Counterculture and Authenticity

Summer has found me terribly lazy, and so today’s post is actually a link to another post I wrote for a blog on planning and authentic communities.  It addresses links between countercultural expressions and authenticity.  Enjoy, and happy June!



Authenticity and Grit

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.

Warehouses and an abandoned railway corridor in Vic West, Victoria, BC

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.

Why Grit?

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.)

Sex toy shop in Vesterbro, Copenhagen. Author photo, June 2011.

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.

Neighbourhood park in Vesterbro, Copenhagen. Author photo, June 2011


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.


  1. Sharon Zukin. 2011. Naked City. The Death and life of authentic urban places. Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York. (p. 21)
  2. Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath. 2004. The Rebel Sell. Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed. Harper Perennial.
  3. Japonica Brown-Saracino. 2009.  A Neighbourhood that Never Changes.  Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.


Authentic Staycations?

Authentic travel opens us up to fuller travel experiences through several approaches.  These include avoiding deserts of the real, enjoying cultural experiences that resonate with people of that culture and finding ways to be present in the moment.  So an authentic staycation is actually possible.  Here are five ideas for creating one for yourself.

1. See a place in your town through a child’s eyes.

This is especially refreshing when you enlist a child not in your daily life.  We don’t have children, but when we host friends or family with kids, it’s fun to anticipate,and explore, what will interest them.  And if you do have children or grandchildren, the perspective of another child might offer new insights and experiences.

It always surprises me how much fun adults have in places geared to the young.  And from a city planning perspective, playgrounds and other child-friendly locales are critical to livable cities. If your staycation planning reveals a shortage of these in your town, consider what might be done differently and  bring it to the attention of your city council.  Other child-friendly spots include beaches, lakes and rivers with child-friendly facilities; local pettting zoos or other places to encounter domestic animals; and local museums with child-friendly exhibits.

2.  Attend a Fall fair and/or local farmer’s market

Make it a fresh experience by choosing one in a neighbourhood or adjacent community where you seldom visit.  Not long ago we attended a local fair in Cobble Hill, a community an hour north from our home.  It’s also in the Cowichan Valley, a region becoming known further afield for its great produce and wines.



Cobble Hill Fall Fair


Farming district, Salt Spring Island

Turkeys at Ruckle Park Historic Farm

More recently we were back on Saltspring Island, which was Canada’s number one exporting region for apples 100 years ago, and still grows beautiful heirloom varieties. It also produces wonderful goat and other milder cheeses popular outside the region. The link to authenticity?  As urban scholar Sharon Zukin notes, authentic culture includes a distinct terroir, or regional food culture with its own traditions.  Wherever you live, consider voting with your wallet by rubbing shoulders with, and buying directly from, local food producers.

3. Volunteer at an historic site in your town.

I’m a big Downton Abbey fan and I work from home, which means I need to get out more.  Eventually, I figured out how to meet both needs: volunteering at an historic site.  For me, this was a mansion designed like a castle, built in 1890.  This type of volunteering allows you to spend time in a beautiful destination, and to meet other people with shared interests.  Plus it exposes new layers of your city’s history with each shift you work.  As a local you are less likely to view historic sites through rose-coloured glasses.  And understanding the past can help clarify certain aspects of the present. For the record, I volunteer at Craigdarroch Castle, owned and run by a non-profit preservation society.  I highly recommend it to visitors and locals alike.

4.  Google your town and find out what are the biggest tourist attractions.

Choose an activity tourists seem to like and which you consider inauthentic. Do it yourself -and see if you still feel the same way. If you don’t, why not?  In our case, this would involve a tour on the local Hippo bus (an amphibious vehicle that lets you tour on land and from shallow waters at sea). I feel a bit like a hypocrite (pun intended) in admitting that we have not yet done this -but we will!

5. Spend the day at a spa in a local hotel.

Okay, this isn’t really an authentic travel experience.  But if you’ve followed the other four suggestions, you’ve earned the right to some R & R.  Look for local hotels that you consider attractive and have sparked your curiosity.  Many hotels also let you use their pools with a spa service purchase.

This post has suggested five ideas for creating your own authentic staycation.  They are also a great way to deepen your own community connections.  There are other ideas for autentic staycations out there, just waiting to be discovered. I would love to hear yours.

The Urban Imaginary and Authenticity

Featured image courtesy of The Matrix Makeup Dept.

The urban imaginary and authenticity.  Wow- sounds like that came from a textbook.  But we confront these two ideas every day when we travel, and also at home.  The urban imaginary is about the unseen aspects of a city- literally how people imagine or perceive a city and their own interactions with it.  If you’ve seen the film “The Matrix”, you know how extreme the difference between the real and the imagined can be. This post appreciates that distinction; and it considers how travel might (or might not) engage in healthy ways with the urban imaginary of cities.

Some  differences between the real and imagined aspects of a city may be subtle.  A city may be considered “friendly” or “aloof ” in the urban imaginary.  How different is  this from reality?  It may be hard to verify.  But where differences between the real and imaginary are more tangible, they may  lead to action.  For example, if locals think of their city as very modern, they will view everything through the lens of modernity.  Anything that is not modern and high tech is seen as an exception -or something to be eventually “fixed”.  People in (and travelling to) Copenhagen might view that city as eco-friendly, and bike-friendly.  And so eco-friendliness and bike-friendliness become part of the urban imaginary of Copenhagen.  In the latter instance, fixing aspects of reality that don’t mesh with the urban imaginary can produce many positive benefits for locals, such as added cycling trails, or new buildings with energy-efficient features.  Sometimes the urban imaginary  is simple, at other times it is multi-layered.

The idea of the urban imaginary has fascinated many scholars and philosophers.  For urban planning scholar Edward Soja  “The city exists as a series of doubles; it has official and hidden cultures.  It is a real place and a site of imagination.  Its elaborate [set of physical attributes] … is paralleled by a complex of attitudes, habits, customs, expectancies, and hopes that reside in us as urban subjects” (Postmetropolis, 2000:324).  In short, these attitudes, habits and hopes are part of the urban imaginary -and of  authentic urban life.

Following Soja’s understanding, to travel authentically  one would seek (through one’s travel choices) to  uncover various aspects of the urban imaginary that locals hold.  In an earlier post, I mentioned the value of reading local newspapers or blogs by local people to find out what they care about (click  here ).  In addition, one could uncover the urban imaginary by talking to local people about how they see their city- what they love about it as well as what they would change if they could.  The term “urban imaginary” probably won’t resonate with most, but good questions and a genuine interest can tease this out, and enhance understanding.

Not all aspects of the urban imaginary lead to authentic experiences, though.  One of the more famous takes on the urban imaginary comes from French scholar Jean Beaudrillard, who talked about the problematic blurring of the real and the imagined, and complained about the “Desert of the Real”.  This desert emerges when an idealized version of reality (captured in  various symbols representing that reality) are preferred to the more mundane versions of reality (warts and all).  For the record, The Matrix stole shamelessly from Beaudrillard.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it called our attention to an extreme that deserves reflection.  And let’s face it -probably more people have seen The Matrix than have read Beaudrillard.

An example in travel terms of a Desert of the Real might be a coffee shop that calls itself “Le petit café typique parisien” (the typical little Parisian coffee shop), which is laid out, and staffed with people who take great pains, to fit the stereotyped tourist version of a Parisian café, down to the haughty waiters.  This stereotype might have drawn upon aspects of the urban imaginary, but likely only its most superficial -and probably more from the tourist urban imaginary than the local urban imaginary.  Where a quarter or district has more “petits cafés typiques” than restaurants that have evolved in less self-conscious ways, one could argue that the entire district has become a Desert of the Real.

A similar situation exists in a Las Vegas Hotel that will go unnamed, designed around very superficial replicas of Italian urban landscapes, including canals and gondolas but flanked with luxury shopping opportunities (minus the inconveniences of the real where one would have to navigate in Italian, and confront pigeons, Vespas, plus crowded sidewalks). And it doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether or not chain stores are present or absent, unless they start to become a monoculture and to reinforce only the simulated understandings of the neighbourhood.

Desertification is not just about stereotyping- it is also about leaving out various aspects of reality (including people and stories whose presence detracts from the simulated version of reality).  Think of gentrifying neighbourhoods you’ve visited, where initially artists mix with lower income people, and then people of means start to buy homes in the area, drawn by the ability to identify with artistic and creative types but eventually pushing out the lower income people and even, often, the artists who initially helped attract them. Avoiding desertification is not always about blocking gentrification.  It is about remembering that, where people value authentic communities, they will make efforts to ensure there still remains room for those who might otherwise be excluded.  This could include social housing, housing cooperatives, and affordable rental units in new buildings within the district.  I have mentioned Vesterbro in Copenhagen in an earlier posting.  Vesterbro is a great example of a community that has remained authentic as it upgraded the built environment, by ensuring housing remained accessible to the neighbourhood’s original inhabitants.  In a similar vein,  I  love my local Starbucks, because it has been very accommodating of people who are best described as neighbourhood characters, and who don’t always purchase while hanging out there.  (But I still take care to support the nearest independent cafe too.)

So how else can you appreciate the local urban imaginary and avoid “Deserts of the Real”?  Here are some questions to ask yourself when planning your next trip:

  • Will my itinerary lead me to neighbourhoods where people from a mix of incomes and educational backgrounds are likely to be present? If not, consider adding in places where this presence exists.
  • In a heavily tourist-oriented precinct, what opportunities are there for me to connect with varied (perhaps even opposing), stories about, and perspectives on, this place and the artifacts that I am seeing?  Seek out these opportunities, and favour sites where they exist.
  • To what extent has this store/ restaurant had to change business practices just to cater to tourists, rather than locals? If the answer is “a lot”, consider a place where the answer is “partly, but not a lot”.

You might also want to check out a related post for further tips (click here).

Getting in touch with the urban imaginary of your next travel destination in a positive way will take some effort, and perhaps a bit of research.  It will be well worth it, though, and could lead to any number of pleasant discoveries- perhaps even a few surprises.

Exploring Authenticity -Part 1

So far my posts have covered small things to help travellers access more authentic experiences.  These have been relatively undemanding, small ideas, as I truly believe that small things, when taken together, make a difference.

Today I explore authenticity at a broader level –because reflecting is an equally important part of authentic travel.  So heads up: I’m about to get geeky again. In this post I summarize the first of several different approaches to understanding authenticity, as it affects travel.  And I fully recognize there is seldom full agreement on what the term “authenticity” means.  In Part 1 I discuss the debate about whether travel commodifies culture.

1. Cultural Commodification and Travel

Some critics of tourism in general, and of tourist attractions and entertainment specifically, claim travellers are commodifying local culture.  This means that locals will cheapen their own culture to ensure it appeals to tourists.  (Perhaps locals do this to redress poverty; sometimes they do this just out of a desire to get ahead.) They will present only the most simple, superficial aspects of it so that it can be marketed to outsiders.  And in the process, they will spend less energy keeping alive those aspects of their culture that are less marketable, but give it meaning and enable it to have a positive influence on local lives (beyond the financial).  So this type of critique argues that the very process of tourism kills authenticity.

Sounds harsh, right?  And doesn’t it take a lot of the fun out of travelling to worry about that kind of thing?

Well, this might resonate with you more if you reflect for a moment on the Christian holiday of Christmas –because something comparable has been going on there.  For any of us with a spiritual tradition that celebrates this holiday, the emphasis on buying, buying, buying, and the stress of ensuring everything is perfect for our family Christmas dinners (particularly in terms of the things we have to buy in order to make them so) makes the whole thing start to leave a bad taste for us.  The commercial aspect of this holiday wasn’t always so pronounced.  In fact, it wasn’t originally meant to be part of it.  But –like it or not—the commercial aspect is part of Christmas at the moment.   And as more and more of us resent this, we find ourselves investing less energy in even the positive aspects of the tradition, while complaining more about the tradition generally.  We also try to reduce the impact of the negatives of the holiday, by avoiding its more commercialized symbols and reducing their presence in our lives.


Similar things can happen for practitioners of other cultural traditions, including festivals, art, music, and celebrating sacred spaces.  A good example for me came with my first exposure to Hawaiian culture as a holidaying child in the 1970s.  Essentially this culture was portrayed commercially as focused on model-perfect 20-something girls in bikini tops (or worse, coconut shell bras) and grass skirts shaking their hips to the same cheesy song everywhere we went.  Often they were Caucasian, too.  Performances that emphasized this take on hula dancing were clearly catering to its commercial aspect (sex and sexiness sell).  And yet they made the hula seem tawdry -an empty husk of what it really represented to the Hawaiian people as a part of their traditional way of life.  But fortunately the story didn’t end there, and the hula did not die out.

Since that time, the Hawaiian people have taken important steps in reclaiming and strengthening their culture in ways that, first and foremost, resonate for them.  For some good reading on how this has been happening, check out some of these resources (click here).  This also includes efforts to revive the practice of men’s hula (click here ).  Hawaiians reached to find a hint of what was authentic about the hula for them, and nurtured it so that the authentic eventually overtook the commercial.

There are other things to reflect on around the commodification question. Not all aspects of commodification have to be bad.  Poverty can also be pretty awful; while the money that tourist-oriented cultural performances /art sales can generate the funds needed to support certain ways of life.  On this aspect of the debate, the argument goes like this:  people should be allowed to make a living -and as long as people from that culture remain in charge of how their local culture.  If they pick and choose how to represent the culture, they are more likely to portray it respectfully.

So what should a traveller take away from this debate on authenticity?  There are no easy answers.  But when choosing where to invest your travel dollar, you may want to reflect on the following points:

  • Who is in control of how this culture is being represented?
  • How are local practitioners of this tradition / knowledge keepers being compensated?
  • To what extent does making this festival/art/music to outsiders take away from its more traditional use/ access for local / Indigenous people to whom it belongs? And on a related note, are local / Indigenous people welcome as audience members / consumers at this same venue that I plan on attending?
  • Are there ways that attending this performance/ consuming this culture as a tourist helps give back to its Indigenous practitioners?

Just on the topic of Hawaii, on more recent trips, so many more hula performances have been given by community clubs and classes, that have sprung up to make this practice more accessible to community members- and these performances have included lots of grannies and young children, whose family members have also been cheering them on from the audience.  In my view, participating as an audience member in these circumstances does feel authentic, because it reinforces and validates a local practice that is benefiting local people.   Of course, this can be a challenging line to draw, and in some cases it’s hard to be sure whether participating as a tourist is a good or a bad thing. The key thing is to be mindful, and to try to appreciate the local perspectives.

Next time I post on this angle, I will look at the very notion of authenticity as a commodity.  That won’t be for a few weeks- don’t want to bog you down with too much geekiness all at once.)