Sunday, September 18, 2011

The one true urban neighborhood and other empty signifiers used by developers

The ultimate challenge for a marketer is ... to persuade people to buy something they didn’t know they wanted ....

If you ask a developer, marketer or advertising executive about the desires of younger condo buyers, the conversation almost immediately drifts into a fog of verbal abstractions. You’ll hear that these buyers want to be “edgy” and they want “attitude.” But more than any other word, you’ll hear “lifestyle.” This word will be used in sentences as if it had a specific, well-understood meaning.

When the new offices of Nashville native restaurateur Chris Hyndman are completed in a few weeks, the window of his corner office will overlook the Gulch’s McGavock Street, an entire block built under Hyndman’s exacting creative force.

"The Gulch has taken on its own life. It’s almost a lifestyle as much as it is a location," said Hyndman .... "We take under-utilized real estate in great locations and let the restaurants and concepts drive the value, and we’ve created our own little universe over here ....

It’s becoming the true urban neighborhood that Nashville’s really been lacking he said, .... What’s different now is people are choosing to live here, and there’s more of a hipness to living here."

It's almost like developers (and, in the case of the Tennessean's Bobby Allyn, the business reporter covering them) either refuse to learn the lessons of the collapse of the housing market bubble or refuse to acknowledge that there are lessons in the first place. Instead, they just hunkered down and waited for new chances to trot out the lifestyle language once again to convince people that they need to live in the Gulch whether they know it or not.

I've got nothing against the Gulch, but trying persuade people that there are no "true" urban neighborhoods here besides it is sheer hyperbole designed to evoke emotions that prompt decisions to live there. Nashville has a number of urban neighborhoods and even some suburban areas that are "urbanizing", so to call the Gulch "the true" urban neighborhood is meaningless.

And Mr. Hyndman's appeal to the area's hipness is disingenuous. The hipness of various digs has been marketed for years. "The fog of verbal abstractions" marketing hip is nothing new. In fact, "hip" is hackneyed. Hip has been marketed in Salemtown. It has been marketed everywhere. In 2007, hip was said to have hit a wall. There is nothing new or unpredictable about this pitch; nothing new or unpredictable about developers who retread the raggedy old formulas.

Unlike the reporter at the Times, Bobby Allyn did not ever bother to write objectively (and thus critically) about the abstractions applied to the Gulch. The Tennessean has turned writing promotional pieces for influential people into an art form.

There are some far-sighted qualities about communities that make for long-term, generational progress. Attracting buyers and renters with empty symbolism to the "saturation point" is not one of them. Even the code "multi-family" applied to rental spaces is unreal and deceptive, a floating signifier. Much of what passes for multi-family is not built for families, and growing sections of it are designed for lifestyle hipsters on the make and on their way somewhere else to raise a family.


  1. What's funny, is if one of these developers saw some hippies in the vicinity of his or her building, he'd be calling the cops to run them off.

  2. Jody Faison is the person who first brought "hip" to the Gulch with 12th & Porter, then Pub O' Love and Cafe 123.

    Faison's take on things is something that others in the Gulch should aspire to.

    (Faison for Mayor!)

  3. The demise of the Tennessean is not unchronicled, but lately they seem to be using their "business" section as a PR organ for local developers/realtors to peddle how "great" it is to live in-town Nashville. I wouldn't doubt there is a quid-pro-quo wherein the realtors/developers agree to buy ads in the paper and online if only the paper glosses them with the absolution that only comes from a puff piece written and placed by one of the local PR firms.