“How many times do we think, the cheaper the beer, the more authentic the bar? Or the grittier the streets, the more authentic the neighbourhood?”1. If you’re like me, you’ve occasionally sought out gritty places when travelling to assure yourself you’re seeing the more authentic spots in that city. But is the gritty always the more authentic? Not necessarily. Read on for a discussion of the relationship between grit and authenticity.
What is Grit?
Grit, or grittiness, can have several meanings. As a personal quality, it can refer to a type of raw perseverance. In a neighbourhood or cultural setting, though, that sense of rawness tends to take on more of a seedy, or rough quality. Dystopian films and literature often portray gritty environments, where there is an element of danger or risk. Gritty neighbourhoods may be those where the physical landscape is less polished, perhaps including some industrial buildings, or where infrastructure (e.g. highways, railways, garbage dumps, or electricity-generating equipment) might be prominent. In some ways, it can be a type of anti-aesthetic.
And, the people inhabiting gritty neighbourhoods may themselves be less polished, due to poverty, affiliation with counterculture politics and/ or art, disability, or a gang lifestyle.
According to scholar Sharon Zukin, as a protest of, and genuine dissatisfaction with, corporate culture that makes everything look the same, a growing group of people are embracing the grittier or edgier aspects of neighbourhoods. In their book The Rebel Sell, Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath argue that this type of link actually dates back centuries. They also discuss how people identifying with a gritty, non-conformist lifestyle are paradoxically driving consumerism2. Both these sets of scholars observe how those seeking the gritty often play up these aspects of society and urban life, giving them their own form of glamour. In the process, however, when the gritty is glamourized, it risks becoming just another consumer product -played up for a quick sale. Sometimes grit is even created in a contrived way for consumption purposes. Think of the designer fashion outlet using reclaimed wood from old barns. While wood re-use in such a case does have an environmental benefit, it is also linked to a consumption agenda that tries to borrow the wood’s connection to an older, authentic farming past; but it risks being inauthentic because the authenticity is borrowed, not intrinsic.
When is Grit a Problem?
Grit, or rather the love of grit, can be a problem when the trend begins to exclude the vulnerable old-timers who initially helped create that sense of grit. Ironically, their departure is linked with gentrification by people who, claiming to love authenticity (including grit) are also willing to pay top dollar to be associated with old-timers and their grittiness. But this pattern isn’t straightforward either. In her in-depth studies of four gentrifying places in the United States, Japonica Brown-Saracino wrote a fascinating study of different types of gentrifiers and their relationships to earlier residents3. Not all gentrifiers are chasing the old-timers out. She found that many want to ensure that old-timers can stay. Some gentrifiers even go to great lengths to try to make room for the old-timers.
Unfortunately, however, many are still edged out due to a combination of affordability constraints, or their own perceptions of discomfort with newcomers, and other factors. For example, Brown-Saracino described the transition of Provincetown, Massachusetts from a Portuguese fishing village to gay-friendly arts mecca with skyrocketing real estate prices. In some respects, the selective preservation of traditional village grittiness (and efforts to commodify or sell it) as well as the grittiness of gentrifiers’ artistic expressions were linked to these rising prices. Herself a member of the gay community, Brown-Saracino also found that at times the cultural clashes between the gentrifying newcomers and longstanding residents could be confusing- in part because the gentrifiers themselves had a range of different beliefs about the extent to which they should help ensure earlier residents were not displaced.
When is Grit Good? (Or at least authentic?)
Accepting for the moment that authenticity is about transcending the narrowness of one’s own self interests and looking for something bigger outside oneself , then authentic grit needs to somehow be about exposing people to things that are bigger and transcendent. Inclusion has great potential to offer transcendence. And so, at the very least, features that promote (or at least preserve) inclusivity alongside the grit would help to meet this criterion.
I’ve spoken in a prior post about my love for the Copenhagen neighbourhood of Vesterbro. And this love is precisely because Vesterbro has gone farther than most transitioning neighbourhoods in allowing for the gritty in ways that still include people (sex workers and other lower income people) who might be at risk of exclusion elsewhere. It does this by including and building generous social housing in among the gentrified blocks- and sometimes within the same buildings. When we visited this area, we were travelling with my parents, who decided to take a risk and come with us to see it. On more than one occasion while we were there, I was worried about the impact on my aging parents’ sensibilities (passionate make-out sessions in plain view and sex toys on full display in store windows factored into this.)
But my worries-and theirs- were quickly eased when we also saw mothers strolling with babies and toddlers, and older people sitting in the same park as the sex trade workers. The co-presence of people from a mix of social groups sent the signal that the neighbourhood was a safe place- for everyone.
The link between grit and authenticity is certainly complex. This posting has tried to explore some of the complexity involved, but has really only scratched the surface. Certainly inclusion is a key factor in authentic neighbourhoods- and something for the traveller seeking authentic experiences to consider. I would love to hear about more neighbourhoods that seem to have gotten the balance right. And of course, grit is not an essential pre-condition for authenticity. It is one of several elements that may or may not lend this quality to an area, or an experience.
- Sharon Zukin. 2011. Naked City. The Death and life of authentic urban places. Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York. (p. 21)
- Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath. 2004. The Rebel Sell. Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed. Harper Perennial.
- Japonica Brown-Saracino. 2009. A Neighbourhood that Never Changes. Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.