Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On “Naked City” by Sharon Zukin *****

The subtitle of Sharon Zukin’s book, “The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places,” puts her work directly in line with Jane Jacobs’s work, echoing the title of Jacobs’s most famous book. Zukin isn’t concerned as much about keeping neighborhoods and towns alive as making them feel alive--making them remain true to their soul. She sees a city’s soul as being bound around the concept of authenticity and worries that towns are becoming less authentic the more that they gentrify.

I have big problems with her idea of authenticity, problems that she herself admits to in her introduction. In defining authenticity, she tries to tie the concept into one of origins. An authentic neighborhood is one somehow in touch with its origins. Thus, a chain store has little to do with a neighborhood and is not tied in with the origins of the people in it and thus not authentic. This seems simple in itself. The issue I have is that what we view as “authentic” is itself a construct, which she admits. Our authentic city is the one that was there when we first lived in the area. Thus, Athens, Georgia, where I live, should have a somewhat derelict downtown on the west side, because that’s how it was when I arrived. Now, fifteen years later, that portion of downtown is thriving--in fact, the entire downtown district is thriving. There are no longer many abandoned buildings, and many of the places I would go--my local friends would go--are gone. In their place are some higher priced alternatives, a few chains, a few stores aimed at younger people (people who are the age I was when I moved here). Go back a generation or two before I arrived, and this portion of downtown was the Hot Corner, an African American sector of downtown, only one of whose businesses still exists (a barbershop). Shouldn’t the “authentic” version of this portion of town then be black? Or could we go back before that, to a time when this sector was housing and not part of a business district at all? What is the “origin”? What is authentic? It’s all a matter of perspective.

Despite that criticism, her critique of gentrification and her observations about it in the case studies she does of neighborhoods in New York is fascinating and shows that there is a certain cause for concern. Gentrification comes at price--and any given sector of town goes through a cycle (one explained years ago in a human geography course I took). Perhaps, the neighborhood is largely one of immigrants from Ireland. As they grow more prosperous, they tend to move out or to change the neighborhood itself. Perhaps, another set of immigrants moves in--Italians. In seeking “authenticity”--some kind of unique experience one can’t get elsewhere in the city--hipsters and artists begin to visit the Italian neighborhood. It’s relatively cheap too, so some move there from more expensive districts. Soon, there’s a thriving hipster/art scene among the architecture forged by previous rounds of immigrant families. As the neighborhood becomes more and more popular, commercial elements begin to move in to be a part of it, eventually making it too expensive for the artists who made the neighborhood thrive. The Italian quotient is long since gone, as is what made the neighborhood actually unique. It’s lost its “soul.” (But are commercial ventures necessarily soulless? I ask. Aren’t bright-lit signs and lots of business a sort of spirit inhabiting a district, making it what it is? And when this grows dull, then the area will lose popularity, and the poor and/or immigrant populations will return, and the cycle will start afresh.)

Williams begins her case study with Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. Once an immigrant district for Poles, it was discovered by musicians and artists and became a kind of haven for them from Manhattan, which had become too expensive. With time, as hipster cafes have populated the area, higher rents and more commercial ventures have moved in and is now beginning to push the artists out. We lost the Polish vibe and now the hipster vibe is losing steam too.

Next, Zukin goes to Harlem, the famous black neighborhood. Here she sees an example of a case where the local community and government agents colluded to actually change the neighborhood. As residents worked to get more businesses to move to the area, the very success of the work has led to them being priced out of the neighborhood. Now, white folks are moving in, enjoying the local/originary soul food as well as the new ethnic eateries that have moved in to take advantage of the wealthier clientele.

She then turns her attention to the East Village, an area that has historically included a number of lower class elements and artistic elements, attracted by the lower cost of living. This vibe has attracted an ever more expensive set of commercial forces, which in turn has caused much of what made the village at any one time its unique self to be shut down in favor of the more well-to-do. The cycle is one that is moving to ever more pricey ventures and to ever more standardization.

In the second half of the book, Zukin looks at ventures more than she looks at neighborhoods. She starts with Union Square, telling its history as a center for social protest and community gathering. The area fell into disrepute, however, sometime after World War II, as the city lacked resources to police it and care for it. Local businesses stepped to the fore and created a business improvement district to take care of the park. For a small fee raised by themselves on themselves and paid to the city but fed back to them for the park, they are able to hire park caretakers and make decisions about how the park should look. The issue is that these caretakers are private businesses, so what was once a public park in some sense is now a private venture. Private security forces decide who should be able to gather and protest; parts of the park are sold off for a restaurant venture that the “public” can enjoy. And so on. We have then the privatization of the commons--but one that makes the park safe again and a place of destination. Which is preferred? A dangerous public park that is open to less-welcome sectors of society or a semiprivate safe one that is closed off to those whose voices already are repressed?

Next we move to an area of Brooklyn where Ikea built a new store and where Hispanic immigrants gather each weekend to play soccer and sell authentic Latin American food. Folks had problems with the traffic Ikea would generate and other ways in which the chain was not “true” to the area. And yet, it has brought with it jobs and interest in a derelict part of town. Meanwhile, the immigrant food stands in the park each weekend offer locals good ethnic cuisine. As time has gone on, however, the clientele has changed. Whereas early on the food was made mostly for other immigrants, now a large chunk of the customers are curious foodies from other parts of the city. And as that has happened, the cuisine has changed as well--to appeal to the new audience. “Authenticity” is slowly being lost. And the city itself is now cracking down on the food makers, insisting they follow regulations.

Community gardens get their share of attention in this book as well. Created often in areas that had little development or were actually becoming dis-developed during New York’s days on the skid, the gardens became centers for local residents to get good local produce. However, not being the landowners, as the city has gentrified and the real estate come under demand, many such gardens have been pushed off the land in favor of redevelopment. Now, the poor are less taken care of; and for those from the middle class who enjoyed the local produce, an “authentic” portion of the community is being lost to high rises.

The overall tendency, Zukin points to, is toward homogenization--at the city level. As cities aim to "brand" themselves as cool places, more and more of them offer similar experiences. Every city of note has a modern art museum, for example. I would contend, however, that that is not necessarily a bad thing. Local residents should have access to similar conveniences and experiences. One should not have to travel to New York City for art. And the differences between art museums would still remain--this city has that artwork, this other city has that other artwork--such that people will still travel to destinations, because there is still difference. There is difference--always--because there are different landscapes and climates. Even if all cities offer skyscrapers and parks, few will find the cityscape of one megatown the same as another.

Zukin's main issue, though, is with chains, insofar as they contribute to that homogenization. As they take over a city district, the mom-and-pop stores disappear, and "authenticity" is lost to more of the same. This is where she departs from Jacobs's views. Jacobs, Zukin argues, was arguing from a particular timeframe of gentrification and could not see the whole picture. Jacobs argued that government was the problem and that the private sector community would do a better job of making for livable areas. She did not foresee sky-high rents being levied on "old" buildings such that only chains could afford old or new buildings. Zukin sees government regulation as a solution, but one that is usually not employed. The issue is that the government is usually in cahoots with the moneyed interests, which means that it encourages homogenization because that's more taxes. Rather than helping out the immigrant eateries or the community gardens, it adds regulations and drives those resources away. If on the other hand, the government zoned and regulated to encourage such endeavours, the soul of cities could be maintained.

I'd said that I see the description of gentrification as being simply the upturn of a cycle that goes round and round, but Zukin's point does have some precedent. There are communities that have banned chain and franchise stores. I think of Sedona, Arizona, where chain stores line the city boundaries (or at least they did back in the late 1980s, when I visited); inside the city there are only mom-and-pop places. In this way, the town is kept "authentic." At the same time, I hate to think of property owners having limitations put on them with regard to what can be put on their land or how much they can accrue from that land. If the community--including landowners--agrees to such restrictions, however, then there is little to be miffed about.

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