This Ain’t City Chicken: The Geography of Authenticity

2015-03-02T14:30:14+00:00 May 29th, 2014|

By Ben Schulman

In his 1996 essay, “A Little Taste of Something More Exotic: The Imaginative Geographies of Everyday Life,” geographer Jon May wrote about the embrace of ethnic foods by the “cultural class”—what Richard Florida would later popularize as The Creative Class—as a process of the “consumption of the exotic.” Riffing on Edward Said’s concept of imaginative geographies, May recognized how eating exotic foods offers admission—or the appearance of admission—into a foreign and, perhaps, more exciting world.

This consumption is enhanced by geography. While it’s one thing to eat Indian food by purchasing many of the readily available ingredients or pre-made meals from a standard supermarket, the act of eating Indian food becomes real when doing so alongside people of Indian descent in Indian neighborhoods. “The authentically exotic is that which is bought in places where only the ‘original’ consumers of these foods come to eat or shop, lending the food itself an added degree of ‘authenticity,’” May wrote.

Goldfinch American, the controversial new restaurant on Detroit’s Southwest side, spins off May’s conception of authenticity. At Goldfinch, it’s not so much the fare being served that tenders a portal to the authentic (according to their website, they offer the bespoke-yet-vague-enough-to-eat-anywhere “experimental micro restaurant concept serving progressive modern american [sic] food”), but the literal landscape in which the restaurant resides.

Goldfinch American is selling the chance to consume an authentic landscape—an “ostensibly unattractive street trash-lined and zipping with cars,” surrounded by “laundromats, taquerias, a beautiful park, abandoned fortresses and neighborhoods thick with life lived fully.”

Authenticity may be a nebulous concept, but its signifiers are readily identifiable; like obscenity, you know it when you see it. Whether filtered through the lens of Jane Jacobs, ethnic enclaves, the reimagining of industrial places, or even in the pastiche of new urbanist developments, authenticity emerges as a cultural reconstruction of “traditional” space.

[blocktext align=”left”]In Rust Belt Romanticism, perceived authenticity is cool, and a commodity.[/blocktext]As cities are defined less and less by the productive capacity of hard labor, and more so by the consumptive possibilities imbibed in by its post-industrial labor pool, authenticity becomes an aesthetic. In her book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, the writer Sharon Zukin examines how formerly working-class or industrial neighborhoods in New York, such as Williamsburg and Harlem, have become “great places for consuming authenticity” as they are further divorced from the acts of production that once defined their being.

The Rust Belt shines with the allure of the authentic. Its atrophied industrial muscles beg for redevelopment that reflects upon the past as present. The Rust Belt Romantic, as a style, appropriates nostalgia for spaces of physical production via the embrace of industrial chic. Perceived authenticity is cool.

Rust Belt Romanticism creates a city in which the act of consuming “life lived fully” has a very real effect on the ownership of urban space, offered to those “selective buyers with eyes for amenities, authenticity, and aesthetics,” as Richard Florida has written.

These are consumptive geographies, wherein authenticity is commoditized and reduced to an amenity. These geographies are the spatial equivalent of a reproduction, echoing Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” wherein the cityscape, while flavored by nostalgia for a past never experienced by its purveyors or consumers, is “lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Of course, the irony in selling authenticity as an amenity is that each instance of authenticity—and how it applies to a particular place—is weakened through its commodification. Authenticity as a commodity flow washes over cities everywhere as a tool for redevelopment.

[blocktext align=”right”]At a place like Goldfinch American, it’s not the food that’s “othered,” it’s the city itself.[/blocktext]While Detroit’s Southwest Side, home of Goldfinch American, isn’t quite as fragmented by vacancy as other parts of the city, it isn’t difficult to find the “authentic” Detroit of derelict parcels and abandoned lots in its midst. It isn’t hard, along the streets of Detroit’s Mexicantown, to find, as the Goldfinch website states, “fucking pigeons” who descend upon the corner of Clark and Vernor to gorge on that what’s left behind by “weary travelers [who] hurriedly board the lumbering buses squealing to a stop by the bus shelter, sending fried chicken and fries flying into the sidewalk.”

Goldfinch American craftily—and crudely—markets all this as an amenity, self-aware of the fact it is selling something beyond just its $108/5-course fixed price meal and cocktail pairings.

Some have castigated Goldfinch American for exploiting its very own neighborhood, its very own city. Such complaints ignore the fact that the restaurant simply occupies a space on the continuum of the commodity flow of authenticity. Having left its imprint on the former industrial pockets of New York and other locales, the flow of authenticity pushes forward, snaking through rusty cities and susceptible landscapes everywhere.

Jon May viewed the consumption of food as an opening to experience the “other.” But at a place like Goldfinch American, it’s not the food that’s “othered,” it’s the city itself. To invoke a more authentic culinary term, this ain’t city chicken.

Ben Schulman is the Communications Director for the American Institute of Architects Chicago (AIA Chicago) and the co-creator of the Contraphonic Sound Series, a project that documents cities through sound.

“This Ain’t City Chicken: The Geography Of Authenticity” by Ben Schulman appears in Dispatches from the Rust Belt: The Best of Belt Year One, our first-year print anthology. Order the book here: http://bit.ly/BestOfBelt

One Comment

  1. AW May 29, 2014 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    And the implication, too, is that one’s own life is inauthentic.

    So there seem to be two motivations for people searching out the “authentic” — the good one, that there’s value in otherness, and the worse one, that the food, art, music, towns, and people that a person grew up with aren’t worthy of the label “authentic”. As in, it would be a shame to become a nation of Holden Caulfields.

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