The problems of authenticity

Originally posted on 27 January 2011

What might we say is an authentic urban experience? Is it pushing and shoving one’s way down Dalton’s Ridley Road market, one of London’s few still thriving fruit and veg markets? Is it having a quiet pint of ale in one of the old pubs off Fleet Street supposedly frequented in days of yore by Johnson, Dickens et al? Or is it strolling down Stoke Newington Church Street with its array of independent shops and restaurants with not a single multinational chain in sight?

For some these may very well be authentic experiences. Yet for many others they would be seem alien, activities only of interest to those with the time and money to care about where they shop or have a pint. And while some experiences may seem decidedly authentic to one individual (or segment of society) for others they may be just a part of everyday life.

The notion of authenticity is, of course, highly problematic. It can in varying degrees be dismissed as subjective, elitist, nostalgic and an unhelpful distraction to a proper consideration of the urban environment and the social and economic power structures which shape it. However, for Sharon Zukin, professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, New York, the notion of authenticity is, despite its inherent difficulties, an important tool in thinking about urban environments.

In a recent lecture for the LSE Cities Programme elaborating on some of the ideas discussed in her book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (OUP, 2009), Zukin argued for authenticity as a way of understanding the city in cultural terms which could be used to defend the social rights of communities and individuals. Authenticity, Zukin suggested, is useful because it combines a “sense of place with a sense of time”. It takes account of personal experience and the “enchanting” character of particular types of urban experience and the way the individual and collective search for identity is realised in the creation of distinct districts with particular characters. While authenticity can be understood as a particular aesthetic category – manifested in a kind of unsmartness or quaint dilapidations synonymous with traditional shop fronts, and, especially, the lack of overt advertising commensurate with large retail chains – it can also be seen as a signifier for particular social and economic conditions.

Zukin used the example of Vesuvio Bakery on Prince Street in New York’s SoHo district, tracing its evolution over a couple of years from family-run bakery business, via short-lived cafe, to trendy cupcake (chain) store. When the bakery business folded after the death of the family patriarch, Zukin remarked how the new cafe changed very little of the shop front other than adding the word “cafe”. The intention of the new owners was obviously to try to trade on the reputation of the bakery. Zukin, however, drew attention to the presentation of the bread in the window, showing the audience how it had remained almost entirely consistent throughout the bakery’s history. While the cafe’s display was similar the differences were clearly apparent to those who had actually patronised the bakery, or even those whose everyday activity took them past it – a difference unnoticed by anyone not part of the area’s social structures.

When the cafe business itself went to the wall and the cupcake boutique moved in little was changed externally (apart from the removal of the cafe sign) with it largely returned to its appearance the day the bakery folded. While investing considerable capital to bring the shop’s internal infrastructure up-to-date, the small cupcake chain preserved the shopfront’s unique and endearing character, not even adding their own name to the shop front. However, the physical preservation of the shop front did not go hand-in-hand with a continuation of its social and economic role. The cupcakes it sold were now almost certainly baked off-site in some centralised bakery and the shop now addressed a completely different (and no doubt much more affluent) clientele, whose aesthetic tastes were seduced by its appearance of authenticity.

The powers driving the destruction of authenticity can be reduced to capital (i.e. investment in “underdeveloped” areas), the state (via the instigation of urban regeneration projects, although often using private money), and the media. The latter, Zukin sees, as central to the formation of a taste for the authentic. This is, of course, bound up with gentrification and its derivative, so-called “hipster” culture.

On one level gentrification can be understood as a purely economic process. In London, for example, the pioneers of this process in the 1980s and 90s were principally students and especially artists. Mostly middle class but with limited means, they colonised historically poor areas because of the cheaper rents available there. Often these areas were those left vacant by deindustrialisation. In this context it was rather apposite that the new economies the colonisers created in these areas produced little (most gentrifiers worked in the service industries, and especially the media) but were geared towards a particularly pure form of consumerism.

Fashion is the most obvious marker of such processes, and here saw the emergence of a retro-chic based on the continual regurgitation and assimilation of past styles – the calling card of hipster culture. The concomitant urban – or even architectural – manifestation of this process was a fetishization of the seemingly authentic. Of course gentrifiers patronised pre-existing, properly authentic businesses. However, because their purchasing power exceeded that of their of the local population, new businesses whose products catered, and were priced according, to hipsters’ retro and eclectic tastes flocked to these areas. Unable to afford the resultant increase in rents, indigenous businesses who didn’t cater directly to these new markets began to be pushed out and replaced by ones which did – illustrated neatly by Zukin’s example of the Vesuvio bakery’s latest incarnation as cupcake store.

I’ve alluded already to the way authenticity has in many ways become a commodity: businesses flocking to newly gentrified areas and trading on their acquired authenticity to cater to the tastes of hipster culture. Determined by geography and particular demographics, hipster culture essentially defines itself as a niche. Despite this, large businesses soon started to recognise the allure of hipster style and its perceived counter-cultural attitude for those on the outside. In their mainstream, high-street lines they quickly started to imitate hipster fashions. Thus leggings, Converse trainers, Ray Bans and skinny jeans all became mainstays of high street fashion after originating (in regurgitated form) on the streets of east London.

It wasn’t just the products which sought to imitate hipster style with its idolisation of the authentic. Shops, cafes and bars too reproduced the look of authenticity. Peeling paint, mismatching furniture and an assortment of brik-a-brakery assimilated a kind of junk-shop chic. The message was simple. To bask in hipsterism’s counter-cultural sheen all one needed to do was buy hipster clothes, shop in apparently dilapidated stores and buy your latte in a coffee shop which appears to have more in common with a curiosity shop than a branch of Starbucks. (Though, of course, Starbucks is busily rebranding their coffee shops in response to this process). And all this was now accessible from the high street without having to wander off piste to some unfamiliar, potentially dangerous area. Of course it goes without saying that hipster fashion hasn’t remained static. As it’s appropriated by the mainstream it evolves, although always in keeping with its raison d’être by regurgitating and assimilating past styles. And this has just played into the hand of the chain stores by providing a constant stream of ideas and material from which to derive next season’s range.

In a context where any coherent understanding of authenticity has been thoroughly debased by the market, is there any point in clinging to it as a concept? While admitting its inherent problems, Zukin contends that authenticity can act as a important decoy in talking about urban environments. Enshrined in Zukin’s definition of authenticity is her own personal agenda which privileges family-run or independent stores selling locally-produced goods over the homogenising tendencies of multi-national chain stores. Under the shroud of “authenticity” she argues it is possible to talk again (albeit sometimes implicitly) about things like rent controls and imposing constraints on development without entering a hornet’s nest of antithetically-oppossed ideologues. Summing up her stance, Zukin describes herself as advocating a kind of “social sustainability”. Similar to the way environmental sustainability aims at creating a kind of perpetual motion machine with no net energy requirement nor any waste product, “social sustainability” intimates self-supporting, mutually dependent communities.

How this relates to the physical environment is by no means straightforward. If we preserve the authenticity of a building or even an area, does it follow that we have also prevented a community from splintering and fragmenting? As we have seen, with the fetishization of (fabricated) authenticity part of the mainstream, there exists no easy link between authenticity in physical environments and the social structures to which they relate. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the way we perceive authenticity as linked with the physical environment is actually an illusion. Remove the authentic community and the authenticity seemingly embodied by particular buildings evaporates, to be replaced by a cadaverous image of authenticity, poisoned by the market. In preserving buildings it may be that we act to further burnish their allure for outsiders, thus inadvertently fuelling their commoditisation and the eventual destruction of the very communities and cultures which make them authentic in the first place. How do we negotiate the seeming dichotomy that exists between physical and social environments, while accounting for the ways each one conditions and determines the other? Does our obsession with the authentic and its preservation in the end actually destroy what is worth keeping? In a followup to this post I will exploring responses to these questions, trying to unpick the assumptions and difficulties inherent in acts of preservation.