Big Think Interview With Sharon Zukin
Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living , Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities , and Point of Purchase. Zukin received the C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems for Landscapes of Power, and the Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Career Achievement in Urban Sociology from the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association. She holds a PhD from Columbia University and lives in New York City.
Question: How has our conception of cities changed in recent years?
Sharon Zukin: One of the interesting things about urban culture in the last half century is that urban residents are increasingly college educated, smart people with a lot of cultural capital. They might not have a lot of money but they have had fairly good jobs and a terrific interest in history and art and what we could call the esthetics of city life. So this made them look for the kinds of cities and the areas in cities that had the cobble stone streets, red brick or brownstone, or gray-stone houses and small stores that could be converted to the interesting quality of life that they sought. This is very different from their parent’s generation in the fifties or sixties of the last century because those people often tried to escape urban life which they saw as closed-in and you know, tenements and crowded streets and over imposing monolithic office towers. For the suburbs, a lot of those people of the parent’s generation left the cities because they thought the cities were going to be poor and degraded. But, it’s their children who’ve returned to cities, who have confirmed the interest of city life. But the ore of them or of us who come to cities the less space there is for low-income people who have been living in cities all along. So it’s a curious kind of culture that develops out of great appreciation for the authentic city that has been here and a tendency to impose new tastes that drive out long time residents and businesses.
Question: Where does this notion of authenticity come from?
Sharon Zukin: The idea of authenticity really comes from Shakespeare’s time and Russo’s time a Century later. When people began to realize that there is such a thing as an authentic self that could thrive in a natural or an authentic society there haven’t been too many completely authentic societies but, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some groups of people have tried to absent themselves from society to go to a rural community let’s say to found the utopia and sometimes even to come to a working class neighborhood to live among people and live in surroundings that they think will allow them to create an authentic self. So these are people who don’t look for certain kinds of fashions to demonstrate their identity and they don’t necessarily join political groups or social movements but they to live in a space that they can identify with as an authentic space and an authentic culture.
Sometimes its neighborhoods like you know Bohemian Districts of Paris in the late Nineteenth Century or Greenwich Village, a Bohemian District of New York in the early Twentieth Century. But when those areas become too conformist or too expensive, those who seek an authentic life move elsewhere so that the center of artistic authenticity in New York moved from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn Heights in the mid-Twentieth Century and also by the 1960s to the East Village which was not called the East Village then it was part of the Lower East Side. But, I guess an enterprising real estate agent or developer said there are so many hippies living here looking for you know, for some kind of commune in the city that I’ll benefit by calling this area the East Village and connect it with the old Bohemianism of Greenwich Village. And then by the 1990s the East Village became very expensive partly because of the University expansion nearby and partly because of the attractiveness of some of the hippie and art destinations that had been created during the 1980s, so the center of authenticity then moved across the East River on the subway to Williamsburg which then became a district of Indy music banks and bars and kind of edgy performance spaces. This of course is a young sort of authenticity; it’s different from the gentrification of a more settled, slightly older population. So as rents go up the search for authenticity expands looking for other areas of the city that offer a kind of low-down but truer sense of where the self can develop.
Question: What defines the “soul” of a city?
Sharon Zukin: The soul of the city is it’s people, it’s small shops the diversity of the crowds. The hustle and bustle but not just change, rootedness, neighborhoods, streets that maintain their identity over a long period of time. Cities are always changing and it would be silly to say that a city loses its soul when it changes exactly because so many new people come, old people live, businesses die for technological, cultural, and financial reasons but the soul of a city is often felt to be in the long-time residents, the old businesses and particularly the small businesses, the small shops, the small streets. And, the people who are not the richest but they’ve been here a long time and they give the city character.
Question: What creates this craving for an “authentic” space?
Sharon Zukin: Every movement always spurs a resistance to that movement; a counter-movement, a counter-culture and in our time as in the 1960s, there was a big resistance against the standardization of overwhelmingly large organizations. In cities today, there’s been an invasion since the late 1990s of chain stores and these create visible faces of standardization. Some people have spoken of this in terms of the suburbanization of cities. And in some cities I have to say it’s a benefit to have a chain store rather than an overpriced store with terrible merchandise that does not give a good deal to consumers in the area but in general its times of homogenization that irritate people, that get under peoples skin and make them desire a more authentic kind of space to live a more authentic kind of life.
Question: How can we help prevent displacement?
Sharon Zukin: You know I can’t emphasize enough how important laws are, zoning laws, rent controls, commercial rent controls, maybe providing apprenticeships for young people who are not going to college or people who are graduates of art schools to set up small stores. A continuation of traditional crafts, I think industry is tremendously important in every city, even in New York and there have to be spaces for all of these activities to create an procreate. It’s silly to say that a city will survive on the basis of the creative class; a city only survives on the basis of diversity, different classes of people all working and its necessary for local government to make sure there is space for everybody in the city.
I mean there really have to be, you know go to your City Council Representative, write to that person and tell them they voted wrong or they voted right on something. Utter the forbidden words like new laws, new zoning, rent control, maybe all buildings should have not just one percent for art but one percent of the space devoted to mom and pop stores. I understand that these would not necessarily be old mom-and-old-pop stores but they’d be you know new independently owned stores. There really has to be an educational effort to bring tastes together with social need. Like look at the Red Hook Food Vendors in the ball field, they were unknown outside the Latino community, I should say the Latino soccer playing and soccer watching community for almost thirty years when they sold papooses and tacos and delotes and you know whatever they were selling and making at the ball fields. They never lived in Red Hook but they came faithfully every Saturday and Sunday when the soccer leagues played and cooked and sold and eventually through the Internet, through the food blogs after around 2003, 2004 a much wider public became aware of the good food and the cultural value and I would say the social value of these immigrant food vendors.
So it became really crucial for politicians and for food bloggers and for you know ordinary people who just liked tacos to put pressure on the city government to allow those food vendors to stay in place. There was a concerted campaign by the Parks Department and the Health Department to shut them down or make them conform to existing laws which I understand and through the help of outside communities pressing the city government those food vendors were able to protect their right to sell at the park in Red Hook but it’s those, it’s those cases that show how absolutely important it is for city governments to make good policies to protect people’s rights to be in a place.
Take the Community Gardens, they enjoyed a temporary reprieve a few years ago after Mayor Giuliani, lead a campaign to convert most of them to housing sites, and you know people breathed a sigh of relief and said okay great now we have community gardens. But the community gardens are only legal until fall of this year, 2010. There has to be a New York State Law passed by the Legislature that creates a permanent right for community gardens to stay in place. I think everybody agrees that community gardens are truly important. Not just as places of rest and relaxation and nature for a neighborhood but also as places of vegetable production and urban food production is very important now as a sign of the sustainable environmental future. So there has to be some government action to protect that kind of space. It’s these examples that show how important it is for all of us to press city government to make new laws.
Question: How has the rate of gentrification increased in recent years?
Sharon Zukin: Well gentrification reached a turning point in the 1980s. I think it began in Jane Jacob’s time in the 1950s and early 1960s in cities like New York and London and other big cities of the world and then slowly attracted more and more people until gentrification reached a turning point in the 1980s and then it was all over the media. And then there were actually neighborhoods that were marketed not as outposts of difference but as places where middle-class families could safely reside and find the cheese and the dog equipment and the baby strollers and all the things that a fairly young middle-class family would want in the city except for the sterile atmosphere that was associated with the suburbs. So from the 1980s to the past couple of years gentrification really reached a crescendo and one neighborhood after another, so many cities toppled from what it had been as a working-class neighborhood, often a neighborhood for people of color or a mixed neighborhood but definitely a low-income, low rent, low key kind of place; one after another these areas became gentrified neighborhoods and hot residential markets. It isn’t until the recession of the past couple of years that there’s been a slowing maybe not a slowing of gentrification but a slowing of the new building that followed gentrification.
Question: Does gentrification function linearly or is it more of a cycle?
Sharon Zukin: Well cities do go through cycles. I don’t like think of them as cycles because that predicts that there’s going to be an end in an opposite direction from whatever we’re living through now but we should not forget that decades before the height of gentrification were decades of urban impoverishment when middle-class people moved out of cities. When businesses moved away from cities. When the urban population became poorer, less white, more discriminated against and cities represented decline not growth. So I’m not going to say that a period of growth is going to be followed by a cycle of something complete different, which will be followed by another period of growth at all. We don’t know what the future will hold but I think that the density of population in cities and the density of economic activities in cities have always been able to spark a regeneration of labor markets and then capital investment and that’s what you need to make a city vibrant. And you know that’s part of the authenticity of cities too, one side of authenticity is old and original but the other side is new and creative and it’s important for cities to encourage and sustain the initiatives that new residents develop. I hope that those new initiatives would remain small because it think it’s the small businesses, the street vendors, the little restaurants, the new services that people develop to serve people in their neighborhoods, I think it’s those places that provide the best chance for a city to grow on its own without any artificial kind of program.
Question: Is it possible to move into an affordable urban neighborhood without guilt?
Sharon Zukin: on a personal level, a lot of urban dwellers live this contradiction even if they are not personally responsible for displacing a family or a tenant from a single-room occupancy hotel but it’s true that we with our consumers tastes are responsible for knocking out a lot of the old and bringing in a lot of the new. Also with the amount of rent or the amount of money we can pay to buy an apartment, we may be displacing people who don’t have that kind of money so the first step is to be aware of the cultural power that people have. The second step is to force local governments to make policies and make laws to protect people’s right to stay in the apartments or the houses that they have. This is as true of people whose mortgages are being foreclosed, as it is true of tenants whose apartment complexes or tenant or apartment houses have been bought by big investment companies that thought they were going to make a killing on these places and raise the rent but are now foreclosing on their mortgages. There have to be actions by the state, zoning laws, protections, encouragements for small businesses and long-time residents. Don’t forget people who have been in the city for a couple of years are on the way to becoming long-time residents.
Question: Are there any guilt-free ways of gentrifying?
Sharon Zukin: Well we all need a place to live right? So we have to do the best we can given our economic circumstances and our need to be close to where we work. We all need to hunt and gather to provide for ourselves and our families. That means that we all need stores and so it’s inevitable that we shape the built environment around us. There has to be some interaction between people’s needs and urban spaces but what’s really crucial is that we try to even the playing field for the people who can’t pay high rents, the people who don’t get good public services, and the people who can’t escape right because we all live in the city together. I think what city dwellers really appreciate is the diversity of the city and you can’t have diversity if everybody is a college-educated gentrifier.
Question: What is distinctive about the history of Manhattan’s Lower East Side?
Sharon Zukin: One of the most interesting areas of New York City is the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Most people know the Lower East Side as a traditional area of immigrant settlement but a lot of those immigrants were very active in the labor movement and socialist politics in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century’s so that so many blocks of the Lower East Side are filled with the shadows of the ancestors of political activists. Emma Goldman lived there. Labor leaders lived there and in fact we don’t even have to think about socialist politics during the Civil War, draft resistors put of barricades around Tompkins Square Park and through the years somehow even though those people have passed from the scene, there has been an embodiment of their spirit of resistance in that neighborhood kind of like the way African-American culture has been kept alive in Harlem and in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn so that it’s something in the soul of a neighborhood to sustain the traditions and the politics of the past. I don’t think that its only the stones and the brick of the buildings that keep the spirit alive. It also has to be the quality of population, the kinds of businesses that are there. You can’t really have Sushi Bars in a neighborhood where so many resistors and counter-cultural movements took place.
Question: How does this change come about?
Sharon Zukin: You know one of the interesting things about this whole process that draws more and more people to the so-called authentic neighborhoods is the entrepreneurial businesses that are opened up by creative people to cater to their own community. And usually these are small businesses that provide services or provide goods that the new residents culturally crave. They have no intention or driving out old businesses but they are really visible presences on the street and they signal that these areas of the city are now safe for bigger real estate development. We used to think that it was the presence of artists that lead to gentrification but I really think that it’s the presence of the businesses that artists create; art galleries, performance spaces, bars, restaurants, that really, boutiques, that really attract people from a larger public first as visitors and then as would-be residents.
Question: How does taste become a form of power?
Sharon Zukin: In sociology we know that taste is socially made, it’s not just a matter of what you as an individual likes to eat or like to read or like to listen to. Taste really is an expression of a whole group of people who share common education and a common cultural background. That’s true not just in an ethnic sense but in the sense of position in society, occupation, profession, and when a lot of people move into a neighborhood and they form a market for lattes or they form a market for newsstands that sell the New York Times they tend to create an atmosphere, a very visible and tangible atmosphere on the street that makes other people who do not share those tastes feel uncomfortable. If they, if there are enough of the new people with the new tastes then the long-time residents feels very uncomfortable and eventually if the new residents can pay higher rents and the businesses that cater to them can pay higher rents, though maybe not the highest, they will tend to drive out the long-time residents and the old businesses.
Usually businesses cannot cater to both the old and the new because the tastes and the atmosphere are just so different. You know imagine a working class bar where mainly guys go in the evening and stand around and drink beer and dis women; that’s not the kind of place where young women like to hang out either with other women or with men. So there’s a real sense of discomfort between the old and the new residents in the businesses that cater to their different tastes. And even on the street let’s say long-time Latino residents especially men will sit on the street and play Dominos but new residents might consider that picturesque at first but then they might begin to consider it undesirable not to mention any kind of illicit or illegal activity that might go on on the street. Generally gentrifies don’t use the street as much as long-time less affluent residents and so there’s a real difference between those who want to use the public space of the street in a certain way as well as the establishments of the small businesses and those who want to use these spaces differently, more tastefully.
Question: Were does Jane Jacobs’ classic argument fall short?
Sharon Zukin: In the 1960s, Jane Jacobs’s criticism of the massive urban renewal tactics of the federal and local governments was tremendously important. What she said empowered people not just to take action against the brutal results of urban renewal plans but also to look around themselves and to see the good things in cities and the very desirable amenities of their neighborhoods. By the 1980s and 1990s, Jacobs’ writing had become sacred a couple of generations of urban planners and by the 2000s, many urban planner and by this I mean officials not staffs, urban planning officials walk around and flatter themselves that they are partisans of Jane Jacobs’ ideas by which they mean they speak for the authentic character of cities. They speak for neighborhood identities but what they neglect and what Jacobs herself did not emphasize was the people who live in cities. Now everybody know Jane Jacobs Ballet of the Street where she praises the merchants and the people who pass by on her block and the women who were not in the labor force at that time so they sat and looked out their living room windows at the street and they all put themselves together as eyes on the street, keeping the street safe and making a sociable place on the street so it seems as though Jane Jacobs was very concerned with people. In fact, she gave no thought to the forces that displace people from streets like hers or the forces that are able to keep people living, working, and doing business on these streets. For Jacobs it turned out to be all about the buildings. For us it’s all about the people and trying to keep the people as well as many of the buildings in place so the big weak spot of Jacobs work is that she didn’t pay attention to culture, the culture of the people who were there and to capital, social capital of the neighbors and the merchants and the cultural capital that she as a proto-gentrifier or what David Brooks calls The First Bo-Bo brought to her street and to urban life. If urban planners today could just focus on policies and laws to keep the people in place that would be a really great improvement on Jacobs’ writing.
Recorded on: February 3, 2010
A conversation with the CUNY sociologist and author of "Naked City."
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