I am a Champion of Authenticity. You are in the Vanguard of Corruption.

Here is a quandary in three parts. I don't know how to think about it clearly, much less how to resolve it.

Part 1 is a letter in today's Globe and Mail from Charles Cook:

Imagine settling down in a nice theatre
seat only to have Marge Simpson sit in front of you. Thirty years ago,
my balcony afforded a good view of Lake Ontario and the Toronto
Harbour. Gradual infill building has blocked it all but I proudly boast
of what is left, a view of the CN Tower.

With a watchful eye on high-rise projects, I got wind of a new mega
condo to be built between me and this Toronto icon. When (or now, if)
it's completed, my iconic view will be gone. New condo buyers
everywhere should not be influenced by artists' impressions of the view
from an unbuilt living room. Marge Simpson may be their first guest.

The letter writer may suffer from Marge Simpson's towering blue hairdo in front of him, but he seems blind to the fact that he is a Marge Simpson in front of someone else. And the first condo building is probably more of an issue than the hundred and first. It's a vanguard of corruption.

Part 2 is the occasional appearance of groups called something like "Artists Against Gentrification" (for Detroit see here). It's a concept that is easy to mock. Seeking out cheap space in neighbourhoods that are not their own, yet which offer cultural novelty and distinctiveness, some artists like to think of themselves as champions of authentic neighbourhoods. Others cast them as the ground troops that come in first, paving the way for upscale developers.

But part 3 is more difficult for me to mock. The place I work is in a "Research and Technology Park" at the north end of the University of Waterloo (here). It's a recent development; it has a handful of new office buildings surrounded by empty fields and untended scrubland. Sometimes I walk to work through this scrub and it's amazing what you see. We have foxes, deer sometimes. The other day a hawk flew across the path ten feet in front of me at knee hight, driving a flock of pigeons into the air. There's sometimes a blue heron in a gravel pond, and a groundhog I see regularly as it watches the construction of a new building from just outside its hole.

All this wildlife in the middle of town would vanish, of course, if the R&T park gets more tenants, or if the scrubby landscape is manicured to look more attractive. I would miss it and something valuable would be lost.

Yet of course I'm only aware of these gems because I work in the first building to be built in the park. I'd like to think I'm a champion of authenticity, but I guess I'm just in the vanguard of corruption.

The quandary is obvious. There are parts of the world ("authentic" parts) that have value because they are different from their blander surroundings. And yet the value of those parts is largely invisible, and so they are vulnerable to the economic forces that would brush them aside. Preserving these authentic parts of the world requires that we know about them, and that requires someone from the outside to go in and tell us about them. So is that person then selfishly trying to preserve a private playground or nobly trying to preserve a valuable but vulnerable niche?

It's the problem with eco-tourism that the more it seeks to create awareness of the wilderness the more it damages that wilderness. From quaint pottery shops in  Burnsall and Grassington, to hippies in Goa, to Jane Goodall and David Attenborough, how do we distinguish the genuine champion from the tourist? And how do we preserve what needs to be preserved without pandering to the demands of those who want to just keep a new find all to themselves in the name of authenticity.

I can think of no general principle to tell one from the other. But if anyone has pointers to ways of thinking about authenticity I'd like to hear them.

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  1. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t confuse “authentic parts” with “authentic moments”. I think its the authentic moments that count. I’ve been lucky enough to have captured some authentic moments on film and you, Tom, have a gift for capturing authentic moments in words. Perhaps it is the stories that we build around these moments that truly preserve them.

  2. “Why wasn’t I told about this amazing place before? – and how can I stop anyone else finding out about it?”

  3. I used to spend a lot of time bellyaching about these questions, especially when I was an active gentrifier myself. (Um, I mean when I was a champion of authentic neighborhoods.) Hell, I still do, even though I live in the already-gentrified Annex in Toronto now: I even reflected on gentrification this morning in the shower.
    The whole idea of gentrification — and the idea of environmental despoliation — rely on the idea that the colonizing subject is alien to the system being colonized; that he is a rational individual, while the inhabitants of the system are defined by their roles in that system; that he is responsible for his choices, while they are simply acting out their parts in a mechanical system. On the one hand, this is obviously false: the colonizers are not meaningfully distinct from either other humans (the members of the “authentic” community) or from other species (in a “natural” environment), and in fact this fallacy has been responsible for a great deal of exactly the kind of destructive colonization we’re critiquing. On the other hand, it’s true that many systems (either social or biological) do achieve a relatively stable steady state that can last a long time until a colonizer comes along and wrecks it.
    I really don’t think these questions have easy answers. I try to look at both questions through the lens of the question: what are [young professionals/humans] supposed to do? Should they live in the suburbs instead of in the city, and make “authentic” urban neighborhoods into latter-day Indian reservations, sort of living museums? This seems to be the popular liberal approach toward preserving “nature”; it doesn’t have the same acceptance as a solution to the problem of gentrification, though, although I haven’t heard anyone come up with another.
    Overproduction is a problem: overproduction of little human beings, of material goods, of all things human being make. It creates this excess that needs to go somewhere, and the only places where it can go is into systems that will be disrupted by its arrival. The alternative, of course, is reversion to hunter-gatherer existence, which will only last as long as everyone is happy with regular calorie deficiencies and constant danger from the environment. The first person to plant a seed in the ground did it because he was tired of seeing his children go hungry, but that seed set the stage for everything we’re bitching about here. Humans in their present state are not a stable population. Does that mean we’re unnatural and have no place in the biosphere? Should we aim for our own extinction in order to avoid destroying the planet? (We may not have any choice, in any case.)
    Personally, my birth was an act of gentrification. We were one of two white families on my block, which is now almost entirely populated by white professionals. Perhaps it’s the case that I did not “belong” in the only place I had ever known, and that my presence there was a crime. Similar claims are made all the time by Israelis and Palestinians about each other, along with countless other colonizers and colonized throughout history, and I’m not saying that they’re wrong. But, well, it’s complicated.

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