One of the things I’ve noticed in my work and research on urban culture is a renewed interest in place. People are becoming attune to the various ways in which our surroundings, both physical and social, impact our lives. In Vancouver, trends like eating local and bicycle commuting reflect a deeper sense of how we experience the places we inhabit. A big part of this shift in awareness is a dissatisfaction with modern conceptions of success and fulfillment, often driven by an impersonal consumption of our surroundings as a way to reach our own goals. We commute to get to work, not to connect with our neighborhood. We eat because we are hungry (regardless of where our food came from), not because we are participants in a local ecosystem. In this sense, we experience place only as a means to an end. And we’re tired of it.
I’m currently reading a book titled Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places in which author Sharon Zukin uses New York City to illustrate how we interact with the cities we live in. As her title suggests, the desire to acknowledge how places shape us reflects our human quest for authenticity, an experience of belonging in where we live. Whether it’s in the fight to resist change in city neighborhoods or in the process of endorsing developments that alter the urban landscape, how our communities live and die influence our experience of authenticity. As Zukin asserts, “The idea of authenticity is important because it connects our individual yearning to root ourselves in a singular time and place to a cosmic grasp of larger social forces that remake our world from many small and often invisible actions.” We engage place and seek authenticity in order to realize we belong to something bigger than ourselves.
But there’s a problem: we risk only consuming authenticity.
A place like New York City, with it’s endless streets, countless people, and diverse neighborhoods, gets idealized as an experience of authentic connection. But such is the view from outside those very neighborhoods. The city and its neighborhoods are treated as an object. Zukin points out a shift: “We are eyewitnesses to a paradigm shift from a city of production to a city of consumption.” On my recent trip to New York, one person described it as the place people only go to get something. And even in our best intentions to connect with place, we can idealize these places and only consume authenticity rather than actually produce it. Zukin explains:
We can see ‘authentic’ spaces only from outside them. Mobility gives us the distance to view a neighborhood as connoisseurs, to compare it to an absolute standard of urban experience, to judge its character apart from our personal history or intimate social relationships. If we are connected to a neighborhood’s longtime social life, especially if we grew up there, we are likely to recall how it was back in the day; we are less likely, though, to call it authentic. Just thinking of authenticity in this way recalls its usual meaning, according to which an expert objectively evaluates the origins of a piece of art, an antique rug, or any other object we can isolate like a specimen, examine, and compare with other examples of its category. In contrast to the subjectivity that comes from really living in a neighborhood, walking its streets, shopping local stores, and sending children to local schools, the other kind of authenticity allows us to see an inhabited space in aesthetic terms. Especially when we look at a rundown neighborhood we ask, Is it interesting? Is it gritty? Is it ‘real’? Like the criteria we use while shopping for consumer products, these standards objectify the authenticity we desire.
I’m convinced culture is something we both shape and are shaped by. The same goes for the places we inhabit. If we only consume our culture and idealize a sense of authentic places, we objectify our surroundings and fail to experience what’s really motivating our consumption - authenticity.