Are corporate logos diminishing the sense of place in cities?

Cities in the U.S. and across the world are being literally overrun by brands, their visual landscapes taken over by corporate logos. The map above by CityMaps (via Maria Popova) illustrates just how extensive this has become in New York. (The maps are currently available only for New York, San Francisco, and Austin).

“Manufacturing products may require drills, furnaces, hammers and the like,” wrote Naomi Klein in No Logo, “but creating a brand calls for a completely different set of tools and materials. It requires an endless parade of brand extensions, continuously renewed imagery for marketing, and most of all, fresh new spaces to disseminate the brand’s idea of itself.”

Those "fresh new spaces" are increasingly real neighborhoods and cities.

I came face-to-face with the logo-ing of cities phenomenon last year when I was scouring downtown New York with a photographer, looking for great, gritty urban scenes. Almost all angles we tried were marred by huge signs bearing corporate logos. It took us quite a while before we finally found an out-of-the-way block in Chelsea, free of brandification. New York may have taken this to an extreme, but more and more cities and more and more urban neighborhoods are suffering under branding's heavy hand.

New York University sociologist Harvey Molotch has written extensively on what he terms the role of "place in product." What Molotch means is the unique authentic character that real places and real neighborhoods lend to products.

“Products and commodities take on the qualities of the places from which they come," he writes.

In their tendency to persist even in the context of geographically homogenizing forces, place differences permeate the artifacts whose creation they stimulate. … The mechanisms through which such diverse elements combine into a local industrial atmosphere shape not just competitive advantage of one place over another in producing a given artifact, but the nature of goods that can come into existence.

The logo-ing of our cities and neighborhoods is this process in reverse. Instead of borrowing the ambiance and associations of a place, the product infests it with its own characterless generica, diminishing and voiding out its authentic qualities. The omnipresent logos, like a kind of corporate kudzu, cover and conquer all.

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