Monday, September 24, 2012

Grasping for Coolness and Authenticity

There is a thin line between gritty and neglect.  There is an even thinner line between “cool” and “bobo-land” – a term David Brooks coined for “bourgeois bohemians” in his hilarious book published a few years ago.  Downtown Asheville is worried about this; downtown Durham should be too.

This occurred to me recently as I walked the streets of City Center during the resurrected Centerfest, which used to be the longest-running street arts fair in North Carolina, until it took a year’s hiatus.  Now it has returned to the geography of its roots to start anew after having been banished a few years ago to a much-condensed location due to a street amenities make-over.

The word “cool” is frequently overused to describe far too many places, but I think it fits downtown Durham which was self-proclaimed as the place to find it by advocates a few years ago, a description that nosed under the umbrella of Durham’s successful overarching brand which was distilled to stretch over the entire community including not only downtown but Research Triangle Park, the universities and its distinct neighborhoods.

But the important question for downtown may be: For how long?  “Cool” by definition really can’t be choreographed, but it is fragile and can oh so easily be lost.

Dr. Richard Greenwald, a Dean and a professor of sociology and history at St. Joseph’s College in New York summed it up perfectly when he wrote for The Atlantic Cities – Place Matters about neighborhoods that:

“the shifts in cool are a ceaseless urban effort to grasp at authenticity.”

Of course, he wasn’t referring to just buildings.  Actually, downtown Durham’s eclectic architecture including old tobacco factories has always been “cool” and always will be.

The “cool” and authenticity Greenwald is describing is about the socio-economic mix of people and businesses and try as they may, advocates, developers and building managers have a hard time sustaining that mix.

Not everyone has the sensibility of a Bob Chapman to what is required. Chapman, a Duke grad, is helping to rehabilitate the NoCo District (NOrth of COrporation) along the far north fringe of downtown.  He and his wife Vicky Patton, also a Duke grad are friends and I owe them an apology for my glaring oversight of them on my list of Durham’s Definitive 1970s Brain-Gain.

Sustaining authenticity is the trickiest part of neighborhood revitalization.  “Authenticity” as Greenwald writes, is “a defining cultural talisman.  Knowing what is real and true, in a mass-produced world, gives one status, or cultural capital.”

Most people know it when they see it, but preserving it is the hardest part.

No entity deserves more credit for the progress of downtown than Downtown Durham Inc., unless it is the developers who have taken the risks and City and County officials who provided infrastructure and back-end incentives.

But it is also the sustained awareness that began much earlier such as that generated by organizations such as the Durham Arts Council’s Centerfest and the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau which began driving external media and resident awareness as well as copious amounts of visitor traffic before any of the other progress took hold.

It has definitely been a broad partnership and it required many decades of perseverance by all involved.

But in addition to sustaining the momentum, what should have begun to keep all of these entities “up at night” over the last several years now is how they can ensure that they don’t go too far…how they can sustain just the right mix of people that will keep downtown Durham “real” and “gritty” and “cool” and “authentic.”

Visitors and BOBOs are an important part of the mix, but if not balanced with equal amounts of socio-economic diversity, downtown Durham won’t be “cool” for long.

The threat in this challenge won’t come from other communities but from the by-products of downtown’s success.

1 comment:

Rodney Derrick said...

While I am happy that CenterFest was successful, well run, and well attended, I want to express a view that the format is really antiquated and dogmatic. It really amounted to one more version of the weekly travel carnival of art fest that travels around the country like a carnival with many of the same vendors and same variety of products which in fact we already see being produced by local folks at assorted venues from the area around the Farmers Market on Sundays to the DTown Market two Sundays a month at MotorCo. I have seen this type of art fest over and over again from one end of the country to the other end for forty years. Most of these folks live on Etsy and really why do we need to do the same old thing.

As someone who lives in the epicenter of downtown, I avoid my car to the maximum extent possible and really very very rarely venture to Raleigh or even Chapel Hill, but I did speak to several folks who attended the SparkCon Arts Festival the same weekend in Raleigh. They tell me it was much more dynamic and creative and involving local artists. Perhaps something like this should be given consideration in the future.