My heart went pitter pat this week, when my boyfriend passed along “What Makes Cities Live,” an article about New York city by Roger Cohen of the NYT. It’s rare to read such an empassioned discussion of zoning that is not written by an urban planning wonk, and Cohen’s subject is at the heart of my goals for this blog.
I could say a million things about this column (the least of which being my one unfortunate experiment with Chinese duck tongues), but I want to focus on one issue that is at the heart of his discussion. This is the 21st century conflict between authenticity and cultural tourism. In other words, how do cities create environments that are authentically local without making them into an amusement-park version of themselves? He introduces this quandary with very precise, searing language, calling Times Square “a once seedy part of town re-imagined as the tourist-filled set for a movie called “New York.” The idea of a movie set suggests the appearance of Times Square as a performance, an invention for consumption and display. He equates this idea of a movie set later with a model of cultural or historic tourism: the garment district, he says, is not yet a “‘garment district’; cleansed to quaintness, shaped for the well-to-do, complete with guides relating the rich history of immigrants and their sewing machines.”
I’m interested in this conflict because I think it’s important to preserve and present history in urban environments for future generations, for educational reasons and for economic reasons. But I’m also interested in authenticity (and duck tongues) just like Cohen. How can we accomplish both goals, presenting history and creating a viable culture of historic consumption, without turning heritage and culture into consumer industries? I’ll be thinking about this a lot in future posts, especially as I work through a project on the Essex National Heritage Area, which tries to create an authentic, heritage-based economy for residents and tourists of the northern coastline of Massachusetts. I thought Cohen’s article was a perfect way to introduce this discussion.
On a side note, I would refer Cohen (should he ever stumble across this humble blog) to another NYT article, by Nanette Lepore and Robert Savage. They also discuss the virtues of the Garment District, but explain how today the authenticity of the neighborhood is threatened by changed zoning and development policies. The allure of new condos and gentrification persists even in bastions of local industry, and I hope articles such as these will raise awareness of the importance of preserving our local crafts and outposts of cultural authenticity.