In Defense of Fake Authenticity

This essay is a response of sorts to a post on Scott Greider’s blog in which he criticizes a local Uno’s Pizzaria for looking like an old urban building but actually being a new suburban building. I agreed with Scott’s concerns, but offered a different perspective. The Uno’s in question has since closed.

My friend Scott is frustrated with a pizza place.

He enjoyed the food, he liked the prices, and he thought the service was acceptable.

But he still feels like he’s been lied to — by the building itself.

“What made this place so cool — primarily its atmosphere — was … well … inauthentic!” Scott said on his blog after his visit to Uno’s Chicago Grill in Fort Wayne.

“You see, this was a brand new building out in the sprawling suburbs on a lot surrounded by parking spaces that was intentionally trying to look and feel a hundred years old.”

He’s right, especially when he compares the Fort Wayne restaurant to the original Uno’s in Chicago.

My family and I ate at the original Uno’s last year, and while we ate deep-dish authentic Chicago pizza elbow-to-elbow around a table a bit too big for the tiny dining room, even the youngest of us knew we weren’t just taking in a pizza. We were taking in history.

Scott also could have mentioned any number of other instantly rustic restaurants, the most famous being Cracker Barrel.

But restaurants are far from alone in this marketing of fake authenticity. Janelle L. Wilson, in her book “Nostalgia: Sanctuary of Meaning,” describes how the past is making a comeback in American consumerism:

“Consider how appeals to nostalgia are made within popular culture as a marketing strategy, inviting consumer participation. Restaurants as well as sports bars display old artifacts and memorabilia on the walls; movies are remade; television programs that feature reunions of casts from old shows are produced; and advertising campaigns conjure up images from the past to authenticate the item and attract consumers’ attention.”

But I contend there is something real behind this fake authenticity, something that I’d say is good and decent. And those who want to preserve and recapture our city’s downtown as a place of destination and a true city center should look to this fake authenticity as a source of hope.

It may seem that this fake authenticity is ridiculous, since we’re making cold steel buildings look like old brick.

But it’s nothing compared to the decades we spent making old brick buildings look like cold steel.

The Abandonment and Desecration of Downtown

We can blame the post-World War II economic boom and the post-World War II baby boom. We can blame the automobile, the Interstate Highway System, suburbia and single-use zoning. And more than anything, we can blame the modernist mindset that trampled the glories of the past on its march to a plasticized future.

But for these reasons and many more, from about World War II through the 1970s, from government to retail to churches to Urban Renewal, the unquestioned assumption was that old buildings and old farmland should be replaced with new buildings and new aesthetics. These aesthetics reflected our country’s love affair not just with the car, but with the parking lot.

With more and more people becoming more and more mobile and spread out, there seemed to be less and less reason to go to a centralized downtown. This was especially true with shopping centers popping up closer to our homes, even though they were built in a way that compelled you to arrive by car, not by foot.

And then lot of architecture, like poetry and orchestral music, grabbed modernism’s strength but let go of warmth and humanness. In fact, not being understood by the masses became a badge of honor in the arts.

Worse, our downtowns often tried to compete by imitation. The modern trappings of the bland suburban shopping center, with aluminum siding and huge signs covering the richly detailed facades, became the last desperate measure of an emptying downtown trying to entice shoppers to come back.

Because of its former splendor and importance, most people today are down on downtown.

But now, for the first time in a long time, businesses are lauded and even rewarded when they locate within existing downtown structures.

Woodson Motor Sports moved to an older building in downtown Fort Wayne. But the business received some grief because, instead of working with the existing facade, the business covered the building with brightly colored steel siding.

Similarly, the Allen County Republican Party fixed up its downtown headquarters, but found themselves under attack for modernizing the look of the building and adding large shopping-center-style signs.

My friend Scott is absolutely right in saying that an Uno’s within any number of existing downtown brick and mortar buildings would be beautiful and authentic. But is fake authenticity really bad for society?

A Small Defense of Fakeness

Why would anyone defend something that’s intentionally fake? Such an argument certainly goes against modern culture.

Everything from original thought to outrageous behavior is defended with the argument that at least it’s not fake. It’s just honest. It’s the real world. You’re just being true to yourself.

Then our society turns and critiques earlier, more genteel cultures, and says that the manners and mores are just more fakeness that we’re glad to be done with. Much of our literature and movies that look back to bygone days such as the 1950s like to imagine that beneath the sheen and air of perfection lies dissatisfaction and hypocrisy, with the honest, true people longing to break the bonds of polite, but fake, society.

This disdain for anything fake explains the starkness of certain kinds of modern buildings. For example, when you enter Fort Wayne’s Arts United Center, why do you see concrete blocks? The answer is simple: Because the building is made out of concrete blocks. Hiding them with creative embellishments would be considered a form of architectural dishonesty.

As I write this, I’m sitting in the Fort Wayne community center. It’s a modern building that serves its purpose with efficiency. But what is its aesthetic? Exposed concrete blocks. Nothing inauthentic here! The building was built with concrete blocks, and by Jove, you’re going to see nothing but concrete blocks.

But what explains our parallel longing for the past? We are a people surrounded with more riches than kings could have imaged a century ago, but yet we still look with nostalgia to the time of our childhood, or even to the time of someone else’s childhood.

But why would a modern people with all kinds of disposable income spend their money for things that remind them of a time when such income didn’t exist? Svetlana Boym, in “The Future of Nostalia,” says:

“Nostalgia is rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires … to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.”

Can the existence of this strong sentiment of nostalgia give us hope for the future of our city? Kimberly Smith, in her “Mere Nostalgia: Notes on a Progressive Paratheory,” would have to answer yes:

“(W)e should recognize that remembering positive aspects of the past does not necessarily indicate a desire to return there. Remembering the past should instead be seen as a way to express valid desires and concerns about the present — in particular, about its relationship (or lack of relationship) to the past.”

So, our longing for things of old doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all just living in the past, or would want to be. It means that we have concerns about the present that we think may find their solutions in the past.

What are these concerns? There are dozens of likely suspects, but I say one big common reason for nostalgia is a sense of the loss of community.

Why do cities exist? It’s because people have historically needed other people, and cities were a great thing to build to help lots of different kinds of people live close together. When your income was not enormous, you needed other people to bring goods and services closer to you. And when you wanted a conversation, or a concert, you were stuck with whoever lived near you. That’s why cities as relatively small as Fort Wayne has an orchestra. How else were you going to hear an orchestra? Take the bus to Indianapolis?

But now, even the poorest of us is relatively rich. Our “communities” have lengthened and narrowed. We shop at the shopping center that fits our economic profile. We travel by car to a church across town. We find hundreds of people just like us on the Internet. We encase ourselves in music and movies from across the globe and across the decades. So the relationship with our true next-door neighbor suffers.

Still, this longing is a very good sign. There was a time, not that many decades ago, when our society thought the concerns of the present could find their answers only in the bright and distant future. The past, because it was the past, was disqualified. Now it’s back in the running.

Why Honoring the Past Is Good

It all comes down to the Christian virtue of loving your neighbor.

It’s cheating to live anywhere with the intent to find neighbors exactly like you, either in a subdivision of people with similar incomes or an online community of people with similar interests.

Instead, we are to love the neighbor that we happen to have at any given minute. And the principle has wide consequences. I shouldn’t be making my neighbor feel uncomfortable as he walks down my sidewalk, whether because I neglected my yard or because I built a parking lot to the street with no space for pedestrians.

But we need to extend the definition of neighbor even further, because my neighbors are not limited to just the present. How can I live in a house and in a city, and not, in some way, keep running into the people who built this house and lived in this city before me?

Honoring history is not some empty ideal. It’s honoring real people who just happen to currently be dead. We shouldn’t hold that against them. In the case of our community, dead people do have the right to vote.

Instead of ignoring the past, we should be like my friend Scott, and encourage us 21st century dwellers to inhabit the beautiful spaces left for us by our civic ancestors. Putting a place like an Uno’s into a funky Victorian space downtown would be a crazy cool idea. And all of this nostalgia shows that there might be a good number of people who would want to patronize such a place.

Being Better Than Fake

But eventually, someone will want to build a new building. What do we say to him? What if he wants to escape the sterility seen in some of our modern forms? What if he wants to capture the magic of the past community? Can we solve the modern problems that nostalgia points to with a modern-looking building that isn’t fake?

Remember: Those old, Victorian-era forms of architecture were new at one time. What inspired the designers of buildings a hundred years ago? Can we be similarly inspired today? Can we use modern forms and structures and stop ignoring the lessons from the past?

I think so, but we first must get over our idolatrous ideas about originality.

Some originality is essential to any new building, of course. But too much originality without enough relevance – familiar forms, recognizable doors, human-scaled windows – and the visitor to the building feels unwelcome. The visitor becomes nostalgic for the good ol’ days when a sense of community was built into our city’s fabric, brick by brick.

So, let’s outdo fake authenticity. Let’s make real authenticity, whether in old buildings lovingly refurbished or new buildings painstakingly constructed to be completely modern without forgetting to love the person who happens to walk in. People, even modern people, want community and comfort and warmth and familiarity. People would rather walk by human-scaled buildings with windows than blank walls.

Whatever we create in our city, we should remember to love our neighbors. Keep doing that, and see how much real authenticity grows.

One Comment

  1. Interesting post. Downtowns that have evolved over time are the real deal, even if the historic buildings have been abused. Most can be preserved and restored (if they have not been demolished first).

    Reply

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