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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[…]

Over the past half-century, our associations with urban culture have undergone a curious shift to the point where the cramped and “classic” city life is seen as more “authentic” than other alternatives. How did this happen?

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.