Preserving “authentic” spaces can lead to more “contrived and uniform places”

While I haven’t read the book, I was intrigued by this one paragraph that describes sociologist Sharon Zukin’s argument in her recent book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Spaces.

Sharon Zukin’s Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places signals its ambivalent relationship to Jacobs’s work in its subtitle, which both echoes Jacobs and argues with her legacy. Zukin’s argument is that Jacobs’s city is as much an artificial construct as any other, and that its imposition on living cities has tended to create mummified museums of urbanism rather than vibrant and authentic centres of human life: above all, it has unleashed the wave of middle-class-friendly gentrification that has made the special into the commonplace, the characterful into the bland, the human into the corporate. It seems that the more people insist on authenticity and individuality, the more contrived and uniform places become. Zukin uses New York to illustrate the problem: if you don’t know the city, you will definitely be at a disadvantage, as she wanders through streets and districts providing a sometimes illuminating, sometimes irritating commentary showing the ways in which the city has lost — or rather sold — its soul.

Authenticity: something that many people want but it is hard to find in places and perhaps even harder to maintain.

This reminds me of some ideas I’ve run into in recent years. One ASA presentation I saw a few years ago addressed this very issue by looking at a neighborhood that was just on the edge of gentrification in Chicago. This means the neighborhood hadn’t quite yet been overrun by wealthier, white residents but it had enough artists and wealthier residents to be clearly on the rise. The argument was that soon this place was going to tip into gentrification, meaning the true grittiness of the neighborhood would be scrubbed away as people moved in looking for “authentic” urban living.

Additionally, you could argue that wanting to preserve authenticity is behind many NIMBY efforts. Once having moved into a place, residents want to preserve what they liked in the first place, sometimes going so far that it seems like they wish they could have frozen that place in time. In these cases, residents are often fighting against outsiders and trying to promote their own vision of an authentic neighborhoods. In the end, few, if any, places can really be frozen in time except maybe corporatized spaces like Main Street U.S.A. at DisneyWorld. Places change and might go through cycles when they are authentic and then become inauthentic.

So how exactly do you get authentic places? This particular reviewer doesn’t like Zukin’s suggestion that government should help guide this process. I might chime in that government in the past has been known to promote its own interests or the interests of wealthy businesspeople over residents. At the same time, if we leave everything up to an unfettered market, authentic spaces tend to get commodified, taken over by wealthy residents, and influenced by corporations. I would guess that Zukin prefers to have places where residents have a say in what happens in the neighborhood, that everything isn’t decided by outside forces and that government can act as a referee to look out for the interests of current residents.

A reminder: there are plenty of people who have a stake in whether a place is authentic or not and this complicates everything.