Claim: popular 90’s TV shows prompted people to move to cities

This is not the first time I’ve seen this argument: Friends wasn’t just entertainment…it helped make cities cool again.

I tested out my hypothesis—that “Friends” triggered the proliferation of boutique coffee shops across the nation—on Facebook a few days ago, and found some agreement. My good friend Kenyon Farrow, an award-winning writer and advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, who’s based in D.C., was with me on this, writing, “I think ‘Friends’ (and ‘Seinfeld’) are totally responsible for marketing cities to young white suburbanites, [which] helped fuel the market-demand side for gentrification to take place in the ‘90s and 2000’s.

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That was about the extent of agreement on my “Friends” theory, though—my barista cred all damned to hell now. But others in the debate made the gentrification connection Farrow offered. Wrote Ben Adler, who I worked with at Grist: “Americans have increasingly become alienated by the social isolation of suburban, car-dependent life. That’s fueled both the urban gentrification that brings the cafes, and the cafes themselves.”

For others on our Facebook thread, the secret of the coffeehouse’s mainstream appeal was pure and simple: It’s just “a good idea,” wrote my buddy Justice Rajee, a family advocate at the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center. “Having someplace to sit have a beverage and do what you need when you can’t go home is good.”

This is the reverse of the argument I’ve been thinking about in recent years: the proliferation of popular TV shows depicting happy suburban life in the 1950s and 1960s helped push Americans to the suburbs. At face value, this might seem to make sense as Americans are influenced by what they watch on TV (and they watch a lot of it). However, I have some data that suggests the connection is not as clear. (There is an upcoming paper coming out of this; more on the particular topic when it sees the light of day.)

Generally, we don’t know as much as you might think about how much television influences people’s behaviors. The argument for Friends or Seinfeld and cities suggests people viewed the shows and wanted to emulate that lifestyle. Is the link that direct? If we asked people why they moved to the city, would they cite a television show or would they be more likely to mention things like jobs, cultural opportunities and the lifestyle, or housing options? The influence of television may indeed be subtle which begs the question of how we might uncover as social scientists the empirical link between viewing and deciding where to live. If seeing things on TV mattered, wouldn’t others be turned off by city life with so many crime and police procedural shows?

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