The «big city» has many admirers, I consider myself one of them. This is mostly due to the cultural capital and sensitivity towards soft urbanism, or pedestrian urbanism, but also job opportunities. Consequently, the world is urbanizing as the city is experiencing a massive influx. At a smaller scale, migration patterns within the city have also been prominent and dynamic, leaving large cultural breadcrumbs embedded in the urban texture as it has progressed. This dialectic relationship between the urban fabric and its inhabitants is like water to fish; hard to see, although we are all floating around in it.
Axel S. Ødegaard, studerer by- og regionplanlegging ved NMBU
Zukin and Braslow denotes in their paper on The life cycle of New York´s creative districts (2011), that policies intended to enhance the cultural capital and innovation often undermine the actual cultural production taking place. This happens due to the displacing of the cultural producers as policies are enacted through a simple gentrification process. This has been happening for well over a century in cities such as New York. The juxtaposition of bottom-up cultural expressions and top-down cultural dictation (referring to policies and investments) has generated an interesting set of sites and districts in New York City.
This process is two-fold, as one movement or immigration triggers emigration. This two-folded process affects place significantly, as the character of a place grows synchronically with its inhabitants. Thus one can assume that the character of one place would change considerably when a new set of inhabitants with different values and attitudes moves into a place previously occupied by a different group of people. This is to say the character of the place changes, as its inhabitants change, but its character does not neglect its past, but rather reflects its new inhabitants on a new cultural layer on top of the old one, like a painter who bases his canvas in a certain color in order for a desired expression or sensation to influence to final product. To add to the perplexities of this process: the initial group’s social and cultural expression in a district ends up attracting the second group of people, i.e. officiating as a pull factor. The introduction of this paradigm shift in the districts ends up as a push factor for the initial group, involuntarily due to rising real estate prices or voluntarily as a protest against conventionalism.
Zukin and Braslow (2011) lay out an historical account of the emigrational pattern of what they consider to be tastemakers of a society, the “actors and artists” (p. 132). I call them tastemakers due to the assumption this group of people are highly involved in the production of cultural capital. In the late 60´s/early 70´s, these tastemakers, relocated from Greenwich Village to the infamous SoHo (p. 134). The SoHo in the 70´s looked nothing like what it does today however. It was a gritty and rundown part of town, where until recently industry and industry-workers resided; a place for the working class in other words. The group were pushed out of Greenwich Village due to real estate speculation, and pulled to SoHo due to the lack thereof. In SoHo they found lofts, where they could walk around barefoot, drinking red wine and take photographs: a hobby that rarely brings in profit, however compelling it may seem. This lifestyle and character is severely embedded however in the urban fabric of SoHo today. As opposed to the older and more traditional uptown Manhattan, SoHo and recently more of Downtown displays a community spirit emphasizing walkability and street-level activity. The non-chalant and laid-back culture of coffee shops and galleries emerged as scenes of interaction and daytime labor for the artists in the area, but as the public officials saw the potential for a reinvention of the district by investing in the cultural production the area and lifestyle became to desirable to sustain as discussed above, and with the influx of money comes the influx of people with more money.
The geography and quality of SoHo has been attempted exported many places, been the scene in many a movie and replicated in recent areas such as SoCo here in Austin. The marketing brand that is “SoCo” is of course only meant to arouse and provoke the same urban and artistic quality and feeling, as does the vernacular SoHo. The apartments lofts these artists squatted in the early 70´s have now been transformed into the most desirable architectural style. People from Latvia to South Africa can browse through IKEA catalogs where high roofs and red brick walls are central to the esthetic of the so-called New York apartment or Manhattan loft. The irony, of course, lies in that today, these apartments are perceived as ones for affluent and successful people, whereas the people whose values are embedded in the walls are of those who were forced to move.
Today, urban design and urbanity is often created with a downtown, such as Manhattan, in mind. These are areas created in the image and attitudes of the artists and tastemakers who used to inhabit them. In Manhattan, these have now been forced to move through the Lower East Side, across the river to Williamsburg and more recently beyond (Zukin and Braslow, p. 134). The environment still reflects these values, but after 30 years of being idealized and glorified, SoHo, New York has turned into a palimpsest of expressions. With the artistic and somewhat oppositional expression as a base, commercialism and capitalism have been prominent expressions in the urban landscapes today. The same account can be told using the New York loft as an example. Originally an essential part of the SoHo artistic scene in the 70´s, the loft has now turned into the ideal form of urban living; an effect that necessarily elevates real estate values on apartments that the early tastemakers would squat. What essentially has happened with these phenomena is that they have become dislocated from their origins and are now free floating entities taking on a life of their own. Sort of like McDonalds that claims to have no home.
This conversation between a space and its people is essential when analyzing circular migration patterns within a specific area. By being analytic, one can carefully assess and read the urban landscape for its history of people who have resided there. As place takes on character not only from spatial influences, but also temporal. Thus when a place over decades sees the transition from one demographic to another, this will be traceable in the urban fabric.
Zukin, S., Braslow, L. (2011). The life-cycles of New York´s creative districts: Reflections on the unanticipated consequences of unplanned cultural zones. City, Culture and Society 2 (2011), 131-140.