If Feargus O’Sullivan isn’t really moving to a “suburb” as his article is entitled, but rather to a different urban neighborhood – then what’s the reasoning behind this? O’Sullivan complains about ”hype” and “supposed edginess and creative ferment”, instead arguing that they are “increasingly as banal, antisocial and plain dull as any suburb.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into O’Sullivan’s piece – it’s one thing to be a lament over a supposedly cool place not living up to the hype, or for a personal experience in a place to fall short. Drawing conclusions beyond that seems dubious, but nevertheless interesting fodder for discussion.
So, is this really an indictment of urbanism, or just one of hype? O’Sullivan’s complaint is focused on “fashionable” neighborhoods, and given the fact that O’Sullivan’s destination in the suburbs isn’t really all that suburban (or, rather, it’s quite urban under a reasonably broad understanding of the term). This makes me want to discount the idea that it’s the city – rather, the critique seems to be focused about what’s cool.
For all their reputation as hives of individuality, neighborhoods like my own city’s Broadway Market offer almost identical businesses to those you’d find in currently hip city neighborhoods anywhere. While the base materials (streets and houses) may be different in, say, NYC’s Greenpoint, Berlin’s Neukölln, or Madrid’s Malasaña, the trappings of gentrification – expensive coffee and bike shops, junk sold at a premium as “vintage” and, soon after, bitterly resented chain outlets – make these places seem increasingly homogenous.
So, it’s about gentrification.
Even accepting this description of the problem seems to be setting up a straw man to be beaten down, however. O’Sullivan claims “people are being asked to buy into an urban myth whose claims don’t always stand up to scrutiny.” Are they really? Are people really being asked to buy in to this? Or perhaps, do they just want the basic characteristics presented by the physical urban environment?
As O’Sullivan delves into “the myth’s central tenets,” he cites the idea of creative people living near the heart of the city. However, his definition of ‘creative’ is awfully narrow, limited to “starving artists, wannabe writers, thinkers, eccentrics, [and] aesthetes.” But we know (through empirical evidence) that innovation and density are linked. O’Sullivan admits this is a narrow definition (both of creativity and, previously, of urbanism), but points out that his myth holds out for “more exciting neighbours.” This seems to be a critique not of the places O’Sullivan visits, but of the trendiness that colors his experience.
Indeed, what is the actual myth here? At Salon, Will Doig writes about Williamsburg, Brooklyn, asking: “Are urban bohemias, you know, so over?” Doig notes”Pre-hipster Williamsburg was a neighborhood of working-class ethnic groups, crack dealers and violence — but also, crucially, post-industrial vacancy: boarded-up factories, weed-choked lots, an abandoned waterfront, train tracks to nowhere.” The answer draws on a similar line from an Atlantic piece by Benjamin Schwarz entitled Gentrification and its Discontents, noting similar critiques from other authors:
He doesn’t recognize that the SoHo he yearns for was precisely the product of that rapid industrial decline, which made economically available to artists and their hangers-on all those cool industrial spaces that in more industrially vibrant times would have been used by, well, industry.
Despite these lamentations about the change of the city (which Doig’s piece notes wouldn’ve been unthinkable for a city-dweller in the 1920s – particularly if one reads Robert Fogelson’s Downtown), Doig closes with this from the gentrifying ‘hood:
As the neighborhood begins to upscale in a way that fills Anasi with dismay, Napoleon opens Williamsburg’s first proper lounge and rides the crest of the transformation with purpose. His swanky club becomes a smash hit, and helps create a whole new scene on the sleepy south side. Moreover, it gives the young entrepreneur — a poor kid of color from a dangerous neighborhood — a chance at a life he might not have otherwise had.
Given the larger scale economic processes, it’s hard to understand what these writers are making a big deal out of, whether it’s a myth of urbanism or some sense of authenticity. On one hand, O’Sullivan’s embrace of a less-cool neighborhood would seem to undermine the fears of a lost bohemia and instead embrace the idea of a large pent-up demand for urban living of all stripes, myth or not.