The Lie of Authenticity

Where we live is an important question. Some prefer the peace and solitude of rural living, others prefer the bustle and opportunities of urban living, while most are simply looking for a safe, affordable place to spend their days. However, our national preferences of living arrangements are subject to the same changing fashions as any other trend. Fashions are periodical, swinging back and forth like a pendulum with changing political and socioeconomic forces. Currently the American preference in habitation is swinging back from the far flung distances of suburban sprawl and toward the close convenience of cities. As people return to the cities they are looking for somewhere interesting, somewhere authentic to set up shop.

This is an understandable behavior. People by nature want to live somewhere they are proud of, a place they enjoy spending time, a functioning neighborhood. This actually appears to be a recent, and healthy, development in American housing trends. For the longest time the focus of habitation was the house itself. The suburbs offered the opportunity to create the perfect house, a blank canvas upon which to paint a new life. The focus has now changed and the neighborhood has been rightfully recognized as being an important part of where we live. The days of the isolation of the suburbs are slowly fading. In today’s prevailing fashion, the neighborhood is now as important to people as the house.

Few new neighborhoods are being built though. A neighborhood is a notoriously difficult thing to construct from scratch. Planned communities lack the atmosphere of an organic neighborhood because the cultural geography of the place, the feel and customs, the connections and the memories have not been established over time. That cultural geography, that history that can be read in the residents’ faces and stories, the facades and parks, the initials etched into sidewalks and the stores lining them, lends authenticity to a neighborhood that people find comfortable, welcoming, and frankly cool. In the search for this authenticity, migrants have scoured cities for cheap undiscovered gems of neighborhoods they can adopt, places that come pre-loaded with cool. This brings them directly into conflict with the very people who, when everyone else left the cities, remained in their neighborhoods and built the very atmosphere that migrants find so desirable.

This conflict, frequently euphemized as “gentrification,” is at the heart of most urban development taking place today. Should urban development policies favor the migrants and the developers, who bring needed tax revenue and with that lower crime at the expense of the character of the neighborhood? Or should development policies protect the culture and character of the neighborhood threatened by the influx of new blood and risk continuing the intrinsic problems of poor, underserved neighborhoods? The gut reaction would be to leave development open to the wisdom of the markets, but the implications of this are that long term residents could effectively be priced out of their own neighborhood; the very residents that originally made the neighborhood authentic would be forced to leave. This paradox suggests that some balance must be struck between development and preservation.

So how do we strike this balance? Frankly, we cannot balance this as long as we subscribe to the wisdom of the markets. Open markets will by nature create bubbles and busts in everything, including, as we have seen, real estate. Neighborhoods will price out the people who lend them their authenticity and they will fall into bland, has-been status. The people who create authenticity through necessity, working class people, poor creatives all will move to the next cheap neighborhood and build it in the image of the place they left. This place too will be discovered and gentrified, it is the fate of creators: they are always on the run, always improvising, always reacting. Because really, authenticity is a lie: we define the authentic as that which we lack, what we want, it is a direction rather than a destination.

Perhaps it is the recognition that authenticity is not something that can be obtained which will save the great neighborhoods. We are all the creators of our neighborhoods, wherever those neighborhoods are, wherever we go. If we remove the need to move into a pre-established “authentic” neighborhood, perhaps then the markets will stabilize away for this artificial boom and bust of coolness. People will be free to create the environment they desire where they can afford it, and movement between neighborhoods will be seen as less of a conflict and more of a potential way for everyone to grow.