Sunday, October 10, 2010

In keeping with the thread of urban revitalization begun by Matthew below, I would also like to have a look at the changing facades of buildings, in this case the small commercial storefronts that are so typical of New York as a city. In many of the less economically developed neighborhoods, these storefronts generally take the form of such businesses as bodegas, storefront churches, or delis, while more upscale neighborhoods might feature artisans, boutiques, coffeehouses, or boutique artisan coffeehouses. As neighborhoods are "revitalized", a word that to many is merely a euphemism for gentrification, the first group disappears, replaced by the second group.

There is no doubt that the storefronts carry meaning, structuring communities and signifying the consumption patterns of the neighborhood and thus also signaling the spatial demographics. Upscale storefronts also notably communicate a certain desirability to more affluent demographics. As the neighborhood is revitalized, greater numbers of this demographic are attracted both as residents and consumers, increasing the flow of capital into the neighborhood and thus into the city. This has created a particularly contentious point between community advocates, the city, and developers. The city has as yet refused to enact commercial rent control, effectively allowing developers and landlords to force out businesses that may be undesirable in creating a particular image that may be more appealing to consumers. The city benefits not only from the increased flow of capital and the improved neighborhood image but also from the indirect exertion of power in control over space. This tableau also plays out on wider scale, as real estate agents and developers invent new neighborhoods or extend existing ones with more desirable names so as to lure in more affluent residents.

However, a store signifies a normative structure within the current conception of the capitalist system, legitimated by a particular Western view of private property. One might say that if you live by the dollar, you die by the dollar, and the very existence of capitalist spaces structures a neighborhood in a particular way that is amenable to exploitation and so to development. Were spaces constructed within specific cultural context they would resist appropriation in a way that urban storefronts are unable to do.

What is generally not considered by critics of revitalization is the way in which materiality structures culture, thereby structuring cultural spaces. Poor neighborhoods are not simply typified by bodegas and storefront churches but are in large measure constituted by them, both economically and culturally. The spatial incarceration of minority ethnic groups within less affluent neighborhoods creates a population whose labor, and whose cultural and intellectual capital are easily exploitable. Additionally, revitalization in some instances does promote economic and cultural diversity and the residents of affected neighborhoods are by no means unanimously opposed to the new amenities.

The significance of a new upscale storefront thus depends largely on the status of the person interpreting it. Residents and activists may be frustrated by the stark lack of control over their neighborhood and over what in non-legal sense may be regarded as their property, while consumers and prospective residents may be drawn by a space made safe for their consumption, and developers and city politicians will see the new storefronts as signs of economic progress.

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