places., plans and policies, travels
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citysumption and the search for urban cool.

As I’ve already told you, I recently got back from a trip to Europe.  As always, the return to Boston was a bit of a shock, as I lamented, “Boston just isn’t cool.”  Barcelona, where I had just been, just had this effortless excitement to it, a laid back sense of style and innovation, sporting incredibly innovative architecture from Gaudi to contemporary, from tapas on the street to dancing in the squares. What does Boston have?  A food-truck inferiority complex and a half-working waterfront park?  Where’s the beach and the outdoor bars til 5am?  And why, oh, why don’t we turn our incredible seafood into conservas for me to nibble while drinking cava in the sun, or in a packed bar of people drinking vermouth and nibbling on salty, briny snacks?

So, in order to try to snap myself out of this malaise, I proceeded to do the “cool” things in Boston.  Most notably, I head to the SoWA open market, “Boston’s original art and indie design market.”  If you know where this is going, bear with me.  SoWA had all the trappings: the food trucks, the antiques mart, the farmer’s market, the recycled clothing creations and upcycled home goods.  But there was something else I noticed, probably because I had the perspective of post-travel: the language of cool.  It isn’t enough to sell vegetables on the street, they have to be “fresh delicious local sustainable organic” vegetables, complete with pedigree.  Clothes and textiles have to be “handmade sustainably woven in villages in Peru”.  Now, maybe I just didn’t notice it in Barcelona because I don’t speak Catalan or was mostly a tourist on vacation; let’s leave Barcelona out of this for a second and just talk about the hyperbranding of our cities today, and the seemingly constant quest, of city-dwellers and city officials alike, to proclaim their urban cool cred.

A couple of articles I’ve recently come upon have nicely coincided with my thinking about urban cool.  The first was The New York Observer’s “A Twee Grows in Brooklyn: The Portlandification of the increasingly bourgeois borough.” Now, Portland and Brooklyn are the poster children for the kind of hipster urban cool that I encountered in SoWA.  And if the cultural districts, loft-conversions, and innovation clusters sprouting up all over the country is any kind of indication, most other cities are busily trying to follow suit, whether to attract tourists, keep Gen-Yers, or just keep up with the rat-race that is urban economic development.  But the Observer’s article describes what’s at stake with this kind of strategy.  It’s diversity: both of residents and of thought.  And it’s authenticity, a word that comes up a lot on this blog.  When people are producing products, happenings, and environments not with needs but with buzzwords in mind, we lose.  The author describes that Portland’s creative, carefree environment is the result of scarcity and lack of opportunity.  It’s a place where people make do, rather than make a future.  With an entire generation of young people facing decreasing job prospects and financial insecurity, it seems only natural that more and more of our cities will take on the kind of experimental, low-cost living solutions that the residents of Portland have become famous for.  But what happens if this kind of lifestyle becomes a way to give up rather than pitch in?  And, more importantly, when the trappings of the lifestyle become “cool,” how can we stop it from turning into something different entirely?

Now, I think environments of scarcity, and citizen solutions to that scarcity, are essential for moving a culture forward, as I’ve said before.  But when a certain kind of solution becomes the dominant culture, and a source of profit not just for local entrepreneurs but also for savvy businesses that are able to co-opt language and turn it from creativity into consumerist “cool,” then you’ve crossed the line from urban innovation into homogenization.  Of course, the slow transformation of parts of cities from run-down to re-energized is part of the natural cycle of urbanization, but with the power of corporate “micro-marketing” that is increasingly homing in on place-based consumer research, we can imagine that capital will be mobilized to reimagine this process not as a cycle but as a slow colonization of cities by the wealthy.

Which brings me to my next article.  Engaging Cities wrote a nice overview of a report I remember running past earlier this year, about the trend towards Citysumerism.  Citysumers, the report describes, are “the hundreds of millions of experienced and sophisticated city dwellers, from San Francisco to Shanghai to São Paulo, who are ever more demanding and more open-minded, but also more proud, more connected, more spontaneous and more try-out-prone, consuming new urban goods, services, experiences, campaigns and conversations.”  These folks (and I count myself among them, don’t get me wrong), whether as residents or as tourists, treat the city as a consumable good, in and of itself.  Their experiences, goods, and food are increasingly desired to reflect the character and environment of the city itself.  On the one hand, you could view this as an increasing search for, and appreciation of, a more comprehensive idea of terroir.  I write a lot here about the importance of site-specificity, of place-ness in how we deal with our cities.  Citysumerism is, in a lot of ways, the ideal avenue for promoting the kind of locally authentic economic development strategies that I hope to see.

But I’m wary, too.  Could Citysumerism, when considered in these kinds of marketing terms, just be the apotheosis of urban cool?  An invitation to label, market, and brand every aspect of a city for the enjoyment of a moneyed class?  Again, don’t get me wrong: I think branding in a city is important, it’s part of the narrative of a place, making it public and legible.  But when it becomes a drumbeat of one ethos, one kind of activity open to one kind of resident, it’s alienating for all involved, whether the displaced urban poor,  the disempowered non-urban dwellers, or even the urban residents who moved there hoping for a multiplicity of humanity and finding the same homogeneity they had everywhere else.  And as a result, the search for cool becomes not cultural expression, not economic development, so much as urban beautification.

So on second thought, let’s keep Boston un-cool.  Let’s keep its neighborhoods lively and diverse, its culture the wonderful and bizarre mix of Irish pride, Revolutionary history, sports mania, liberal intellectualism, and black activism (and much, much more) that exists.  Let’s make sure our old industries — seafood processing and fishing, manufacturing, farming, education — live and thrive alongside our new ones, be they computer programming, biomedical science, or graphic design.  Let’s keep Boston Boston, and we might not need more branding, tag lines, or special districts.  Though maybe I wouldn’t argue if we got a few more outdoor bars, and a few more ways to eat seafood from a tin.

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3 Comments

  1. Alvin Tan says

    Hello there, I’m very interested in this Citysumerism report that you are talking about, as I am working on a related topic for my dissertation. Does it happen to be on the public domain? Any help will be most appreciated! Thanks!!

      • Alvin Tan says

        Hi Diana, thank you so much for showing it to me! I’ve been so caught up with work I forgot to reply…

        My work looks at why city visions seem increasingly oriented around lifestyle, leisure, consumption, etc… But it departs from political economy explanations by focusing on the role of the middle class, which I theorize as a global middle class (as an institutionalized identity), to “match” the global scale of the phenomenon…

        Thanks again for directing it to me!

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