Goodbye to the Record Store

I spent half of my childhood in the thick of things in Chicago and the other half in rural-exurban Western Massachusetts. It always surprises me when someone says "I can’t imagine you in the countryside" (I often fantasize publicly about living in Vermont or somewhere similarly rural). What, Points of Interest in the Owens River Valley wasn’t enough for you? 

Since my exurban life came during my all-important teenage years, I found it  crucial to visit the city where I’d scour the record stores or to tune into WRPI, a great industrially-oriented radio station, something I could only do whenever the horrific local Christian station was off the air. When I went to college at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, I was even further from civilization and without even a decent radio station (the college radio station was obsessed with Phish, infinitely worse fate than even classic rock) and so-so record stores. I invested in a short wave radio to listen to the John Peel show (and, when I could get it, the brilliant, ill-fated Radio Sierra Leone) and took painfully long road trips to the city to the same record stores to collect more music.

All this is gone now. I haven’t been to a record store in years. I’m a bit of an audiophile so I still keep the best music in CDs but no record store is as efficient as the Net so I even that fix takes place online. In any event the record stores have closed down, the staff off to do God knows what. The scene is gone.

Why do I blog this? Simply enough: the old role of cities as places that you go to in order to experience hard-to-find culture is over. The Nick Hornby novel/film High Fidelity is completely foreign to network culture. Ours is the world of the Long Tail. Everything is available. The city is dead.  

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posturban transformation

The May 29th issue of the Economist finally came today and it has one of the most intelligent articles about suburbs that I’ve read lately. It comes back to one of the key issues for my Network City project. Cities, as Lewis Wirth pointed out in his seminal article, Urbanism as a Way of Life, had traditionally been places of difference, places in which individuals from rural backgrounds were deterritorialized (to use Deleuzean terms) to become new, urban beings. But something strange has happened over the last two decades.

The Economist piece "An Age of Transformation" talks about how minorities, immigrants, and increasingly, gays and lesbians are leaving cities (one staggering statistic: at current rates of departure, there will not be a single African American in Los Angeles by 2050). As the global city becomes increasingly homogeneous, today’s advocates of the creative city may seem as backwards to us as Corbusier did to Jane Jacobs. 

 

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suburbs vs. cities

I just ran across MUDOT magazine for urban documentation, opinion, and theory: mudot.org. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here, but what caught my eye this morning was Michael J. Thompson’s article How Suburbs Destroy Democracy and Alex Schafren’s response As a
Child of the Suburbs
as well as Thompson’s rejoinder to Schafren.

I side quite clearly with Schafren on this one. After all, I was born in 1967, the year that Herbert Gans wrote the Levittowners. It’s been forty years and its remarkable how little things change. Suburbs = bad. Cities = good. Gans’s work seems to be forgotten. Grab a copy. It’s well worth the read.

Here again I’m glad for my Los Angeles experience. If Los Angeles was not without its problems (after all, there are reasons I don’t live there anymore…), the experience taught me to rethink the self-validation that still seems to prevail here in the city (note to non-residents: New York is the city, not New York, not Manhattan, the city). Somehow, living in the city is pure goodness. Somehow, shopping in Soho stores (most of which can be found in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus) is equal to democracy. To be fair, in his rejoinder, Thompson argues that he isn’t so much glamorizing the city (and indicts the growing homogeneity of cities) as condemning suburbia, but I’m not sure how that is that much different. In any event, read the back-and-forth and judge for yourself.

The city, as we once knew it, is disappearing. Not only is it becoming more homogeneous, many of its classic functions—such as being the place to which immigrants go first—are being absorbed by areas once called
suburban. If urbanism wants a major task for this century, here it is: look at the suburbs, learn from them, and figure out how to make them work. Jane Jacobs taught us the virtue of cities, perhaps too well. Her defense of Greenwich Village not only saved that community, it made it impossible for anyone with a working-class income to live there. The endless condemnation of the suburbs and validation of the city is tired today.

Schafren rightly argues that re-imagining the suburb is a crucial task today. Lamenting it won’t get us anywhere. And yet, the common refrain is still suburbs bad, city good. Just as parts of cities (take Manhattan for example) are becoming suburbanized, turned into homogeneous, consumption-oriented territories (how different is a co-op with a doorman from a gated community?), suburbs are far from the homogeneous places they once were. There is exurbia, edgeless cities, inner-ring suburbs, outer-ring suburbs, and technoburbs among the many species of community out there. Some of these are incredibly homogeneous, some of these are radically diverse. Sometimes the homogeneous and the heterogeneous co-exist only a border apart. The impossiblity of continuing to use categories such as suburban, urban, or rural is made clear through Claritas’s PRIZM system, based on demographics, marketing research, and of course, voting patterns, It’s worth taking a look at, as is Michael Weiss’s book on the system, The Clustered World.

So let’s put a moratorium on the word "suburb" for a decade or two, until we can learn to use it again. And, with that minor corrective in place, turn to the task of envisioning the networked (sub/ex/edge/dense/empty/global/local)urbanism of this century and seeing what we can do to remedy its downfalls.

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