Why We Crave 'Authentic' Cities: Best #Cityreads of the Week

Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.

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Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days. Share your favorites on Twitter with #cityreads.

"Why Are We So Obsessed With the Pursuit of Authenticity?" Steven Poole, New Statesman

Picture the tragic scenes in Crouch End, north London, early this year. The patrons of Harris + Hoole, a local coffee shop, had just learned to their horror that the supermarket chain Tesco owns a 49 per cent stake in the company. Shaken caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt “duped” and “upset” because they’d thought it was an “independent” coffee shop. A rival coffee hawker sneered that Tesco was “trying to make money” out of “artisan values” – although, presumably, so was he.  Most charmingly, the manager of the café confided that head office had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible. "We try to be independent," she said. "We want to be independent. We want to have that feel."

She is right: we all want to have that feel. But the appropriation by Tesco and Harris + Hoole of the consumer allure of “independence” and “artisan values” is a symptom of our present predicament: there is no way out of simulation. What we get in an “authentic” cultural product is still a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminated, wood-effect veneer is the real thing. Authenticity is now yet another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.

"The Tyranny of the ZIP Code," Anna Clark, The New Republic

ZIP codes, in other words, have evolved from finding where we are to defining who we are—far beyond our mailbox. "Organizations—business, government—can look at the mass of people we've become and break us down into usable points," says Nancy Pope, curator at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. "While it was designed to help our letters travel faster, it's become like an ID system we all agree to and all use."

Photo credit: Baloncici /Shutterstock

"How Public Libraries Have Become Spare Homeless Shelters," Evelyn Nieves, Alternet

Not everyone who spends all day, every day in the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library is down and out. Only mostly everyone.

Kathleen Lee knows this because she spends hours a day walking the six floors of the vast, sky-lit building, looking for patrons who might need real help ...

What Lee does at the San Francisco main library is help homeless and indigent patrons fill fundamental needs--food, shelter, hygiene, medical attention, substance abuse and mental health services. She’s one of five peer counselors, all formerly homeless, who work with a full-time psychiatric social worker stationed at the library to serve its many impoverished patrons. This outreach team, one of the first in the country, is no longer a novelty. In these hard times, as social safety nets shrink, libraries have become more vital than ever as safe spaces for people with nowhere else to go. Since the San Francisco Public Library outreach program began, about four years ago, it has been inundated with requests for guidance from libraries all over the country grappling with their new role as de facto day shelters.

"SD’s Share of Federal Homelessness Funding Doesn’t Add Up," Kelly Bennett, Voice of San Diego

San Diego has the third-highest homeless population among major American cities. But it ranks 18th when it comes to a key source of federal funding to combat homelessness.

And thanks to an archaic rule that governs how the money is distributed, there's very little San Diego can do to move itself up in the receiving line.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

"Washington Is Not the Wealthiest Area in America," Nate Cohn, The New Republic

The riches of recession-proof Washington, a media obsession for years now, was bound to be a source of resentment for struggling Americans—and understandably so. The region's wealth really is at the expense of the rest of the country, since it's fueled by tax revenue and deficit spending. But this resentment has been inflamed by breathless reports that Washington isn't just affluent, but opulent: the wealthiest metropolitan area in the country. From this perspective, the sequester is the capital's comeuppance, an act of economic fairness that returns Washington's unearned and extravagant bounty to the exploited hinterlands. Last week, for instance, The New York Times wrote that the automatic spending cuts are ending Virginia's "feast on U.S. funds." There's just one problem with this narrative: Washington isn't actually wealthier than similar metropolitan areas.

Certain statistics are indeed stunning. The D.C. metro area is home to eight of the eleven U.S. counties with the highest median income, including the top three: Loudon, Fairfax, and Arlington—all in Northern Virginia—are the only counties in the country where median incomes exceed $100,000 per year. In comparison, Palo Alto's San Mateo County is just $85,000 per year, while Westchester, New York, or Fairfield, Connecticut, register just above $75,000 per year. Based on these figures, the conventional wisdom holds that Washington commands wealth exceeding the country's more productive centers of finance (New York), technology (Silicon Valley), or entertainment (Los Angeles). But median income doesn't tell the whole story, since it only looks at the average person—the fiftieth percentile. That's useful for measuring broad-based prosperity, but the wealth of a superrich one percent or desperate poverty doesn't move median income by one dollar.

"What SimCity Teaches Us About Real Cities of the Future," Adam Sneed, Slate

During Herman Cain’s brief moment as the leader of the Republican primary pack in late 2011, his iconic “999” tax plan got its fair share of criticism from pundits and analysts. But nothing was as damaging as the fact that it looked suspiciously close to the tax code in another land: SimCity.

Cain denied taking any ideas from the SimCity franchise, and the episode became just another punch line in a bizarre campaign. But maybe we should have taken advantage of that moment to ask whether the urban planning simulator could actually give lessons that might help us out in real life. Past SimCity games inspired many a dilettante’s interest in urban policy. Now the first new SimCity title in a decade, available for PCs in North America on Tuesday, can do even more to teach us about urbanism in the 21st century.

Top image: pio3/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.