True-ish Grit

Rust Belt cities are turning years of neglect and decay into a soundstage for social media

At the crux of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal sits Troy, New York. It was once a thriving city, positioned favorably for commerce in a time when one of the most efficient ways to transport freight was with mule-dragged barges. But changes in transportation technology eroded its economic foundations: Containerized shipping and interstates moved freight further away, and prosperity went with it. With a population of just under 50,000, Troy is now roughly back to the size it was just after the Civil War.

One modest city institution that survived for a while was Trojan Hardware, which for 94 years held on by selling hammers and snowblowers to a community that had become an economic backwater. Its retail space snaked through the ground floors of several connected Victorian buildings, and when it finally folded, felled by the 2008 recession, those buildings stayed vacant for five years.

Then something happened that was both strange and strangely predictable: Trojan Hardware went from being a moribund seller of commodities to a fetishized commodity itself, a design motif for the new businesses that opened in its former storefronts: a microbrewery, an exotic-plants retailer, and a hardware-store-themed cocktail bar called The Shop, with chair rails made of salvaged Trojan Hardware yardsticks and many other Trojan Hardware relics adorning the walls. Each of these new businesses trades on the air of rootedness that Trojan Hardware still supplies, the aura of organic street life that the ghost of a longstanding neighborhood establishment affords.

If you go half a block south of the former Trojan Hardware, you’ll come to a coffee shop that sells buttons proclaiming: “You keep Brooklyn, I have Troy.” An art store sells T-shirts, mugs, coasters, and entire coffee tables that declare proudly in a typewriter-style font: “Enjoy Troy.” The Troy of the 19th century was an industrial hub that exported its steel and other manufactures to the rest of the country. In today’s Troy, a consumer would have no problem sating oneself with beers, coffees, and bagels that have been substantially prepared, brewed, roasted, and baked within city limits. One can enjoy Brooklyn bohemian quirkiness at an upstate discount price in the inarguably real environment of Victorian dilapidation. Troy has turned half a century of neglect into a competitive advantage, recombining rust and rot into quaintness and authenticity. Its genuine outdatedness is an opportunity to roll out state-of-the-art “place-making” renewal strategies.

But Troy is not the only moribund U.S. city that has fallen in love with itself. Entirely unique and one-of-a-kind midsize cities are a dime a dozen now. Troy is one pearl in a necklace of small towns in the Hudson River valley that are trading grit for service-economy glory: Albany, Hudson, Cohoes, Rensselaer, Schenectady, and Poughkeepsie and on through the Rust Belt of upstate New York, fanning out to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and the outskirts of the midwest metropolises. They have all doubled down on Jane Jacobs’s insistence that the best places to live are the ones that best preserve, manage, and then celebrate the heterogeneous aspects of urban environments: How a sidewalk is comfortably buffered from or introduced to the road, the way buildings and foliage enclose a space without making it feel crowded, the arrangement of street furniture such as benches and street lamps—all these go toward a well-made, livable urban environment. But even all of that doesn’t quite capture it. A long-loved park or street corner is more than the sum of its parts.

Can your city support its own geofilter? Does it photograph well? Are there dramatic locales for posing selfies?

Any given place has thousands of forces influencing it: A pocket park is shaped by everything from the frequency of blizzards (what can grow there) to the gerrymandering of congressional districts (how well it is cared for). Jacobs’s prescription was to not try and control all these things, because in trying to control everything, bureaucracies end up curtailing some of those forces that make a place unique and alluring. She instead suggested that planners provide and maintain the bounds wherein private and public actors interact. A good municipal-planning department will be able to recognize existing good urbanism and preserve it, restore what is dilapidated but still salvageable, and have the requisite foresight to know what zoning laws will leave room for construction that plays nicely with the existing streetscape. Good Jacobsonian urban planning involves a lot of observation of cherished neighborhoods or streetscapes and using those observations to inform future development. It is a future of cities rooted in the past.

In large, world-class cities like San Francisco and New York, the balancing act of preserving what works and carefully building or restoring new components has been going on for years. Williamsburg and Nob Hill have ascended beyond being merely iconic neighborhoods to become widely recognized brands carefully crafted to appeal to a particular demographic. Buying in to such a neighborhood is selling out: To rent a room in certain parts of Brooklyn is to pay cash for the cultural capital you would otherwise have to earn through “discovering” something not yet congealed into a recognizable commodity.

This link between “discovery” and the relative cultural value of a neighborhood gives smaller cities a kind of arbitrage opportunity in authenticity. By drawing attention to the commodification of neighborhoods in larger cities, smaller ones can position themselves as offering undiscovered, unmanipulated treasures. Sometimes this is as obvious as calling a neighborhood “the Greenwich Village of Albany,” as the signs, stickers, and TripAdvisor reviews around Lark Street do, but sometimes the comparison is more inferential, a matter of a city’s being continually discoverable as “undiscovered.”

Urban development in the age of authenticity is a matter of walking the line between economic success and obscurity. In the 1990s and early aughts, a popular recipe for staving off economic decline involved overtly pandering to the “creative class” with quirkiness and diversity. Once the creatives live in your region, the theory went, a benevolent spiral of economic growth would inevitably take flight. This approach was so ungrounded in reality that its main booster, Richard Florida, retracted most of his thesis for it in 2013. He conceded in the Atlantic that “talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”

Many columnists and think-tank contributors have sought to fill the vacuum left by Florida’s debunked creative class theory. Joel Kotkin, reacting to Florida in the Daily Beast, suggested that cities should modify their strategy and “cultivate their essentially Rust Belt authenticity rather than chase standard-issue coolness.” But this is less a substantive shift than a semiotic one. A “cool” lifestyle is still the bait, only its terms have shifted toward more regional flavors. Cities that no longer produce physical goods can instead produce their own image as a kind of marketed product. If once they smelted steel or manufactured textiles, now they trade on the unique cultural history that is the legacy of those lost industries. The relatively cheap standard of living in places like Buffalo or Pittsburgh offer a more “authentic” urban experience in terms of sampling gritty make-do entrepreneurial creativity, while also letting new residents dismiss those in more expensive cities as unimaginative dupes taken in by luxury branding.

The sense of “authentic urban life” is twofold, according to sociologist Sharon Zukin’s Naked City (2010): There is “the subjectivity that comes from really living in a neighborhood, walking its streets, shopping in local stores, and sending children to local schools,” and there is the kind of authenticity that “allows us to see an inhabited space in aesthetic terms…. Is it interesting? Is it gritty? Is it ‘real’?”

It is in this latter register of “authentic urban experience” that one can browse online for new places to live. To attract new residents, cities must understand how their character can be conveyed through a smartphone. Can your city support its own geofilter? Does it photograph well? Are there dramatic locales for selfies? What are your Airbnb listings, and how are the reviews? Is your transit viewable on Google Maps? The tourist map from the old visitors’ center must become digitally augmented terrain.

And to play into the dynamics of attention metrics and online circulation, cities can encourage traditions that are also digitally embedded (“take a selfie with the mayor during the Saturday Farmers’ Market!”; #summerconcert). Such ploys enact as sharable content the lifestyle that neighborhood boosters are trying to sell.

If places have become commodities, social media are platforms on which cities like Troy might dream of competing. For such cities, photogenicity represents opportunity. Friends sharing Sunday brunch on a terrace, a dog being walked in a well-appointed dog park—such moments create a reproducible online brand built on an air of exclusivity. This rationalized quirkiness makes a local flavor known, sellable in the broader market of “those nice places to live.” Once a city’s obscure and unique qualities are made machine-readable and comparable across networks, the city’s brand solidifies and can sit nicely on a social-media shelf.

Thanks to these homogenizing forces, the “authentic urbanness” that cities like Troy offer at a discount has become broadly recognizable. These cities are all banking on rebuilding their downtowns in the style of approachable authenticity. They all hope to be delightfully different while remaining nonthreateningly the same. They have become interchangeable in their uniqueness.

How did we get here? How did Jane Jacobs, the apparent champion of eclectic, organic urbanism, become the source for a new kind of homogenization? Urban preservation, which you would think would be an exercise in organizing the maintenance of city resources, has become instead a way of instilling an organized ignorance about how markets and commodification are at work.

In the last chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs traces how city planning sought to adopt methods from other sciences. City-planning movements in the 19th century saw the city in terms of ratios, akin to physics equations. Much as one could calculate the pressure and volume of gasses, one could solve cities’ problems by working out jobs-to-housing ratios or by diagramming the balance of open space to population density.

The technique of seeing human habitats as diagrams was used across the political spectrum. The leftist Ebenezer Howard depicted his Garden City as a happy medium between the liberatory potential of urban and country living, while Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who reshaped Paris in the mid-19th century under the direction of Emperor Napoleon III, correlated wide boulevards and self-similar architecture with state-imposed civil order.

In the 20th century, as scientists tried to rationalize the behavior of billions of atoms into statistical probabilities, city planners aimed to do the same with cities. Urban planning evolved from an artisanal craft into a credentialed profession. Cities came to be understood as a confluence of technical and bureaucratic systems administered by experts in specific fields like “housing” or “highway transportation.” The world was naturally disorganized, and it was the job of the planner to impose calm order by demolishing huge swaths of the city that were deemed unsalvageable and replacing them with simple, machine-like buildings and roadways that were easy to administer from atop a hierarchy. As Jacobs notes:

It was possible not only to conceive of people, their incomes, their spending money and their housing as fundamentally problems in disorganized complexity, susceptible to conversion into problems of simplicity once ranges and averages were worked out, but also to conceive of city traffic, industry, parks, and even cultural facilities as components of disorganized complexity, convertible into problems of simplicity.  

The newly professionalized discipline of urban planning had become what historian Peter Hall describes as “an apparently scientific activity, in which vast amounts of precise information were garnered and processed in such a way that the planner could devise very sensitive systems of guidance and control.” This approach gave the world the high modernist architectural style of Le Corbusier and the ruthlessly technocratic urban redevelopment of Robert Moses, men whose sweeping highways and monolithic buildings all meant to bring a clean, straightforward rationality to dirty, chaotic cities. Their influence is still felt today in cookie-cutter suburbs serviced by highways and office parks accessible only by car or (as is increasingly the case for Silicon Valley companies) chartered buses.

Rationalization, as turn-of-the-century sociologist Max Weber defined it, is a matter of building bureaucracies to order everyday life with machine-like rules that can override the irrational traditionalism, sentimentality, and favoritism of humans. Formal rationality, despite its cold logic, could be deeply comforting: It promised nothing less than the end of poverty, if you could build enough super structures. But Moses’s and Le Corbusier’s modernist approach to urbanism is rationalization run amok. Not only did these projects require the destruction of many existing neighborhoods; they overestimated humans’ ability to manage and ignored much of what makes for a pleasant human habitat.

For a place to truly become a consumer product, moving there has to be as easy as upgrading your smartphone.

Jacobs countered the command-and-control hierarchies of modernism with an argument in favor of small, self-organizing systems. She argued that human communities flourish best in places that are built out of a million layers of local history and complex social relations. This is so important to her theory of urbanism that she claims that “the most important question” about city planning is this: “How can cities generate enough mixture among uses—enough diversity—throughout enough of their territories to sustain their own civilization?”

By “diversity,” Jacobs means a mix of buildings, not necessarily people. A mixture of land uses, she argues, keeps social momentum going, allowing different components of the streetscape to be seen as supporting one another. Offices mingle with restaurants and apartments and bars, symbiotically sharing time and space to make a place feel full of life—a teeming human habitat in natural balance. This stands in contrast to rationalized, modernist landscapes, which evoke the single-mindedness of alienating bureaucracies and the profit-driven efficiencies of corporate capitalism. Whether it is office parks or residential towers, suburban ranch homes or strip malls, these buildings convey a limited sense of possibilities that often comes across as inauthentic—they are independent of and indifferent to their surrounding environment and thus could be replicated anywhere.

To counter rationalization and simplification, Jacobs and her countercultural followers embraced an ecological view of city systems and argued for their self-correcting nature. She railed against planners because she believed they were undermining the way we have governed each other (for better or worse) in cities for centuries. In a chapter on the uses of sidewalks, she writes:

The public peace—the sidewalk and the street peace—of cities is not kept primarily by police … It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.

Like E.F. Schumacher, whose Small Is Beautiful (1973) has become a Silicon Valley touchstone, Jacobs advocates for the familiarity of seemingly self-managing systems, which she likens to “organisms that are replete with unexamined, but obviously intricately interconnected, and surely understandable, relationships.” Designers should work within these supposedly organic systems and expand their reach rather than impose rules and systems from without, no matter how logically consistent the imposed rules may be in the abstract. In one of her last interviews—tellingly, with the libertarian magazine Reason—Jacobs said she was “disappointed” with the work of New Urbanists, an early 21st century movement that took her own work as gospel. Jacobs complained that they tried to plan out what could only organically grow over time.

But the very existence of New Urbanism shows how Jacobs’s prescriptions are themselves subject to rationalization. Implemented at scale and under the logic of capital, they become as systematic and regimented as any modernist fantasy. Efforts to preserve and understand what makes organic neighborhoods so desirable also provides a template for making them more valuable, producing an irresistible model for capitalist redevelopment.

The views of Jacobs and Schumacher end up finding their apotheosis in things like social-media data science, which attempts to anticipate people’s desires by unobtrusively parsing information collected about them, and transect-based coding, which urban planners and real estate developers use to identify and commodify a neighborhood’s appeal.

In decades past, a suburb might have advertised itself as offering “authentic country living,” which meant not the isolation and backwardness of country life but a manufactured ideal of “the country” involving detached houses and racial and socioeconomic homogeneity. Likewise cities and towns today sell a manufactured ideal of urban life that has more to do with standardized nostalgia than unpredictable street life.

The rationalized urban-nostalgia formula is epitomized by the first New Urbanist development, begun in 1981 with developer Robert Davis and architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. They wanted to build the quintessential seaside town on 80 acres of Florida panhandle, so they set out on an exhaustive survey that cataloged quaint Florida towns and, instead of designing actual buildings, wrote a code for building that developers would have to adhere to. Structures would have to look a certain way and connect to streets within given tolerances. What rose from the sand—simply named Seaside—was so uncanny in its quaintness that it was used as the backdrop for The Truman Show.

Of course Rust Belt cities must renovate what they already have rather than build from scratch. But as with Seaside, any new construction in places committed to self-nostalgia will draw constricted “inspiration” from the surrounding architectural terroir. And whereas postwar suburbia was marketed through magazine ads and billboards seen from streetcars, small-city authenticity is now sold through geotagged photos and community hashtags, reinforced by how such tools themselves seem to leverage “organized complexity” to reflect a teeming organicism. Like Jacobs’s idealized streetscape, social media can seem self-organized by the improvisations of users rather than an algorithmically planned community. In such marketing materials, authentic city life is reified in such symbolic commodities as the corporately managed industrial loft suites and the so-called Stealth Starbucks, in which the “inauthentic” national branding is disguised.

For the local elites poised to gain from rising rents and tax bases, “discovering” authentic urban charm and bringing it to market is an unmitigated good. For the people who built up a neighborhood’s authenticity over the lean years, less so. As David Harvey explains in his 2012 book Rebel Cities,

a community group that struggles to maintain ethnic diversity in its neighborhood and protect against gentrification may suddenly find its property prices (and taxes) rising as real estate agents market the “character” of their neighborhood to the wealthy as multicultural, street-lively, and diverse.

Jacobs may have been right about the sources of neighborhood vitality, but she seemed blind to what capitalists would eventually charge for it. Zukin argues that “Jacobs failed to look at how people use capital and culture to view, and to shape, the urban spaces they inhabit. She did not see that the authenticity she admired is itself a social product.” As Harvey points out, “The better the common qualities a social group creates, the more likely it is to be raided and appropriated by private profit-maximizing interests.”

Social media have only made the raiding parties easier to raise. They promise an urban lifestyle without the hassle of dealing with undesirable locals. Simply by owning a brownstone you are seemingly guaranteed a specific kind of iconic social life, regardless of whether you actually know your neighbors.

For a place to truly become a consumer product, it must be not only subject to comparison shopping (for Troy, this is the image of the city as it circulates in social media) but also as convenient as possible to consume. That means moving has to be as easy as upgrading your smartphone. To consume the spectacle of our own lives in authentic urban environments—and be free to leave them when they become played out—we need to do away with much of our portable property: furniture, appliances, decor, keepsakes, and the like. We need to be ready to abandon any social ties that bind us to a place. We also need to be able to work wherever we move.

Offering pre-furnished apartments within an algorithmically populated neighborhood as an all-in-one consumer product would address all these problems, and a new crop of Silicon Valley companies hopes to provide just that. They have built what Ava Kofman has called venture capital communes, technologically sophisticated takes on the extended-stay hotel that give you a private bedroom within a building with well-appointed common kitchens and living spaces. Your housemates are pre-screened for their willingness to participate in community events like yoga.

WeWork, a purveyor of shared workspaces, has opened a brand extension called WeLive, a take on communal living modeled on these same principles. It aspires, as Kofman argues, to let customers “sign one membership agreement that allows them to seamlessly move between company-held buildings, and even cities, in the future.”

By offering everything from stocked refrigerators to pre-organized potlucks, these companies have captured, Kofman claims, “the other side of social media: how to monetize the emotional labor of everyday, non-digital life.” Rather than monetize a picture of your dinner on Instagram by putting ads next to it, WeLive convenes a dinner table and makes those sitting at it serve as living advertisements for potential future neighbors.

WeLive posits a world where we can pick up and go with little concern for personal effects or relationships. This brings to vivid life Marx’s claim that capitalism, in seeking to make labor as flexible and transferable as possible, makes workers doubly free: free from geographic ties and social station. At the same time, however, WeLive cuts against the modernist-style rationalized state that Weber presaged. It doesn’t impose rules and laws from above to rein in disorganized complexity; instead it creates a domestic environment that is not unlike your Facebook Newsfeed: a disparate collection of people algorithmically arranged to find one another enjoyable and grow into a prefigured community.

The ideas propelling WeLive don’t necessarily have to produce a neoliberal nightmare. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the people of the fictional anarchist society of Anarres moved freely from one pre-furnished dormitory to another according to a mixture of what society needed of them and what the individual wanted to do with their life. Early utopian city planners were similarly inspired by an ideal of a constantly learning, self-correcting resource-management system that could perfectly compensate all of a society’s members. But those planners wanted a built environment that sanctified collectivity and democratic decision-making. WeLive rents a facsimile of it to only those that can afford it.

In the coming years, cities like Troy may be faced with uncanny replicas of themselves: too-perfect copies operating in closed circuits economically apart from the aging cities whose past they have appropriated. Perhaps some local elites will find a way to profit off this private commune system, but the cities themselves will yet again be left behind.

It would be a waste if Troy and cities like it were dismissed as exercises in cynical authenticity peddling. Bars dressed up like hardware stores may be a little on the nose, but they are owned by real people who speak of civic pride and a genuine desire to bring something back to a community they grew up in, or accepted them when others did not.

If such sentiments are sincere, then there is room for optimism: the possibility that organized complexity can be harnessed for collective good, not capitalist accumulation. The Jacobsonian project has to be socialized, the benefits of well-made places have to be shared within and among the communities that kept the lights on while everyone else was driving by.

The mechanisms to do this are not only known; they have been proved effective in the few places that have shown the political will to enact them. Land banks, truly cooperative housing development, and participatory budgeting are just a few of the tools that can help equitably distribute the gains of economic development. Such programs are not only morally just; they are most likely the only things standing in the way of a dismal history repeating itself.

What the next few years will deal to small cities is uncertain, but if a few people continue to extract rent from their finite resources of authenticity, then they will be right back where they started: abandoned by the fickle streams of economic activity that shift with the changing tide of whatever we consider worthy of attention.

Cut into the rotary-saw-blade sign in front of that bar in the old Trojan Hardware is the phrase “Stay Humble.” It is unclear if that is directed at the patrons spending $13 on cocktails or all of Troy, and it’s unclear whether anyone’s heeding it.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.