Sharon Zukin

 

On her book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places

Cover Interview of December 16, 2009

A close-up

Not surprisingly for a book about consuming authenticity, a lot of the writing revolves around food.  Food is the new “art” in the urban cultural experience.  This is true not only because of the enormous growth in the number of restaurants during the past thirty years—from standardized fast-food franchises to the luxurious lairs of high-class chefs and diners—but also because of the dramatic rise of food preparation as a pole of cultural creativity in the urban economy.

New entrepreneurs in Brooklyn have reinvented the borough’s late nineteenth century food industries for today’s foodies and hipsters.  Micro-breweries and omnivore butchers are not only re-creating a precious kind of artisanal production but also an authentic culture industry true to the borough’s roots.

Readers who open the chapter on “How Brooklyn Became Cool” will trace how the entrepreneurial paths of Pierogi art gallery (named in honor of the area’s Polish residents), L Café, Galapagos Artspace, Brooklyn Brewery, and the clothing company Brooklyn Industries in Williamsburg transformed this old industrial and working class neighborhood on the waterfront into a new center of cultural production and consumption.

In contrast, “A Tale of Two Globals: Pupusas and Ikea in Red Hook” deals with Swedish meatballs and Salvadoran pupusas.  The recent much-heralded arrival of the multinational Swedish chain store in New York City contrasts with the trials of a small group of street vendors from Mexico and Latin America who have sold the foods of their countries in this neighborhood for years.

Both Ikea and the Red Hook food vendors fought to occupy their places: Ikea, with an army of executives, publicists, and lawyers who argued for the jobs and shopping opportunities the store would bring to New York City, and the food vendors, with supporters drawn from local foodies, bloggers and elected officials, including U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn resident.  Though the vast majority of New York’s street vendors are immigrants who do not prepare native cuisines other than American hot dogs, and lack power to fight their way through the mass of regulations set by the city’s bureaucracy, the Red Hook food vendors mobilized enough support to become a permanent fixture in the ball fields.

A sidewalk café in Harlem, a farmers’ market in Union Square, and a community garden in East New York round out the picture of how important food production and consumption have become to the city’s recent transformation.  These are not just trendy consumption spaces, they are new urban terroirs.