Atlantic Cities

Why Is 'Authenticity' So Central to Urban Culture?

Why Is 'Authenticity' So Central to Urban Culture?

One of the worst things you can publicly call someone today is a fake. The controversy surrounding Beyonce's "singing" of the National Anthem at Obama's inauguration demonstrates the point and shows, according to the Washington Post, "how confused our culture has become over its wobbly standards of authenticity." We are, in a word, obsessed.

It is little wonder, then, that we seek out spaces, food, and clothes that affirm a sense of realness and rootedness. The more alike we become, the thirstier we are for perceived individuality. And in crowded cities, being an individual means being rooted in modern notions of authenticity.

Cases in point can be seen in almost every moderately hip or gentrifying city neighborhood. It is clearly evident in certain parts of Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Flea is in many ways an archetype for the consumption of modern, urban authenticity. The Flea features hundreds of vendors of antique furniture, vintage clothing, and crafts by local artisans. Part of its charm is its curation of things from the past (antiques and vintage clothing) and a hand-crafted and local present.


The Brooklyn Flea. Image courtesy of Jason Lam/Flickr

By shopping at its stalls, buying handmade soaps or McClure's Pickles, we become curators of ourselves. We imagine that vintage t-shirts or watches, salvaged furniture, or vegan delicacies give us the social capital to present ourselves in a city of millions as a knowing, creative individual. The rarer these bits of realness are, the more we crave them and the more we will search and pay for them. Hand-crafting our consumption gives us a sense of control that is rare in modern urban life.

But why do we crave places like The Flea, and it multiple offshoots, or old-timey looking bars or restaurants, or the fashions of the 1890s? The answer is complicated.

Andrew Potter, in The Authenticity Hoax, argues it is because "we live in a world increasingly dominated by the fake," and we know it, sort of. Pollster John Zogby, in The Way We'll Be, likewise finds Americans have a "deep-felt need to reconnect with the truth of our lives." The late literary critic Lionel Trilling, in his 1972 book, Sincerity and Authenticity, finds the answer deeper in our national religious roots. Trilling, who was Jewish, reminded us that the United States was founded as a society of Christians, rooted to the cultural notion that we are fallen and must struggle to return to grace, what we might call an original authentic space.

This struggle translates to an acute status anxiety. In the modern age, our leisure activities, purchases, and appearance defines us. But we must be careful not to become a society that recycles someone else's authenticity as our own. We are on the verge of being unable to recognize the real unless it is pre-packaged for us.

In doing so, we miss the organic connection to the moments, people, and places that make urban living so exciting and creative. As Jane Jacobs has said, it is in the mix of the streets where cities get their unique character and retain their independence. Authenticity comes from living in the city, rather than above it.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user DumboNYC

Richard Greenwald is professor of sociology and history and Dean at St. Joseph’s College in New York. His most recent book is Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (New Press, 2012). His next book, The Death of 9-to-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works will be published by Bloomsbury Books in 2014. All posts »

Join the Discussion