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Anyone who has known a city for a long time and goes around with their eyes open will have a list, perhaps a long list, of the changes that have taken place there of which they do not approve. A favourite area has been rebuilt: it used to be interesting, now it's boring. The old shops have been cleared away, the old individual names are gone to be replaced by the same bland corporate outlets you see everywhere. In one place a new road has destroyed the character of the district, in another a new property development has put up all the prices and driven the old inhabitants away. Where have all the trees gone? What happened to that cafe where I used to meet my friends? Why are all the new buildings so big, why do they all look the same? Why do all the new apartments have sky-high price tags? How many branches of Starbucks does one town need?
Wherever we live -- London, New York, Milan, Moscow -- we could well have these feelings of resentfulness and regret, nostalgia mixed with a little guilt, and possibly we might spend some time wandering the streets indulging them. We don't all then sit down and write a book about it, though. Sociology provides a space in which such projects become academically respectable, however, and Sharon Zukin, sociology professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York has written such a book. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places is a strange piece of work which sets out to define a conception of 'inauthenticity' as a key problem of the contemporary city -- and then proposes a solution to that problem as impracticable as it is bizarrely authoritarian.
Fifty years ago Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the few works of urban sociology that can be truly said to have transformed not only the way we look at the city but the way the city is shaped, at least in North America and Europe. Jacobs argued that the authentic urban social fabric was being destroyed along with the physical fabric it inhabited by the large-scale urban transformation projects of the post-war era, and that more respect had to be paid to the interaction of place and people in the city. Jacobs's view was determined in the end by a concept of the visual experiencing of the city as much as by its social reality: it was a matter of scale, of liveliness, of accessibility to people, rather than of vast projects, be they roads or huge sterile squares, that had no relationship to the texture of human life as people actually live it.
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.
So if we are losing character, variety, accessibility, authenticity, what is the solution? Here is where we come up against a real problem. It becomes increasingly clear as one reads this book that tor Zukin the answer is direct state intervention in city planning, reaching down to street-corner level to determine what is acceptable and what is not. Thus: 'If mom-and-pop stores are more "authentic" than big-box chains, the state should mandate their inclusion in every new building project and in every shopping block' (p. 245). Presumably a Soviet-style bureaucracy will recruit an army of moms and pops who will be parachuted in to run these establishments, complete with state-mandated homely smiles of welcome. This suggestion that authenticity can be imposed by state diktat appears to be quite serious; with no trace of irony Zukin declares that 'authenticity must be used to reshape the rights of ownership' (p. 244). This translates as denying people the right to own property or operate businesses in particular areas on the grounds that they just aren't authentic enough, or that their authenticity is of an inauthentic kind -- for, as Zukin warns, 'big money' is hi-jacking authenticity, seeing in it a desirable and saleable concept, and is imposing it from above when it should arise from below. An 'authenticity' defined and then imposed by the power of the state, however, is for Zukin apparently unproblematic.
There is good and interesting material in The Naked City: Zukin's outline of the way the new connectedness of society has begun to have an impact upon the physical aspect of the inner city (she says little about suburbs) is thought-provoking, and her consideration of the way journalists and others use certain urban descriptive terms such as 'gritty' reveals the ways in which cities are remade not only physically but linguistically in illuminating ways. Overall, however, this is a unsatisfactory book, superficial in its approach, descriptive rather than analytical, and with an underlying message that is positively disturbing in its authoritarianism.
© 2012 Ralph Harrington
Ralph Harrington, Ph.D. is a historian who has researched, lectured and published on medical history and the history of trauma, among other topics. His web site is at http://harringtonmiscellany.wordpress.com/