If You Need to Say It…

Live Shop Play in OTR

At Vine and 12th in Over-the-Rhine is the urban equivalent of wearing the band t-shirt to the concert. It turns out that you can also live, shop and play in Atlanta.

It seems that the ability to live, work and play [but not shop, or perhaps shopping is a form of playing?] exists in Boston, NYC, LA, Jacksonville and, in Canada, in both Calgary and Wawa. In Orlando, you can work, shop and play, but maybe not live. Those industrious Wisconsinites cover all bases — in both Mayville and West Allis, you can shop, live, work and play. Have your cake and eat it, too!

What does the ubiquity of these slogans tell us about these respective communities? Everything and nothing. They describe the qualities inherent to an urban neighborhood. If these qualities are true and obvious, the banners are redundant, serving to explain to you the place which you are, at that moment, experiencing. That can be seen as a form of condescending tautology.

Practically speaking, these banners always seem to appear in places in which these qualities need to be pointed out, places with that potential, if not that reality. If the qualities are not true or obvious, then the challenge is to make them so. Instead, the effect of the banners is to construct a kind of simulacrum of an urban neighborhood, one with a didactic that helpfully guides your understanding of where you are and what you can do. The simulacrum is no less condescending than the tautology if it convinces people that they are having a true urban experience because the banner told them so when, in actuality, the multitude and complexity of urban experiences has been reduced to a short set of action words that can be applied to any urban, or aspiring to be urban, location.

To a critical observer, the banners themselves beg the questions: what’s wrong with these places? Why does this need to be said? Why do we need to be instructed?


13 thoughts on “If You Need to Say It…

  1. Agreed. Live, Work, Play is a developer’s mantra. I think that they say to go to bed at night. I am critical of New Urbanism for this very reason. It, and these banners, are overstating what is, or should be, inherent about cities. There shouldn’t be anything novel about this idea, but I remember seeing this on a good number of developments on the east coast years ago.

    It is kinda sad that whats new about New Urbanism is that people have no clue as to what city life is like. So, supergraphics and marketing schemes do need to instruct them. Its too bad that they can’t focus on whats actually unique about a place and what else sets it apart.

    My personal feeling is that if you need to be told then its probably not for you.

  2. visualingual:
    First, I’m not a big fan of huge, plastic temporary signage anywhere (especially on museums, where frequently hang) – it can be really tacky – but I don’t think all signage is bad, and I don’t blame developers for trying to promote their property as an all-encompassing environment; they’re obviously trying to attract the widest range of applicants to their property (which is one of the goals of New Urbanism, right – diverse neighborhoods?). The message may be a little stale, but it’s not a lie, and I don’t see it as ‘instruction’ – rather, it’s a suggestion as to what the neighborhood could/should be. And why do these banners even need to state this? What’s wrong with these neighborhoods? Well, obviously a lot has been wrong in OTR – nobody wants to live there (I don’t think we need to go through all of reasons why – traffic, crime, businesses moving out of the core, no yard, etc. – but if you’re familiar with Cincinnati’s recent history at all, there are a lot of problems that outsiders have to overcome to make that move. Thus, the reassurance that if you come to live at Gateway, there will be adequate dedication to luring business and entertainment (and the inferred safety) along side you. To most people, it’s all about limiting risk, and right now, in the core, there’s more risk (in a number of areas) than a lot of other places in the city . I think the banners themselves (aside from the slogan), in a minor way, may intimate to observers that ‘hey, something new is going on here’.

    Good points, though I’m not totally convinced that “people have no clue as to what city life is like”. In fact, I think a lot of people do have a good idea of what it’s like – especially since our city is so small. It’s just the developer reinforcing to his/her customers this ‘New Urbanist’ idea of an idyllic, balanced setting for that specific block. Development is on the rise.

    I’ve been kind of on the fence about the whole New Urbanist movement (even though its a pretty dated philosophy now), mainly because it seems to have morphed into creating seemingly elitist, ‘gated’ communities, and the fact that it sometimes negates it’s own goal (which is to contain sprawl). It tries to hit the mark of what is truly urbane – a Utopian socitey – which I think reflects the ever-reaching goal of humankind. Maybe not realistic, especially since we have a class system to deal with, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic.

    But overall, this constant struggle to create an extremely balanced environment for a city’s inhabitants is nothing new – historically, I think that’s where urban planning, then zoning, came into play. Additionally, as you know, when a piece of the pie is missing, citizens complain – if the the complaints are met, they stay and thrive, and if they aren’t satisfied, the people move and/or the neighborhood deteriorates. OTR was a typical example of a core in disrepair. The things that deteriorated/closed and caused the abandonment of the neighborhood, now must be marketed stating that things are becoming balanced again.

    I love the city, and I love its history – I wish it could become what it once was. These banners and generic slogans may not be the prettiest things in the world (agreed that they could reflect the uniqueness of the area more), but this is Cincinnati, not some mega-core in the NE – we have to work at getting people back.

  3. These slogans are used to promote communities all over North America, all of which are presumably distinct. I take issue with this reductive, lowest common denominator marketing that negates all differences. In aiming to appeal to everyone, the banners make no distinct statement about anywhere. They are used to promote both the “mega-core in the NE” and small towns in Wisconsin, and I’m sure that they’re always in some way true, but obviously there are huge differences that are not acknowledged. People are being instructed precisely because these qualities are not thought to be self-evident. The challenge is to make this true so that the environment itself implicitly makes its case. If you have to say it…

  4. I should qualify some of my statements. There is nothing wrong with not having a clue about urban life and I don’t mean to imply that I know everything about it either. I like a majority of people was raised on the periphery of a city by parents who chose to locate there because cities have long been perceived as environments of social ills, a sort of necessary evil. This view has been true of America from Jefferson to today.

    This probably made me more curious about cities and instilled the desire for me to leave the non-urban in favor of a bigger city. There is a natural fascination with the complexity of cities. Even smaller cities have a hard time retaining their youth who favor the numerous experiences and possibility that larger cities have to offer.

    As urban communities are on the come back it may be appropriate to educate people about what these places offer; live, work play.I’m not against it but its ubiquity as a message is a phenomenon worth considering. I agree with VL in that its seems silly that marketing has to spell it out so explicitly rather than making it true and that it also might reduce some of that complexity this is attractive in the first place.

  5. I don’t see the connection you are making between the banner and New Urbanism. Seems like I’ve seen similar banners on malls and retirement communitiies.

    Is the Gateway Quarter new urbanist?

  6. I’m not sure why New Urbanism has been brought into this. The only connections I see are really general and don’t seem unique to NU principles.

  7. It is general, and probably because I had been preoccupied with it. But, my understanding of the original post was that it isn’t about the Gateway Quarter, the photo happens to be there, but nowhere does VL mention OTR or Gateway. These two things, NU and Gateway, weren’t meant to be associated.

    The reference to NU is mainly that it is based on remarketing urbanism ans something new, which is exactly what I see this as. Though it probably could have been left out of the discussion.

  8. I don’t know – I’m not totally convinced that people who don’t live downtown don’t understand it or are afraid of it. I love the inner city, but not everyone has to. Although it may not lead to a very fulfilling or enriched life, a lot of people want to live in peace with people who share their same values. I don’t care how much people in the city try to beat suburbanites over the head with its offer of an exciting, diverse atmosphere – some people just don’t want to be hit up by panhandlers, possibly walk into the ‘wrong’ part of town, or face any kind of discontent. And let’s face it, that exists in the city, in any city.

    The unfortunate result of sprawl is that people can create their own visions of what a community should be fifty times over from here to Dayton, and as a result, commercial, corporate and industrial sectors follow. Downtown has been left to deteriorate for a long time, and when careless inhabitants settle in, it’s hard to get people who do care to want to come back – it doesn’t just take gazillions of dollars to rehab a huge area of infrastructure, but a change in mindset. Easy for us kids to do, but not for hardened adults who have witnessed the years of wear-and-tear. I think its safe to say that as an adult, you start thinking about a more reserved, secure life, your kids and giving them a good education and a safe place to play with a yard, and securing a framework for your family that doesn’t involve a whole lot of risk. Eventually, as we’ve seen in Cincinnati, the kids grow up and the adults come back – maybe in gated high-rises, but they come back.

    Again, (back to the article) I agree that the banner is generic, overused, and as a result, kind of unenthusiastic about the unique nature of whatever neighborhood it hangs in. I think that’s where the NU discussion came in – because the same banners hang all over newly developed inner city neighborhoods (i.e. ATL’s Atlantic Station) that try to create this idyllic NU model. I do see similarities with the Gateway Quarter. As an aside, who tagged it the Gateway Quarter anyway? I understand that it’s a symbolic entrance to OTR, and thus a ‘gateway’, but having a big-box, unadorned garage as an entrance doesn’t really reflect the romanticism of OTR’s history. Additionally, I always immediately associate the name with a ‘gated community’ – not a good connotation.

    Anyway, I think we’re all generally feeling the same way. This marketing has become ubiquitous, and probably because it’s worked for some other models (or maybe there’s a “Live, Shop, Play” store somewhere) – it almost backhands the history and environment that is Over-the-Rhine, and tries to appeal to everyone. It really seems to parallel what has become the commercialization of America (a business model for the world) in my opinion, which is really sad. Though, unfortunately, the banner needs to state this (in this general way) because of OTR’s recent scarred past, and possibly the dumbing-down of people in general. Remember, this is supposed to be a diverse neighborhood with mixed-incomes – they all can’t be drawn in by or care about the German heritage that laid it’s framework.

  9. Matt,
    I wholeheartedly agree with your points about urban life in general. We do basically agree. The great part about dialog is the nuance.

    What interest my is this shifting of the concept of what is “urban”. As it is becomes more fashionable marketing efforts are making an attempt to change the solidified mindset that has evolved over history. My understanding is rooted in the old school thought and I see that being challenged as “suburbanites” are being courted in to these urban enclaves. I think there are a number of reasons why this is unhealthy, but also admit that is a access point for those that might be unlikely to have an open mind. This is an important step and my position isn’t to eliminate it, but refine it.

    There is a concept emerging called “neighborhoods of choice” which is a response to the various methodologies of neighborhood regeneration. This “new” model seeks to “embrace a new neighborhood paradigm that seeks to attract residents of all strata while linking them also to good-quality education, training, and other routes to economic opportunity.” I think this is what some of this targeted marketing is failing to accomplish. Many view any change in OTR as positive, but there should be an understanding of nuance involved in various strategies.

  10. I don’t understand why we’re looking for nuance when it comes to the marketing of real estate. Why wouldn’t real estate be marketed just like any other commodity, from natural gas to Tickle-Me-Elmo to a loaf of bread? It’s not art, or philosophy, or urban theory. It’s commerce.

    I will add that I don’t find such banners condescending, only because I’ve become numb to such generic messages. Do these banners really accomplish anything? I ask because so many Americans have become use to segregated land uses where you live over here, work down there, and play over at that other place.

  11. Matt, check out this post for a discussion of the Gateway Quarter; Michael Redmond did a fine job of explaining the scope of that project and the rationale behind the umbrella. I don’t think that’s necessarily how it’s received, though.

    I don’t mean to pick on you, but your comment betrays some of that suburban bias and assumptions. Were I to elect to breed, I would want my children to have a lot of the same experiences that I did growing up. I would try to pass my values onto them, just as it sounds like you would with yours. I think that’s a small part of a larger phenomenon of lifestyle expectations and assumptions whereby, as you mentioned, people may elect to move to a gated high-rise in the city because it offers some of the perceived safety and amenities to which they had grown accustomed in the suburbs.

    Really, it’s all part of a dynamic system, and I notice it because it doesn’t fit with my personal understanding of what a city is. It doesn’t mean that anyone’s wrong or right; it seems natural for people to bring a bit of their lives when they move to a new place. The messaging that was the impetus for this post, I think, serves to instruct those people on what to expect when they arrive.

    What I find interesting and troubling about these banners is that, in promoting these different communities [and I know that, say, downtown LA and Wawa are very different, and that some of those differences are deal-breakers for some people], the message is always the same. Where’s the unique value proposition? If I actually listen to these messages, then there’s no reason for me choose one community over another. Of course, there are huge differences, so why aren’t they addressed? What’s up with this generification? Is that how we’re fixing these places, by making them the same? Is that an effective way to court the clientele?

    Kevin, I’ve picked out this example precisely because it’s ubiquitous and I tend to take its existence for granted. It’s a minute but ever-present part of my life, and I learn a lot from forcing myself to stop and question these sorts of things every once in a while. Your being numb to the messages is your coping mechanism; mine is to examine their implications.

  12. Commerce is the primary force shaping cities and therefore marketing of real estate is inherently part of urban theory, especially with regards to placemaking. It is marketed like any other commodity, but it isn’t any other commodity. Is it?

    The nuance here is that it is predicated on people not being numb. If advertising was presumed ineffective it wouldn’t be pursued at this scale. My guess is that someone went through a lot of trouble to get this accomplished, not to mention money.

  13. Pingback: Elsewhere « Visualingual

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