is this social diversity, and not just the diversity of buildings and uses, that gives the city its soul” (31).
The rhetoric of authenticity is the current rhetoric of growth–the edgier the better. Only “authentic” is subjective, referring to particular concepts of arbitrary moments in space and time, and time in at least three different ways: how well the built environment has held its earlier form and attractiveness, generational knowledge of the city and its demographic shifts, and, most broadly, the time-based anxiety of the urbanite about her environment — will disaster or gentrification change it irrevocably?
In today’s cities we see “uncommon” and “common” spaces. The former are those distinctive neighborhoods, with rich histories and traditions (e.g. Williamsburg, Harlem, East Village), and the latter are those parks and gardens (purportedly) set aside for public use (e.g. Union Square, Red Hook Ball Fields, and NYC community gardens). Both have been key in NY development in the last thirty years, and both express “authenticity” differently. To wit, “local” means something different today in the East Village, but to walk its streets imbues one with a feeling of kairos, the “sense of the past that intrudes into and challenges the present” (101), making one feel as though she’s recreating/reliving that place’s origin story, being the “artist, poet, rebel, flâneur” (ibid), or all of them at once. At the Red Hook Ball Fields, the vendors representing nearly every Central and South American country sell food in a solidly inauthentic pan-South American mercado, but white visitors come for the “authenticity” of the experience.
“An authentic experience of local character becomes a local brand” (121).
Zukin also engages in a bit of revisionist history, rewriting planners’ hagiographic account of Jane Jacobs. Jacobs’ railing against Moses’ modernist city and placing the authentic city in contradistinction obscures the fact that she (1) provoked two pro-growth vehicles, political growth rhetoric and the media’s enthusiastic coverage of cultural consumption, and (2) romanticized a languishing social condition. The mom and pop storefront went and the chain replaced it, but what was left was her (environmentally deterministic) physical agenda that surely encouraged gentrifying. Moses’ cultural megaprojects gave artists jobs without providing housing, but Jacobs nowhere corrected this inequity. For Zukin, Jacobs “was too smart a journalist, and too experienced a community activist” (227) not to understand planners were not the enemy so much as “the force of money and state power” (227). The one oddness about the book is that Zukin falls prey to the same environmental determinism for which she chides Jacobs. Policy is a driver in so many of her case study examples, particularly Red Hook, and yet with the exception of the Harlem CDCs, she focuses on the material environment. This turn is all the odder given she’s no stranger to policy; her previous books are loaded with them.
Finally, here are a few passages I liked particularly well:
Re the media’s part in the authenticity-machine:
“Alternatively mourning, glorifying, and dramatizing the city’s gritty past, the media help that image to recede into social obsolescence while recycling it into the aesthetic code of a new urban lifestyle” (228).
Re the Greenmarket at Union Square:
What’s so local about the Greenmarket? . . . you feel a real sociability . . . which is born of personal interaction, identified by product and provenance, and honed by habit” (120).
“Authenticity refers to the look and the feel of a place as well as the social connectedness that place inspires. . . . Though we think authenticity refers to a neighborhood’s innate qualities, it really expresses our own anxieties about how places change. The idea of authenticity is important because it connects our individual yearning to root ourselves into a singular time and place to a cosmic grasp of larger social forces that remake our world from many small and often invisible actions. To speak of authenticity means that we are aware of a changing technology of power that erodes one landscape of meaning and feeling and replaces it with another” (220).