Have you ever happened upon a place that just oozed authenticity? A restaurant tucked away in an older part of town where the food seems like it’s the same it’s always been, or maybe an independent bookseller where the proprietor (yes, he or she definitely calls him or herself a proprietor) knows just what book to suggest for you?
Then, have you found out that it wasn’t as it seemed? That the restaurant was just styled to look old, that the bookstore is part of a chain, that the mom-and-pop was sold to new owners who just kept the old façade. Suddenly it doesn’t seem as authentic anymore.
We live in an increasingly corporatized, privatized and commercialized world, and sometimes, even the things that appear to be the most authentic aren’t what they seem.
This realization might make us feel uncertain or uncomfortable in our changing world, leading us to seek out real authenticity (not just the look of it) and cling to it even more strongly when we encounter it.
Authenticity certainly has a lot to do with age and tradition; it’s why shops and restaurants emphasize their history (or fabricate a history altogether) and why shops lose their authenticity when they are disconnected from it.
Yet, authenticity isn’t that simple. Why would something become less authentic if it’s corporatized or privatized? Couldn’t it still be old and traditional even if it’s owned by a huge corporation?
Authenticity seems to have something to do with the quality of something’s origins, too: It needs to have a grassroots feel; it needs to seem makeshift, and it needs to feel humble.
More often than not, the places that seem to fit this description are simply the ones that have survived in a mass-market economy. They are the underdog in a race for market share dominated by corporate giants, and we like to root for the underdog.
While that mom-and-pop likely wasn’t anything special when those kinds of shops were commonplace, its singularity in a world now largely devoid of similar shops allows it to become a tiny hub of authenticity, especially for those seeking it.
Take the Union Square Greenmarket, a seemingly authentic destination frequented by many in New Yorkers, where “local” (local can mean anything from 120 miles south, to 170 miles east and west and 250 miles north of New York City) farmers and producers sell the goods that they must grow or produce.
Grow NYC, the company that facilitates the Greenmarket system, ensures that the farmers and producers who sell at the market are present, their produce has not been genetically modified, and that they are only selling that which they personally control production of.
Sharon Zukin, who wrote extensively about the market in her book, "Naked City," draws attention to the corners of the market’s identity that seem to undermine its authenticity.
Union Square isn’t the authentic public square it claims to be. It’s privately subsidized by a company that provides security and maintenance, keeping certain visitors in and certain visitors out.
By privatizing, the Square serves the purpose we want it to: It's a traditional public square where there are weekly events and it gives the illusion of a “spontaneous social space.”
A spontaneous space, that is, without the things we don’t want: the homeless, unruly demonstrations, trash, etc. Union Square is a perfect example of taking hold of what was a truly authentic gathering space (it used to be used for protests and rallies, and before that, as a potter’s field) and turning it into a space that artificially or calculatingly maintains its origins.
If, on a Saturday afternoon, on a visit to the market, you walk to the southeast side of the square, you can find true authenticity: street dancers and acrobats performing for audiences, Hare Krishnas singing and playing instruments on blankets on the ground, men playing chess who invite passersby to participate and a bearded man wearing only underwear who often dances there.
Despite its privatized nature, Union Square organically draws a diverse mix of people: those who perform and use the square, and those who want to experience organic assembly and so come to watch the people who use the square.
Us 20-somethings like to live in and visit places like the Greenmarket or hole-in-the-wall restaurants that reside in corners of outerboroughs of the city.
We like converted loft spaces and places where we can bring our DSLRs to take pictures, where we can feel like we are living and where we can discover ourselves. We are constantly drawn to “hipster” destinations like Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, “unique” shops, festivals and trendy art galleries.
Many of us experience a strong case of wanderlust in some way or another, even if it’s just the yearning to explore the places immediately around us. Our worlds are so cluttered with commercialized experiences, that finding something untouched and organic seems nearly impossible.
However, I wonder how much that nagging wanderlust leads us to become consumers of authenticity rather than just participants in an authentic human experience. It would seem that more visitors to that hole-in-the-wall place would cheapen the experience of being there.
It’s not too long until a place goes from obscurity to the top of one of NY’s must-see lists for “adventurers.” Sure, the food wouldn't have changed and it will be just as good as it was before, but the feeling that it was something precious is gone. It’s no longer the independent grassroots joint it used to be.
If you watch Netflix’s "House of Cards" (if you don’t, you really should), you’ll notice a similar phenomenon. Freddy’s, the BBQ joint in the seemingly rough part of town frequented by the Senator Frank Underwood, is mentioned in an interview with a Washington paper.
Suddenly, Washingtonians from all over the Capitol start flooding the dilapidated building. It’s seen as a stronghold of authentic BBQ and quickly becomes a destination for so many people that the owner Freddy Hayes gets an offer to make the joint into a franchise.
To his dismay, the plans for the franchise restaurants artificially mimic his own: They call for peeling wood floors and grease stains, all to give the customers the “experience” of being in the original.
This is precisely what is difficult when we become consumers of real experiences rather than simply participants. What’s even harder is understanding how to enjoy the authentic experiences we crave without becoming desensitized to artificiality.
The answer might lie in our tendency to rely on places rather than people to define experiences. We are increasingly concerned with atmosphere, location and the customer “experience” that we forget that the most organic interactions we can have are with each other.
When we stop relying on the look and feel of what’s around us, we can have an experience that’s free of commercial structure. The best coffee shop might be the one that looks least like a “coffee shop."
It might not be the kind of Central Perk we want it to be, but that shouldn’t matter. Come for the company and the coffee, not the wardrobe of its customers or the hipster art prints hanging on the wall.
This is not to say that we can’t enjoy one place over another because we like the ambiance, the selection of music or the clientele. It is to say, though, that things shouldn’t become more real or authentic when they match this aesthetic of “authentic” that we have in our minds.
Instead, things truly become authentic when people inhabit them, make them their own, take them into their hearts and take pride in them.
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