sound, sight & sentiment in yellow springs, ohio

Pop-up City Ethnography

A pop-up city is a new sort of built environment, the sort of built environment that can be created in an empty space that allows one to plan from scratch. This is the suburb’s city.

All things left unconsidered, it is a beautiful place.

The buildings are faced with handsome brick in modern shades with charcoal undertones. The advertising and storefront signage is minimalist. The development is built around the center square, a polygon of concrete alternated with thick sod, laced with buried fountain pipes. Facing the square, from nearly every direction, are patios of restaurants I can rarely afford. But many can, apparently.

They come for good food, good service, and good views. They come to wear the latest fashions–the season’s latest that they bought last week (perhaps from the store around the corner) when the fiscally conservative spouse wasn’t watching. Then again, perhaps many on the patios have no need for fiscal conservatism when it comes to attaining the good life.

But I don’t mean to be sarcastic or sardonic. The fact is that even those who would speak the highest disdain of a pop-up city will come to patronize it from time to time. And, despite their intellectual distrust, they will enjoy it. I certainly enjoy it. My kids love to come—my son coined it “the new city” when it was built a few years back.

Certainly it is a consumerist space, a place conceived for shopping. But there is no use pretending, as far as I can tell, that each of us is not just as affected by the consumerist ethic as another. It matters very little if you find yourself sporting apple green patent leather sandles with the trend setters, or grunge skeleton and scroll printed hoodies with the twenty-somethings, or the classic jeans and crisp tank with the eternal thirty-somethings. It matters little, I am prepared to argue, if you spend your money at the Greene or at Target. The fact is that we are consumers. We all glean our identity from goods (some of us more or less, and in different ways). We are all part of the trend that finds this American consumer-system rising and the hyper-local civic system weakening. (And with that statement, I intend to invoke ideas like those explored in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.)

So I came to this particular pop-up city (the Greene in Beavercreek, Ohio) on this particular day not at all to point toward “those consumerists” nor to call the Greene’s foul for being what it is, but to sit and ponder why I, and all of these happy people around me, like to be in this place.

Admittedly, my exploration of the pop-up city has little to do with the active shopper—like the lone woman with a bag who is feeling good about the click of her new kitten heels on the concrete—but from a point of view that is concerned with the grandmas and grandpas and moms and dads sprawled out in the center square.

Very few are actively shopping. Many are dressed in their Sunday-best. Everyone, and I mean each and every single person I observed over a three-hour period, is engaged in an act of leisure. And not once did I see a single child in trouble; not once did I see a single child scolded or disciplined. Given what I have observed elsewhere, and given how hard I know it can be moving through the world with kids, this is remarkable.

This particular Saturday, a warm and slightly breezy midsummer day, finds staff on duty to serve white towels (free of charge) to dripping children playing in the chlorinated fountains. There is a juggler in Americana costume lending an air of reserved carnival, his favorite thing being, it seems, to juggle dangerously close to the faces of daring and brave children he has been hired to entertain. Apparently, no parents or grandparents mind his repeated feats of proximity. If they do mind, the worry is not enough to call them off the benches and the concrete steps down to the square. Eventually he manages to get the vast majority of the youth (ranging in age from early toddler to tween and numbering near thirty) to march around the square behind his lead, juggling pins all the while.

A band is setting up under a large white festival tent, and the snow cone vendors bring around free orange-colored samples to nearly each and every congregant. Another entertainer, on seriously tall stilts, is twisting dog figures out of squeeking balloons. Eventually, I realize I am doodling a pleasant cell-shaped congregation of oddly shaped and interlocking circles and figure it is time to pack up.

I left the Greene with a sense that this is a public arena, a new sort of main street, where people can do whatever it is that we do when around others in a town square. I left frustrated that public congregation must happen in a for-profit sphere, and I drove the 25 minutes home wondering what trends, both national and hyper-local, created the space and the need for this sort of development. 40,000 years of human civilized society on record, in highly organized cities, and now the ability “to be in public,” for many Americans, is confined to artificial town centers of this sort or another.

But days later, in a class taught by long-time Antioch College philosophy professor Scott Warren, I realized the darker trend at play in a pop-up city. It is not only that we ought to be a little ashamed that our local community governments have failed to ensure public arenas for their communities, leaving innovation to the for-profit sphere. There is a real problem, a liability inherent in this trend that threatens the tap root of “democracy.”

We watched Naomi Klein’s No Logo documentary. While everything she says about the depths and ramifications of advertising and tribe-branding and consumerism is psychologically accurate, I was thinking about the pop-up city. Perhaps the greatest argument for the wantonness of the pop-up city is that it seems like a public space, but it simply isn’t.

Should someone want to picket or protest or distribute pamphlets here, they could be immediately turned away, or worse. The rights of public space do not apply. These streets are not really even streets.

The great American social movements, including but certainly not limited to the suffrage movement, the abolition movement, the civil rights movement—these movements that have shaped America have, in each case, required concentrated human forces that first gathered en masse in the streets and public spaces. The importance of public spaces for demonstration can not be underestimated. Without the right to demonstrate we become like so many nations, worldwide, who lack the ability to create change in the face of dominate, oppressive forces.

Now, clearly, the existence of the Greene is not now going to eliminate the ability of the Dayton region to gather should citizens embrace the zeitgeist for a new social movement. But the trend towards pop-up cities is disturbing. Because of the pop-up city’s success, other places suffer as the local money flows in a different direction. Because of the pop-up city’s success, more communities will allow or invite them. And because we are creatures of habit, we run a certain risk of becoming accustomed to these privatized spaces that feel so very public.

4 Responses to “Pop-up City Ethnography”

  1. jim malarkey says:

    Brooke,

    I liked your post from the Green, alot. Nice vivid descriptions and good nose for the meanings beneath the surface. The names of stores would also call up interesting vibes.

    A few associations and reflections came to mind while reading.

    The political security of the site would invite a Michael Moore intervention to test the boundaries and film the outcome–e.g., I can imagine a rush of well pressed uniformed guard(ian)s to rescue the fantasy town.

    Note the great irony that this entire townscape called The Green overlays the ruins of the original Green, a forested area that was destroyed to make the town “real.” Your use of “pop up town” was right on, but might have been exploited further–e.g., by referring to the speed of construction, the notion of instant everything, coffee, tv dinners, microelectro, fast food–this Greenback (if I can remame the pop up) is a town of our era, one more symptom of speed replacing culture, artifice replacing art, the airbrushed image replacing the variegated landscape of the human face.

    Baudrillard’s use of “simalacrum” comes to mind too–and its role in American culture. This town is a facsimile of a town, a representation, a set. Its not a real town. It’s like a movie set erected where we become the actors. How easily the people you observed have found the their scripts and instinctively know what kinds of words, gestures, and costumes are not in the script–protest for instance. No poor people. No hippies. No desperate poor. No homeless Vietnam vets.

    Michael Moore might bus black kids in from West Dayton for “a day of the American Dream.”
    Imagine that, especially when, as some argue, this assemblage of shops and apartments and parks was exactly what downtown Dayton needs, but can’t get, in order to survive–to become a more viable, enjoyable, vibrant real city. But no…the call of the mall in a safe space had too much revenue popping up in the minds of the entrepreneurs.

    It would be interesting to interview people including this possibility of bussing urban kids, to see how they respond/squirm.

    Predecessors to Greenback would certainly include the fabled Disneyland itself–only here the seats don’t move. No scares, please. You eat, you buy, you drink. You get fat and fleeced, thankfully oblivious to the travails and threats of the unwashed and underprivileged.

  2. admin says:

    jim- “thankfully oblivious to the travails and threats of the unwashed and underprivileged”

    that is perfectly stated. destination places seem to lack any who could be considered disadvantaged- another proof of the artifice of it all.

    but that is another post ;)

    thanks for your comments…

  3. jafabrit says:

    I can’t help but feel a bit sad when I see the Greene. We lived in the stonebridge apartments next to it over 25 years ago when the greene was thick with locusts, rabbits, and the odd stag and bushes and trees. I can see the attraction for it, but it is for want of a social center in a town or city(something I missed when I first came to America). That is where you’ve hit the nail on the head, a controlled environment that is mercenary in nature and a product of a failure by local governments. We are free to spend our money there, but that’s it.

  4. admin says:

    @jafabrit

    funny you lived in the stonebridge when it really was a “green.”

    another clever use of language to hide the reality of things, i guess.

    i spent vast amounts of my childhood at my grandparent’s house in the neighborhood on the other side of the highway—much of it before there was a highway. long before me, my dad used to ride a dirt bike through the woods which were a stomping ground for area youth. when my grandparents built, they were in the country. i guess that was the beginning.

    i wonder how to shift the conversation around these kinds of developments. is it really a success for the city of beavercreek when they build a new development that has a deleterious effect on the last development (the mall)?

    i was thinking it has a diderot effect on the landscape (the shopping center accross from the greene has been remodeled all mod to match), and just shifts where people spend their money by a mile down the road (many of the stores left the mall, which is now looking a little empty).

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