The City Authentic
A book preview through the lost introduction
Usually these posts are shorter but this week is the launch of my first book The City Authentic: How the Attention Economy Builds Urban America. Order it through your local bookshop and ask your local library to pick it up as well. If you’re in the Capital Region of New York please come to the book launch this Saturday.
What follows is an edited introduction I cut from the book (publishers give you word limits!) which gives a more intimate portrait of the city authentic experience. Hope you enjoy and, most importantly, like and subscribe.
It is the summer of 2010 and I am driving my little hatchback Toyota towards Troy, New York. I am moving here, at the age of 23, after having known little else than South Florida. The landscapes of these two places are diametrically opposed in almost every way. I had only known suburbia: cookie-cutter ranch homes buffered with lawn, connected by wide and fast boulevards all sitting atop flat, sandy terrain. Up here the narrow streets wind up and down hills with buildings in all shapes, sizes, and spacings. Instead of stucco, plastic, and glass there is brick, copper, and wrought iron. Seasons in Florida are told by the holiday section of Target, not the weather. The house I grew up in was built in 1959, along with everything else for miles. Now I was seeing centuries’ old buildings sitting on the unsure footings of neglected stone foundations. I remember telling my parents that there was so much history here.
Somewhere in the back of my Toyota was a poster of Lunch atop a Skyscraper. It’s a black and white photo of eleven construction workers calmly eating their lunches while sitting on a steel girder suspended hundreds of feet in the air. This photo hung in my college dorm room as a totem for the sort of place I wanted to live in-- some place that might be called authentic. A place with buildings that had character and a story behind them. A place worthy of photographing, even while it was still a construction site. Where people did more than go on vacation and work in strip malls. Everything in Florida felt like it was built to be forgotten. Its best parts reserved for people who didn’t live there.
Lunch atop a Skyscraper, it turns out, was taken in 1932 as part of a promotional campaign for the nearly finished 30 Rock. It was staged but the workers were real workers and I assume the Rockefellers didn’t buy them lunch that day. My totem to authenticity was an advertisement— a contrivance of last century’s most notorious capitalists. It’s as if a young man from the year 2100 was lovingly staring at Mark Zuckerberg on a hydrofoil smeared in sunscreen while waxing poetic about a time when we made things in this country.
There’s this paradox at the center of modern consumption—the more we’re catered to with machine-curated baubles delivered just in time, the greater our desire grows for that which the algorithms cannot provide. Something off the beaten path, rough around the edges, and maybe -just maybe- a little bit quirked up. In a world of plastic and pixels, people will pay a premium for something that feels like it was around before all that. The only thing better than something that was curated just for you is stumbling upon something that was sitting around long before you were born, waiting to be discovered. This inanimate confidence is typically described as authenticity, and it has never been more valuable.
For a while I thought I’d found my authentic urban life. My wife and I were living in a small city of fifty thousand, living above a bagel shop called Uncle Ricky’s Bagel Heaven. Next door was a music store owned by an elderly couple that lived above. On weekends we could look out the back window and see them sharing a simple breakfast on their patio. Across the street was The Troy Record newspaper, written and printed in the same century-old building.
Today that bagel store is gone, and so are the two restaurants that came and went after it. The music store is gone too, the couple since retired and moved to someplace easier to take care of. In their place stands something called a “wellness studio.” The sandwich board on the sidewalk advertises massages, guided meditations, and yoga classes. The century-old local newspaper was bought by a company called 21st Century Media who moved what was left of the paper out of its downtown digs to a suburban commercial park. In its place is a luxury apartment complex called The News. The ground floor houses an art gallery, a bakery that also lets you rent board games, and a juice shop.
Most people would recognize this as gentrification, and they’d be right. The rat trap one bedroom my wife and I rented from Uncle Ricky cost us $600 a month, utilities included. Today, one-bedroom apartments in The News start at $1,450 and that doesn’t even include the required pet fees that go toward maintaining the in-building pet spa. And while the median rent across the city has gone up 28 percent since we moved here and there always seems to be money for cops (fifteen new officers since January 2022), the water mains still burst every winter, poverty has gone up, and the fire fighters are perpetually understaffed.
Austerity is fine when your residents are too poor to move but once the wellness studio proprietors and news-themed apartment dwellers move in you need to keep them happy or they’ll move and take their disposable income with them. To make ends meet, cities like mine compete against their neighbors for grants, private investment, and tourism dollars by painting themselves as one-of-a-kind dynamic actors with a rich, authentic culture that goes deep but is still accessible enough to be consumed on a Saturday afternoon. Telling such a story renders the city into a cartoon of itself on social media: smiling faces in front of brick facades sharing expensive drinks while wearing cool hats. A predictably unique tableau of Brooklyn, Austin, and home.
The result is a phenomenon I call the city authentic. Like the city beautiful movement a century before, the city authentic is a loose confederation of elected officials, entrepreneurs, and civil society leaders whose over-arching goal is to use the latest technologies and cultural trends to convey to the world that their city is a one-of-a-kind treasure worthy of investment.
The city beautiful movement was an attempt to elevate American cities to the stature and splendor of their European aspirational peers by building grand boulevards and lining them with concert halls, libraries, and parks. Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Chicago were expected to develop a cultural scene and architectural portfolio on par with Paris, London, and Vienna. The aggressive construction schedule also gave local leaders a good excuse to invest capital from the closing frontier, bulldoze black neighborhoods, and scatter the poor and recently immigrated into smaller confines.
The city authentic looks across time instead of the Atlantic for inspiration. Instead of proving the empire is ascending American capitalist must make do with convincing everyone it isn’t dying. Cocktail bars dressed up as whatever was in the storefront decades prior, Instagram advertisements from chambers of commerce touting the original brick in the recently renovated co-working spaces, and millions of dollars set aside to honor the industrial heritage of a region are examples of the city authentic in action. It is equal parts investment strategy and national retail therapy—convincing each other that we’ve still got it. That our cities still create culture and that by living in them we are automatically living the best, most fulfilling lives available.
Both movements used the latest advances of their time --steam and steel, now smartphones and social media —to both finance and build their cities. In turn, those cities reflect the affordances of those technologies and the people that made them. Instead of breakthroughs in building height and construction speed we build cities for attention and finance. And instead of emblazoning the names of wealthy families across each new building, cities begin to act like our favorite reality tv stars and Instagram influencers.
The job of the influencer is to commodify themselves into a living brand. The most successful influencers, however, also know they must deploy moments of vulnerability and messiness to shore up their authenticity bonafides. Go to your favorite celebrity influencer’s Instagram account right now and you will see at least one post within the year that matches this description. So while they may have a schtick —politics, makeup, video games—they must also look like a somewhat normal person. Authenticity is central to this project. Indeed, the Digital Marketing Institute defines a social media influencer as (emphasis mine)
a user who has established credibility in a specific industry, has access to a huge audience and can persuade others to act based on their recommendations. An influencer has the tools and authenticity to attract many viewers consistently and can motivate others to expand their social reach. An influencer may be anyone from a blogger to a celebrity to an online entrepreneur. They must simply capitalize on a niche to attain widespread credibility.1
Instantly we see authenticity linked to social acceptance, credibility, and the ability to persuade. Authenticity is a specific kind of power that comes out of a negotiation between being seen as a whole person (a subject, as philosophers might call it) and an object to be viewed and consumed. Crucial to success in this negotiation is keeping effort at arm’s length: being both self-aware that you are engaging in a marketing venture while at the same time insisting that you are just revealing who you truly are. It is a constant contradiction with no resolution.
This melding of the products of one’s labor, their sense of self, and the marketable object one becomes online is so robust that even a critique of such a system can be subsumed within its own logic. Even here, right now the attention you are giving to these words is a small piece of this puzzle. The fact that I, as another author, am aware of such things and am speaking to you now in the first person to recognize my role in the influencer game is both gimmicky and a point toward my own authenticity project. Thank you for participating. It’ll really help my book sales.
Exploding such a thing into the size of a city where entrepreneurs, elected officials, career bureaucrats, cranks, activists, workers, and citizens come together to convince even more people that their hometown is “authentic” is a difficult task. Even at the level of the individual authenticity and the commodification of the self is rife with contradictions. Spreading the dynamics of the influencer to the scale of a city means everyone’s hang ups about advertising, memory, ownership, and commodification clash against everyone else’s, creating further confusion and contradiction. Authenticity, as urban sociology Sharon Zukin puts it in Naked City, “becomes a tool of power. Any group that insists on the authenticity of its own tastes in contrast to others’ can claim moral superiority. But a group that imposes its own tastes on urban space—on the look of a street, say, or the feeling of a neighborhood— can make a claim to that space that displaces longtime residents.”
The upshot of the city authentic goes beyond gentrification—it is also an antidemocratic system of associative control. One where the bosses and landlords collude to invite their friends to the region through tax incentives and advertising campaigns. In New York this is done through Regional Economic Development Councils. REDCs are governor-appointed boards that offer recommendations to the state who rubber stamp a pile of applications for no interest loans, grants, and other enticements for development. Each application is an explanation for how the project under consideration fits into the REDC’s own goals which it prints in annual reports. For example, their 2021 strategic report stated that they were focused on “building stronger urban and rural communities primarily through placemaking projects supporting the creative arts and tourism segments of the [Creative Arts, Food, and Tourism] CRAFT Cluster as well as public transit improvements and new or upgraded infrastructure that will strengthen a community’s ability to attract private investment.” The subsequent 2022 scoring report that outlines what was funded includes $65,000 for the Hudson Jazz Festival, $285,000 for the City of Cohoes to improve a commercial corridor on Saratoga Street, and nearly a million dollars for the “Catskill Mountain Foundation Dance Studio Carbon Neutral Project.”
This is all headed toward a vibes-based economy where experiences and themes —often drawn from exaggerated and romanticized histories— are the primary form of consumption. “Urbanism”, the foundational urban sociologist Louis Wirth wrote in 1938, has always been “a way of life” but now it is being rendered into a transportable, prepackaged amenity for a highly mobile working class. Such a move requires that we make every place predictably unique: all variations on an urban theme but nothing outside of a safe, delimited range of aesthetic options.
Marshall Berman once observed that people like me —suburbanites in search of the thing they know is missing— won’t find what they’re looking for just by chasing brownstones: “what they really miss is not urban forms in themselves, noble as many of these forms are, but rather a thickness and intensity of human feelings, a clash and interfusion of needs and desires and ideas. For it is in this clashing and fusing of human energies … that fills a city’s forms with life.” He’s right. Ten years later and, while I still enjoy the brownstones, it is that “clashing and fusing” that I truly love. I love yelling at my mayor when he does something stupid. I love that I go to Mariaville Farms every year for my Thanksgiving turkey. The complicated, emotionally fraught relationships I have with friends-turned-elected officials feels, well, authentic.