Seattle is rapidly growing. As with any city undergoing growth, such changes can be exciting, bringing hopes of new jobs, better restaurants and more thoughtfully designed spaces (public and private). But residents of growing cities also face pressing moral, political and aesthetic questions about what is and isn’t worth preserving in the face of change. We worry about the gentrification of neighborhoods and displacement of long-term residents, the benefits and drawbacks of density and new stresses on our transportation infrastructure. When tackling these issues, we take a variety of approaches. We focus on measurable indices of change that we judge important—median rent prices, changing demographics, high Walk Scores and decreased commute times. But we also look to more amorphous qualities within the built environment that matter to us just as much—the feel, character and history of neighborhoods.
Our claims about these nebulous sorts of aesthetic features, and even those about presumably quantifiable changes, seem to attempt to pin down what is and isn’t authentic about our city. Given all the qualities we associate with the real character of a city and its residents, it’s clear that “authenticity” has many potential meanings. Sorting through these meanings is a good thing. When debating what stays and what goes during periods of growth, at the very least we should have an idea of what genuinely counts as our city, our neighborhood, our block. With this in mind, this ARCADE feature investigates the concept of authenticity and the role it plays not only in arguments about development and growth, but also art, design and architecture.
To begin, judgments about authenticity appear just as rooted in our histories and experiences as in presumably objective and shareable features. Unlike some other aesthetic qualities, authenticity isn’t something we can easily access with our five senses. If we have an experience of something beautiful, we might mention characteristics most of us can make out: the way Mount Rainier rises above its surroundings, the citrusy bitterness of a pale ale. But if someone hasn’t already had a certain experience of the authentic—Grandma’s tamales with Grandma’s salsa—what property can we point to in order to help her understand it?
In the context of the effect of growth on a city’s authenticity, the difficulty of singling out a definable set of features seems especially acute. Take Capitol Hill in Seattle, for instance. Residents worry that an increase in hate crimes across the neighborhood is attributable to an influx of people—not so much new residents but outsiders looking to party on the weekend—who aren’t aware of or don’t care about the neighborhood’s history, and present, as an LGBTQ community. Newcomers may know Capitol Hill only for its nightlife, which doesn’t come close to capturing its full identity. Pointing out a vital aspect of the neighborhood’s character by painting rainbow crosswalks at a few intersections (as was done in June of this year) certainly helps visitors better understand this area, but this can only gesture at some of the qualities that residents think make Capitol Hill the neighborhood that it is.
The difficulty in conveying to someone—or even deciding for ourselves—what is and isn’t authentically Capitol Hill or singling out the characteristics that make for an authentic tamale speaks to the elusiveness of authenticity. Yet, we certainly seem sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about it. Just consider that it is invoked in contexts as diverse as the preservation of artworks and buildings, new developments in historically underserved communities, the effects of new city residents on existing neighborhoods and stories of personal experiences. Perhaps, then, our use of it appeals to different aesthetic, moral and political values depending on the situation.
Given its context sensitivity, the articles presented here don’t aim for a unified account of authenticity but instead inquire into it from various perspectives. In the process, the pieces reveal different understandings of authenticity, some overlapping, some not. By relating preservation practices in art and architecture to modern ruins, Elizabeth Scarbrough points out how different disciplines embody divergent aesthetic attitudes about the authenticity of damaged creative works. In their respective essays, Eugenia Woo and Dominic Weilminster claim that authentic design and development pay attention to context, whether it’s a building’s history beyond its facade or the human ecosystems in which growth occurs. And the maps by Schema Design of sites in Seattle with demolition permits contextualizes change by reminding us of those structures that are causalities in the push to create spaces for new developments. John Marx and Pierluigi Serraino argue we should move past early modernist design strictures about the authenticity of architectural materials, suggesting a more inclusive approach. Robert Rhee asks us to remain open to the messiness of experiencing and recollecting in contrast to social media’s demand that we constantly document and authenticate our experiences. Finally, in a skeptical spirit, Charles Tonderai Mudede cautions us to think twice about assuming we know what authenticity is by considering Heidegger’s thoughts on van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes.
The feature speaks to the complexity of authenticity and the plurality of its meanings. For some, this open-endedness about what authenticity is or isn’t may border on frustrating vagueness. For others, its resistance to definition reveals it to be a versatile and important concept encompassing a family of related value judgments. In my more pessimistic moments, I feel like a character in a Socratic dialogue who began his inquiry certain about the meaning of a term, only to find himself in a state of confusion by the end. However, more optimistically, I’ve come out thinking authenticity can help artistic, architectural and design disciplines grapple with the changing characteristics of cities and the built environment.