Tuesday 18 January 2011

Sharon Zukin discusses urban authenticity at LSE

Sharon Zukin came to the LSE yesterday to talk about her book 'Naked City' and about urban 'authenticity' in general. She gave a fascinating and entertaining talk, teasing out many of the contradictions and peculiarities of how people think about authenticity in cities, but I was left feeling fairly sceptical about her underlying normative agenda.

Zukin's talk focused on the example of one 'traditional' neighbourhood bakery in New York called Vesuvio's, which survived waves of gentrification mostly unchanged before closing a couple of years ago, only to be taken over and re-opened as a purveyor of high-end gourmet baked goods. It's an excellent example of the emotive debates surrounding gentrification and what seems like the irresistable replacement of 'real' places like Vesuvio's with 'fake' chain-stores and god-awful corporate fakery like the Urban Outfitters store in New York painstakingly disguised as a cornershop.

Zukin cheerfully admitted that the concept of 'authenticity' is problematic (as a sociologist, it's perhaps the contradictions and conflicts that interest her most), and said that she found it a useful way into (or even cover for) her normative agenda, which is that there should be more 'democractic control' over what happens to the businesses in our neighbourhoods, if necessary using policies such as rent control to retain those places which seem to serve some kind of social function.

Unsurprisingly, this prompted some pointed questions from the audience. Tony Travers of LSE suggested that you either 'protect' every local business or you leave it up to some process which will probably get captured by a small and priveleged elite, as these local democratic processes so often do. Another audience member suggested that it tends to be affluent (usually white) elites who are most interested in what is 'authentic', and that it is often a concept pushed by neighbourhood newcomers who are really just interested in preserving the last vestiges of a previous neighbourhood culture they themselves have displaced - kind of like "survivor's guilt" for gentrifiers, I thought.

Zukin didn't reject either point, but in my view wasn't concerned enough about the implications. If 'authenticity' is mainly an elite conceit, there is a real danger that trying to pursue it using policies like rent control and historic preservation could suffocate and stifle the inherently unpredictable processes of urban change that originally produced all these authentic places. Vesuvio's presumably displaced another business that was there before it, which might never have happened if people had tried to preserve the previous mix of businesses in aspic. Put another way, 'preserved authenticity' may be a contradiction in terms.

Also, businesses open and close in a neighbourhood partly in response to changes in the local population. Is it reasonable or sensible to expect to keep the same businesses when the population is changing around it? I wanted to ask whether Zukin also favoured rent control in housing, which has been fairly problematic in New York, to put it mildly

I think a lot of people would be sympathetic to Zukin's concerns, if not her proposed remedies. She wants to see more independent, small-scale firms encouraged to grow and prosper in neighbourhoods that are in danger of being swamped by bland corporate stores. I just think she should be focusing more on loosening up the supply side (such as making it easier to operate mobile businesses, like the pupusa trucks she admiringly referenced) rather than restricting it, which is probably what rent control would do.

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