The City Authentic has been out for a week and if you still want to kick the tires on the idea before buying you can read an excerpt at Dwell and read the introduction that was ultimately cut from the book. I use the term the city authentic to describe the policies, practices, and ideas that convert our modern desires for authenticity into profit. Developers and their attendant cities have turned to our seeking for belonging and desire for meaningful connection to trigger investment.
Exactly how is detailed in the book but here I want to develop a tangential discussion around nostalgia. The North American Rust Belt is an ideal place to study nostalgia because while a cultural planner worth their salt can look at any city and extract some sort of authentic culture to be peddled there is something about all the brick and wrought iron that lends itself to wistful memories of a bygone era.
Not just any nostalgia though, an eerie nostalgia: one where something feels familiar but missing at the same time. Mark Fisher, in his The Weird and the Eerie says the latter “is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence.” That is, something is definitely missing from the Rust Belt landscape and therefore the place presents as eerie. There are industry-shaped holes in all of these cities and, at least for now, they are being uncomfortably filled with cocktail bars and artists’ lofts.
In the latter half of the twentieth century the Rust Belt was eerie because of its failure of presence: There’s always something older, ravaged by an injustice —native genocides, astral ruptures, NAFTA— that doesn’t leave a mark so much as it leaves a void of memory on the landscape. And unlike a big city, these voids are left to grow brick by spitting brick for decades. In this way, the city authentic thrives in upstate New York for the same reasons that so many iconic authors set their stories nearby. From Stephen King and Margarette Atwood, to H.P. Lovecraft and Washington Irving the Northeast is eerie because it never feels resolved.
Eerie vibes come from a failure of absence too. That is, there’s just too many places offering (sometimes literally) the window-dressing of a full life but mostly it’s just souvenirs for a place in time you never actually visited. It’s all just a little too perfect, especially when someone is drawing attention to contrived grit. I have to admit that I feel a sense of macabre, almost class-traitorous relief when I see an old brownstone rehabilitated out of my own price range. Not only because some bit of architectural heritage is being preserved (I like to joke to comrades that it’s another lovely thing to expropriate in the revolution) but because it resolves some kind of metaphysical tension in the air. Any ruin, whether it is fifty or five-hundred years old invites speculation about intention, dreams long past, and obsolete practices. What did that warehouse use to hold? Who worked at that factory? How did the workers get around? At least we may have a few more years to figure all that out if a Manhattan developer stabilizes the building.
Some of these questions are half-answered immediately in the postmodern pastiche of restaurant themes and historical plaques. Just as often though, they are simply wiped away with an analgesic plastering-over that soothes the itch of eerie nostalgia. Only predictably uniquely storefronts remain: a vintage clothing store or a wedding venue that promises a safe and delimited experience of origins.
Nostalgia is a poison—in small doses it is medicinal for malignant growths of ennui and alienation but imbibe too much and it murders the conscience. Too much nostalgia puts comfort and progress permanently out of reach in the past. Nothing is ever good enough when you’re steeped in the depths of nostalgia. Any earnest attempts at marrying contemporary needs with the accreted years of practice, art, and industry feels profane and ugly. Like drawing a dickbutt on a Rembrandt or something. I know I’m probably in danger of OD’ing on nostalgia every time I watch one of the new Star Trek series but I know I also commit my fair share of aesthetic moralism too. That’s Kate Wagner’s term for judging a building by its façade rather than its use value.
The failure of absence in so many cases is the lack of normal, affordable commerce. There’s nothing to build a normal life atop of. No grocery stores, union halls, libraries, or community centers. The eerie feeling of looking around your town and thinking none of this can possibly keep going. Precious few places look like they could be around for another 30 years, in part because they tried so hard to look like they’d already been there for the last hundred. Are we supposed to feel the same sense of proximate connection to a point and place in time that is always moving further away? And as for all the new construction, there’s the very real threat that it will all rot away to its constituent forever chemicals, securitized debt, and plaster. The eeriness that suffuses the Rust Belt of the 2020s is the same failure of absence found in a hoarder’s house. Buried in all this shit must be a few truly meaningful things but, irony of ironies, they are physically and psychically buried in all the things since clung to.
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"Nostalgia is a poison—in small doses it is medicinal for malignant growths of ennui and alienation but imbibe too much and it murders the conscience"
love this. have any references for books - fiction or non - that works with these concepts of nostalgia as toxic?