image description: champs elysees leading to a void
image description: champs elysees leading to a void

Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

In Search of Authenticity in a Global World: An Urbanization Story

Attracting tourists to big urban cities often results in an artificial version of what the underlying culture represents, resulting in a romanticized past and lost culture for locals.

May 8, 2023

Woody Allen is a controversial name among cinephiles, but what none of us can deny is his masterful exploration of city life across cultures and even across ages. His most famous works feature Manhattan, To Rome with Love, Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, and A Rainy Day in New York. My favorite, however, is Midnight in Paris, mostly because it helped me answer a question I have mulled over ever since I started studying history in primary school: why is it that the past is most often called golden, the present gray concrete and the future can only be neon-lit glass? The past is also never wrong, never uncertain, and never bad. Is it the guilt or fear of failure that keeps us in a perpetual state of anemia, the feeling of nostalgia for a time that we never experienced? On the backdrop of Paris, the city where modernity and tradition clash in an irreconcilable battle, the main character of Midnight in Paris Gil concludes “That’s what the present is. It is a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.”
This battle becomes part of the daily life of many big cities around the world. Viewed as the centers for economic growth, future creation, and overall drivers of globalization, the image of the biggest metropolises is pretty much the same: concrete jungles with bustling crowds, endless entertainment, and job opportunities simultaneously. The increasing homogenization of big cities is becoming a source of discontent among locals, who find themselves unable to escape the monotony of their everyday lives when on vacation and struggle to find a sense of belonging in their city. Homeliness, therefore, is a quality that is quickly disappearing from urban spaces and being replaced by globalization.
Sharon Zukin explores this phenomenon in her study “Consuming Authenticity.” Focusing on certain neighborhoods in New York City, she explores the progress of gentrification and its root in the anti-bourgeois movements that started the cult of authenticity. In the beginning, it was a statement about the respectability of people living in poverty, subverting the notions of the inherent superiority of people who come from a lineage of privilege and social status. The paradox is that the movement was not grass-roots, rather it was led by late 18th - early 19th-century young bourgeois who wanted to rebel against the status quo and express their dissatisfaction with their present. The ideas of this young bourgeois from the early Romantic period were later taken up by the New York “yuppies” — young urban professionals. The yuppies were mostly artists and bohemians, who in search of cheaper housing, found themselves moving to the more run-down neighborhoods in the 50s and the 60s of the 20th century. These neighborhoods included Soho, which today is one of the top locations in NYC exactly because of the process that Zukin describes as the New Urban Frontier. When these young professionals started migrating predominantly to one area, they brought with them bohemian small businesses, driving the prices of real estate up. That in turn caught the attention of some big corporations which slowly but surely, started infiltrating the areas. In the end, the original inhabitants of the area were driven away from their homes because the price of living in the area was too high and they did not gain any benefits from the gentrification and popularization of their neighborhoods. The presence of corporations has further reinforced the exclusion of certain groups of people and has led to the erasure of the once-perceived authenticity of these neighborhoods.
Perhaps that is why many urban planners have turned to seeking authenticity and trying to preserve as many old buildings and historical sites as possible. Not that this is not important and valuable, it is. But the way it is executed often exacerbates the issue: the preservation of history in cities is often about creating an isolated “old town” or other cultural districts that just feel forced and fake. The sense of artificiality is particularly pronounced in cultural districts that have become popular tourist destinations, as businesses tend to cater to the tourist crowd, resulting in restored and beautified ruins and numerous souvenir shops lining the old cobblestone streets. When you hear the vendors speaking near perfect English and do not see a single local around, you, as a tourist, are left thinking where did the authenticity go? Most probably it was sold to a Starbucks that opened on the ground floor of a building that was named a cultural heritage site by the municipality just two years prior.
This may seem impossible, but it is actually the fate of the railway station in Ghent, Belgium, and even the iconic Champs-Elysees in Paris. Back in 2008, not even the notorious French protests could stop the zoning project which allowed an H&M store to open on the world-famous high-fashion street in the French capital. It was followed by several other fast-fashion retailers, including Abercrombie and Fitch. Recently, the controversial H&M, have announced a potential closure of their stores on Champs Elysees, but have not taken any concrete actions in this direction.
The gentrification of cities drives people away from the tourist centers and into other parts of cities or even to the countryside. The rise of rural and agri-tourism are a testament to this change in tourists’ mindset. However, they are still not prominent enough to drive people out of urban spaces. Thus, the cities’ cultural centers continue to be more and more gentrified.
The artificiality of these heritage spaces in cities has generated a new meaning of “authentic” as rugged, worn-and-torn, and, potentially, poor. It is almost obvious how this has a larger cultural impact: the glorification of poverty is yet another characteristic of classism and workers’ exploitation. In the search for authenticity, we create another “market” demand: to keep certain parts of our cities underdeveloped or certain people poor. For whose sake remains unclear because tourists rarely actually visit, if interested they merely travel through just to get a sense of the “local” and “real life” of the city they are visiting, and city governments only lose valuable residential space. Or perhaps it is just about cutting costs and ensuring more gain at the same time because it is a very basic real estate lesson that building anew is much cheaper than restoring, and limited space means higher prices.
Whether we have lost authenticity in the era of fast fashion and global corporations is a matter of perspective because the transformation of our cities is not always about erasing what is old. After all, innovation and development are mostly about repurposing and upgrading what already exists. Perhaps we are in the process of creating a new culture and setting the foundations for a future tradition that might become the defining experience of our age. This is exactly why we must be careful about glorifying the past because by doing so we look past the faults and failures, and stifle the growth of underrepresented and historically exploited peoples. The first step towards addressing the distorted narratives that dominate our perceptions of world history is perhaps removing the overwhelmingly positive connotations associated with the past. Our new traditions need not be rooted in inequality and market-driven social structures.
Yana Peeva is Senior Columns Editor. Email her at
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