The Life and Death of City Cool

The Life and Death of City Cool

Should we even worry about residential gentrification, when in a few years, the very people who make certain blocks hot, don’t even care about those blocks anymore? Is that something that only those of means and of the right color have to worry about? Do people rebuild the cultures that die in new places or do they just hang up their guitars and stop singing along to songs?

As I prepare to spend the holidays back in Greensboro, I want to think about what that means. At the beginning of November, it started to dawn on me that only had a few more weeks to endure Kansas City, at least for 2015.

In the midst of that thought, the Royals won the World Series. People started running through the streets (ok, about a handful of drunk guys jogged down my sidewalk) and the mood that had already been heightened by buildings turning blue at night, became even more electric.

I got a chance to express how I felt about Kansas City and some of the other issues I encountered here on the local NPR last week. On the other hand, I’d written a few months ago  about how I was happy to be here in Kansas City.

Even he knows when to hit the road. Image by Flickr user Caren Pilgrim

Even he knows when to hit the road. Image by Flickr user Caren Pilgrim

I can relate to the fickleness of a city being cool.

Especially after Allen Johnson, the head of the editorial page over at the Greensboro News and Record (who so graciously allowed me to write this about a time when I felt like Greensboro was dying and needed to come back to life), wrote his own reflection about what it used to mean to go Uptown.

That brought back my parents’ relayed memories of what it meant when Greensboro was Uptown and all the major department and other stores thrived there. Both Johnson and my parents echoed that there were still some remnants of people not being treated well or served well, but the atmosphere was festive. All three mention a shift in activity, when it happened and how they lived through the transformation.

My own memories of the fun of going through abandoned storefronts, seeing eveyrone in the city on various festival days as a child, teen and young adult and finally, living in downtown and all the happy moments that came from it, along with the trying times of feeling like others didn’t want me around or my income bracket didn’t really belong there.

Then I read this note, from a writer in the New York Times, who reminds us that cool is subjective, even if we don’t always like to admit it. This paragraph stuck out so much to me, I had to think about it even stronger.

I can sympathize. But I think there’s more to these “the city is dead now” complaints than money. People have pronounced St. Marks Place dead many times over the past centuries — when it became poor, and then again when it became rich, and then again when it returned to being poor, and so on. My theory is that the neighborhood hasn’t stopped being cool because it’s too expensive now; it stops being cool for each generation the second we stop feeling cool there. Any claim to objectivity is clouded by one’s former glory.

She goes on to admonish someone who claims that people don’t brunch anymore, by telling her in so many words that she only hates brunch because brunch doesn’t work for her anymore. Not that it’s not making money for businesses and defining New York City for other people in a positive way.

I will say, her piece has a degree of privilege baked in. It assumes that people find a new place to live and they re-sew all those cool things that used to be somewhere else. It assumes that the government or a landlord didn’t want you out. (Speaking of which, ProPublica wants to know about you New Yorkers with unfair rents).

However, when it comes to certain areas, areas like New York that still continue to attract tourists, propel businesses and even house people, I wonder if some of our concerns, the ones not attached to pure gentrification, are valid.

I only got to eat here once in DC and it was excellent. It's gone now. Does that make DC less cool? Won't somebody step up in a city that has that kind of wealth and create something new and similar and better?

I only ate here once in DC and it was excellent. It’s gone now. Does that make DC less cool? Won’t somebody step up in a city that has that kind of wealth and create something new and similar and better?

As much as we like certain restaurants, no matter where they are, many close down. We outgrow certain activities because we are no longer of a certain size or age. Some of those cool activities were destructive and moving away from them makes sense.

Again, as I’ve said before, subjective measures like this do not excuse city governments from providing basic services like transit, trash collection, medical, fire and even policing. City coolness is at the top of the Mazlow hierarchy, primarily because those other things I just mentioned are at the bottom.

But if you are at the top of the hierarchy and complaining about something not feeling right. By all means, do, as I encouraged you in this previous post. Do remember though, that “cool” is very subjective and it’s one of many valid feelings one can have about a space.

Only time will tell if your block, your city routine, where you need to live, will stand the test of your time.

About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.