5 & 6: Sharon Zukin’s Naked City and Landscapes of Power

I way overslept, and then I had to bring a recalled book back to the library to unfreeze my account, and then I had a craving for lentil soup which necessitated a trip to the grocery store and a couple of hours of paring and blending and reducing – oh, and of course it was raining.  It’s been a strange day, but the soup was delicious (the recipe is here) and I just finished Landscapes of Power, the second of the two books by Sharon Zukin on my geography list.

Landscapes of Power is the earlier of the two, and in it, Zukin argues that “landscape” is the key cultural product of post-postindustrial capitalism in America.  In other words, as we transition from a Modern industrial production economy (and culture) to a Postmodern service and consumption-based economy (and culture), the landscape changes too.  According to Zukin, landscapes are always characterized by a tension between abstract market forces, which want to globalize and homogenize everything, and local, place-based communities, who want to stay rooted where they are and not have to pick up and move every time the economy changes and they get laid off.  Postmodern landscapes are composed of liminal spaces that blend markets and places – so when you go to a museum, for instance, you could just walk in and look at the paintings, but they would really prefer it if you went to the IMAX, paid for a guided tour, and maybe picked up a few things at the gift shop, too.  It’s like the long arm of capitalism is penetrating further and further into every aspect of our lives.

Landscapes of Power is interesting, but Naked City was much more fun to read.  In the twenty years between the two books (1991 and 2010), Zukin’s style has gotten more conversational; more importantly, though, the internet, reurbanization, the housing bubble, and 9/11 have all made the world a very different place from what it was in 1991, and she takes all of these developments into account.  This time, urban spaces are still landscapes of power, and culture and the economy are still based on consumption instead of production.  However, her focus now is not on the decline of modern industrial culture but on the rise of the “authentic city,” a place characterized by a tension between old, historic, deep-rooted elements and new, creative, truly innovative forces.  The book is comprised of six case studies, each a different place in New York city, that examine the meaning of “authentic” and its relationship to power.

I really hate the uncritical use of the word “authentic,” so I was pleasantly surprised to find that Zukin spends a good 30 pages theorizing it and that she’s well aware that authenticity is socially constructed.  The part I particularly like (aside from her liberal use of the word “hipster,” hah) is her construction of authenticity as an elitist, consumption-based concept.  Claiming to either be or see the authentic gives you a certain amount of power: you’re the real deal, or you are worldly enough that you know it when you see it.  But authenticity can only be perceived from the outside, by someone who has enough mobility and distance not just to discern between the real and the fakes, but to care about authenticity in the first place.  Hence, white gentrifiers moving into a poor black neighborhood might see their new home as an authentically gritty urban place, but the neighborhood’s current residents, who are more concerned with getting their bills paid and taking care of themselves and their families, just see it as home.  The gentrifiers are consuming the experience of living there, while the current residents are simply inhabiting the place.  (I guess there’s no particular reason why the black residents wouldn’t seek out authentic experiences or places in some other form, but she doesn’t go into that – one of the failings of the book.)

Together, Zukin’s two books does a lot to spatialize capitalism and inscribe the urban landscape with cultural meaning.  Naked City in particular, though, reminds me why I got into this business in the first place.

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One thought on “5 & 6: Sharon Zukin’s Naked City and Landscapes of Power

  1. Barbara

    what interesting books you are reading–and these last two allow you to see how the author has grasped the changes that have happened in 20 years. I certainly agree with your comments from Landscape of Power that a person cannot go anywhere except in pure nature without being bombarded to buy something. You have to put blinders on to blank out all this "noise."Not sure I understand the total gist of Naked City but it sounds like you do.

    Reply

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