Monday, March 8, 2010

Authentic Places Under Fire? What should be done?

Considering [1016] Architecture's motto "Improving within Authentic Environments," I was excited to learn of a new book, in the vein of Jane Jacobs, entitled Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. After all, the success of my small business depends, in part, on the awareness of and demand for authentic places.

I learned of the book in a recent radio interview (linked below) with Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City. For reasons stated above, I applaud her exploration and promotion of authenticity as an extremely desirable characteristic for neighborhoods, cities, etc.

Having come to this conclusion on my own, however, I was disappointed at the lack of hard conclusions drawn in the interview in regards to how ongoing development and revitalization should take place.

Skipping the debate over the definition of 'authentic,' it's easy to describe characteristics of existing authentic places, difficult to describe the forces that made them that way, and nearly impossible to outline a holistic framework for ensuring 1) authentic places stay that way, and 2) new places one day become authentic.

(Full disclosure: As of this date, I have not bought nor read "Naked City" but I plan to do so... perhaps the author's goal of an ambiguous interview?)

The underlying idea presented is that authenticity is good, cool, and desirable, but is also fleeting. For the first three reasons, gentrifiers seek out authentic environments to call their own, change them to meet their needs, and in the process destroy them by displacing what made the neighborhood authentic in the first place ("the contradiction" mentioned below).

In other words, people of a certain demographic, with the most important unifying factor being economic status, discover an interesting neighborhood and label it "hot," which prompts profit-seeking developers and corporations to re-purpose portions of the area to meet the demand$ and expectation$ of the newcomers. The investment necessarily raises prices and reduces diversity.

Like a never ending game of cat chasing mouse: gentrifiers pursue authenticity.

Let us sensibly assume that in pursuit of their ambitions, people (gentrifiers or not) will necessarily continue to reshape the built environment. Further, that authentic areas will continue to be desirable and subject to those changes. So, what's the best way to proceed?

Preserve it and control it?
In the clip below, Ms. Zukin offers government "protection," zoning requirements, and laws to "even the playing field" as mechanisms to shield authenticity from gentrification and to preserve the "right" of people to live in a certain neighborhoods without getting into specifics about how it is done.

While Inside the Brackets certainly agrees that authenticity is to be highly regarded, legislation protecting it necessarily creates winners and losers, thus rendering the playing field tilted regardless. Property ownership and tenancy carry with them many rights defined by law and contracts, however, the "right" to possess a specific place, all external economic forces aside, is not one of them.

Ms. Zukin's acknowledgment of "the contradiction" lived by many urban dwellers applies equally to the idea of the contradiction of regulating authenticity. This seems like an oxymoron, unless we are to assume that legislation is what enabled an area to become authentic in the first place; unlikely considering inhabitants of authentic urban areas are traditionally underrepresented in political power circles.

Picking up the urbanist torch from Jane Jacobs, is no small task. To be certain, the issues surrounding authenticity (and the proposed antagonist "gentrification") are complex, and without universally applicable answers. Perhaps as a sociologist, and not an activist, Ms. Zukin prefers to observe and report rather than proscribe specific solutions. I am hoping that she uses her background in consumer culture to explore the economic drivers of authenticity/gentrification and fill in this gap in Jacobs' planning manifesto. I guess I'll find out when I purchase and read her book.

Design it?
Unfortunately, in the radio interview, and all too often in other discussions about urban planning, only large-scale, high-profile developments like Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards and are cited as examples of gentrification. These projects are atypically large and present the audience with a false choice between NIMBYism (no development) and antiseptic corporate development projects that erase places to create new ones.

The probable goal, even of these evil corporations, is to design and build an authentic place. But attempts at authenticity in one fell swoop, or "authenticity-in-a-box," almost certainly feel sterile and artificial for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is economics. The high cost of assembling/entitling/designing/permitting/building entire city blocks at one time is enormous, and recovering that capital plus profit requires a high percentage of gentrifiers amongst the first inhabitants. Oh, chicken or egg!

"A lively city scene is lively largely by virtue of its enormous collection of small elements."
-Jane Jacobs, Death and Life

The majority of urban development is (and should be) implemented on a much smaller scale, orchestrated by local teams of invested professionals and small businesses, appropriately informed by local stakeholders, and executed to the benefit of the majority of those affected. This majority does not preclude a minority of large projects or businesses.

Incremental change can be absorbed without complete destruction of the character of an area and unwanted trends can be identified and mitigated without overbearing regulation. The aggregate result of years of projects thus completed will almost certainly be described as authentic.

See another response to the idea of Authenticity in the Wall Street Journal.
The 'Authentic' City Wrecking Ball by Julia Vitullo-Martin.

The Naked City is available on but wouldn't its author prefer you find it at a local bookstore?

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