Exposed Bricks

A Review of "The City Authentic: How the Attention Economy Builds Urban America"

W hen we need updates about crucial utility maintenance, as David A. Banks does in The City Authentic: How the Attention Economy Builds Urban America (University of California Press, 2023), the city’s website is often busy “bragging about being a set piece of a period drama.” When we need conversations about housing and policing, our cities would rather be a “weekend dad” that greenlights “infrastructure and attendant institutions of creative-class leisure,” all in an effort “to establish hip, auburn archipelagos within a rural county.” We’re on the phone about a power line, and our cities are posting pics on social media, where each municipality “is clamoring to be the one at eye level with the most enticing packaging.” When we discover that we need real services, we find our cities busy advertising themselves online, telling out-of-towners that they offer all the special experiences a contemporary citizen could desire. 

Cringey city behavior is Banks’ beat, and there’s no shortage of data. He surveys everything from shirts to hashtags to policies in his quest to demonstrate how cities are “encouraged by governments and businesses to act like reality TV stars and social media influencers.” Being a city is hard; it’s far easier and more lucrative to adopt the lifestyle of major companies, which no longer view themselves as “producers of things” so much as “stewards of valuable symbols,” “paying close attention to their reputation and cultivating a brand of their own.”

Banks’ newly coined phrase for the ways in which cities participate in these online thirst games is the City Authentic. The term situates our current moment alongside the City Beautiful and City Efficient movements of the preceding centuries. Whereas City Beautiful policies saw elites pivot their capital to eastern metropolises as the frontier officially closed, and the City Efficient movement sought to professionally manage every urban inch so as to reduce costs, the City Authentic movement has sought to celebritize historical buildings and industries while acting as a quite powerful industry in itself, one that arrogates the aesthetics and value of every building (if you doubt the ability of capital to manage every urban inch or commandeer the aesthetics of an entire landscape, consider Cop City, the City Authentic’s mutant relative). Cities, particularly smaller ones, have begun to “mine the delicate patina of history for profit,” to use Banks’ phrase, all in an effort to assure potential newcomers that the city’s authentic locations, objects, and events “can resist the constant churn of modern society and thus act like a cultural lifeboat in modern waters.”

It goes something like this: cities are finding urban first-wave Millennials online, then whispering via ads, images, and hashtags: you’re in this big glamorous city, yet we see you here online so damn often; things don’t seem to be going well; you’d like a change, but moving somewhere new is such a high-stakes riddle. Austin has been kept weird since 2000, Portland since ‘03, Louisville since ‘05, on and on. It’s just so hard to say for sure anymore whether true weirdness means being the first to do something or being the newest, weirdest iteration of it. So how about this: we’ll let you be amongst the most recent to get weird, and the first to do so in a quaint small-city way. We’ll give you a chance to start over, to lead a movement, to fill your feeds with objects, places, and stories that you can get only here, in our little town, where you basically get to invent your own Keep Austin Weird slogan and vibe, with tasteful input from our independent business alliance. We get to fill our tax base with the home you just bought for six times its last sale price, then everyone gets an Instagram post to make their cooler second-wave Millennial friends and friend-cities feel less authentic. Deal?

In exploring the complex reasons behind why people decide to ultimately move from hectic online Brooklyn to “authentic” upstate New York, Banks gestures at a range of factors: a housing crisis spurred by the unaffordability of urban centers, the psychological effects of lockdowns in the early part of the pandemic. Banks’ own Troy, New York serves as his case study in how “smaller cities position themselves as boutique thrift-store finds to the more name brands of big cities.” And if there’s an obvious signature achievement of the book beyond the naming and situating of the City Authentic, it’s Banks’ ability to jot out a full chalkboard of math on whether “exposed bricks walls and small-city pride [are] enough to convince a Brooklynite to move to Saratoga Springs.” The answer, when it comes to population, is clearly no. However, if the success of City Authentic policies is measured, not in terms of population rise, but as a rise in real estate values and rents, then the “answer is a resounding yes.”

So, all that website bragging? All that weekend dadding? All that authenticity peddling? None of it expanded Troy’s tax base. It merely drove up prices, offering up yet another instance in which “finance, insurance, and real estate (or FIRE) industries prevail over all the others as the primary political force in cities.” The FIRE economy, which had been theorized as a way to perpetuate municipal revenue streams in a post-industrial landscape, merely perpetuated streams of money to itself within Troy. Think of moats here rather than streams. Jane Kelsey uses a different set of metaphors in 2015’s The Fire Economy: New Zealand’s Reckoning, arguing that, with regard to FIRE, “Neoliberal ideology, rules and institutions acted first as the midwife and then as the guardian of this new economic order.” Banks’ text functions as something of an update to this line of critique, noting that the sentries of the FIRE economy have added various social media platforms to their quiver of strategies, refreshed by current marketing trends. 

Banks seems aware that this particular conclusion will not surprise readers i.e. capital was the baddie all along! He respects their intelligence, perhaps too much so; he seems certain that readers already know about deindustrialization and gentrification, and so neither term appears in the index, though their impact is felt on virtually every page. Social media receives more explicit textual attention and examples, and yet the treatment of it is monolithic at times. This approach paints digital platforms as an undifferentiated mass, side-stepping questions of which specific major corporations are driving this phenomenon. I wondered, without evidence from myself or Banks, whether Instagram was a larger driver of the City Authentic than TikTok simply because Instagram users are (probably?) older and thus (probably?) equipped with more disposable income to throw at what they see online. 

What I essentially kept trying to construct was something like a City Authentic flow chart. Where do these ideas start? Which citizens then “peddle” these ideas for profit and where, or is it more cities paying certain citizens to peddle them, and if so, what’s the going rate? I waited in vain for a section differentiating the effects on different platforms––do social media platforms with a higher average age and therefore higher income drive this phenomenon more? I waited for a section on Zoom and/or Zillow (or Zoom towns) that never came. When my former students returned to campus for a reading, their disinterest in city life post-college made me wonder whether the City Authentic era had in fact already passed (more likely: it has simply taken on a new host to peddle its profitable residential preferences, i.e. “Gen Zers tend to favor states with lower population density, from the mountainous terrains of Montana and Idaho to the plains of Kansas and Nebraska.”) In the marginalia, I wrote: would die for Banks to get muni budgets on soc. med. costs and really tease this shit out.

That is admittedly a lot to ask of a delightfully brisk book that takes as its subject massive discourse areas like “cities,” “authenticity,” and “social media.” The simplest way I can frame my own reaction to City Authentic is that it isn’t a book that necessarily reveals brand new phenomenons or problems, nor does it show every step of how FIRE entities take over cities. This is a book that offers readers new, necessary language to apply toward the incredibly complex urban phenomenons and problems they’re quite familiar with, and it’s worth spending time unpacking just how deeply this text has lodged in my brain like a pop song.


While the phrase “City Authentic” gestures toward the academic and historical, this book’s main winning quality––and Banks’ true gift as a writer––is to operate quite persuasively in a wondrous array of non-academic modes. I am not simply arguing that Banks writes with style. Rather, this is a writer who can clearly outline how “the history of capitalist urban development is a story of competition for attention and money,” a competition that targets an “increasingly cynical and savvy audience whose attention is divided all the time.” As a result, Banks writes with genuine reverence for the reader, fully aware of the preciousness of their attention and the predatory forces hunting it. I don’t mean to argue something as cheesy as “this book can beat social media at its own game,” nor do I at all mean something as repulsive as “this book mimics social media’s shapeshifting qualities to seize readerly attention.” Simply put, this book’s argument about the need for new creative framing and approaches to emergent complex urban problems is best embodied by the relentlessly creative approach to its own line-by-line composition, which ditches the cap-and-gown stiffness of a typical academic text in favor of more entertaining writerly moves. It is a book written by a real and quite likable human, one who is so versed in and concerned about these hard-to-pin-down cultural and economic problems that they are willing to throw every possible writerly approach at them. At several points, Banks even fully pivots out of essay mode, writing fictional vignettes that help the reader truly feel and envision the potential futures––good and bad––of cities. His love of fiction is quite apparent in his relevant, humorous analysis of any number of cultural touchstones, from David Byrne’s cult film True Stories and the more widely known Beetlejuice, the latter of which prompts the funniest line in the book, one I refuse to spoil via context: “We are in the Deetzes’ home.”

Banks is mindful to pair these fun fictional experiments and examples with the voices of real actual stakeholders in and around Troy. He interviews everyone from small business owners who have leveraged social media to veterans of the economic development game. It feels notable that there are, by my count, more women interviewed than men. Many participants are quoted at length, a move that is both honorific on Banks’ part and also sly, giving certain folks just enough space to segue from their talking points to their grubbier motivations. The best quotes come from those who have launched staunch opposition to various development cycles, like Pat Harris, co-founder of Collective Effort, a Troy-based, black-owned and operated media co-op. Banks is wise to end Part One, not with his own words about the need to support pre-existing communities, but with Harris: “You don’t just create jobs by begging people to come here, you know? Oh, we’re a million strong. Yes, we’re a million strong. Now imagine if you made those million even stronger.” 

What role does public art play? What about memes, or unions? Which community foundations and municipal governments have developed better financing models to defend cities from unsustainable and undemocratic growth? What exactly do we mean by authenticity? These questions are posed, explored, and connected to the next topic in quick succession. While Banks’s brief book may lack some of the quantitative data necessary for me to fully envision his who-peddles-to-who framework, he shines in demonstrating its application, deftly bouncing between its manifestations and mutations in a way that mimics the immediacy present in the City Authentic and its digitized relationship to public space. 

The best recommendation I can make for The City Authentic is that I keep summoning its lines and concepts in these moments of confrontation. Watching clips of striking WGA writers, I thought: studios are attempting to create Story Authentic policies, feeding written work into AI programs in order to, as Banks says, “mine the delicate patina of history for profit.”Reading Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s novel Chain-Gang All-Stars, in which prisoners compete for their freedom in fights broadcast as part of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, I thought of Bank’s section on capitalism’s need for “spectacle,” of how it will make a competition out of anything, be it Amazon HQ2 or, in Adjei-Brenyah’s novel, parole. 

The anecdote which best encapsulates Banks’ skills and interests––the importance of language, the stealthiness of capital, the fluidity and stupidity and vitality of place––concerns a Troy establishment that had been known as Bradley’s Tavern. The titular Bradley was Gary Bradley, who bought the establishment in 1990 and named it after himself. Upon selling it to Clark House Hospitality, “the place underwent a subtle transformation from a dive bar to a ‘dive-bar-themed bar,’ a perfect embodiment of Banks’ framework for how the City Authentic makes objects “predictably unique,” rehabbing historical entities to strike “the right balance between bespoke authenticity and market compatibility.” Crucially, the name of the bar changed, too. Bradley’s Tavern became The Bradley. This name no longer connoted ownership by an actual citizen. Instead, it now pointed patrons to the past, distracting them from the circumstances of current ownership.

This shift from apostrophe to article invites an important grammatical discussion: to mess with tenses and possessives is, after all, to mess with history and deeds. The article “the” is, by its nature, an act of defining something. It’s an act of limiting the ensuing noun, of packaging it up so the meaning is unalterable. In this way, the shift from Bradley’s Tavern to The Bradley can be read as a grammatical pivot from present-tense possession to a repackaging of the past. Whose past, exactly? It feels safe to assume that the past here invokes an iteration of Troy, NY where economic inequality was less severe, thus allowing the average Millennial progressive to enjoy a wistful drink inside. This iteration of the past was almost surely more culturally white, and thus the bar can also make conservative and MAGA-curious clientele feel cozy on a stool. If the patron is politically illiterate, well hey, who doesn’t love nostalgia? 

One little article, and suddenly three formidable groups––young, white and left; middle-aged, white, conservative; apolitical human wallets––can feel they are having an authentic experience at a real place with real history where the trappings are wholly identical to those in other supposedly authentic places. There’s always money to be made when you can get different groups of white people to agree, and this, in essence, is what Banks’ book is so good at depicting. Namely: how effective capital has been at packaging specific stories about specific places to specific demographics on specific online platforms so that they all wind up in the same places that look the same.

To expect and accept this kind of specific sameness from our cities is to stop imagining them freshly. When we give in to the City Authentic, we stop investigating the history of our spaces and, crucially, stop imagining what might come next. This latter act of ingenuity is the exact subject of my favorite Valeria Luiselli piece, the essay “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces” from her 2014 translated essay collection Sidewalks. Luiselli’s focus is the various definitions of the emerging term relingos, which are perhaps most easily understood as a city’s vacant lots and empty spaces. Luiselli recounts how the term was coined by architects from the National University in Mexico and was possibly “related to the realengas of old Castilian, a term that refers to pieces of land not belonging to the Crown, abandoned to disuse.” In other Latin American countries, realenga means “layabout,” or refers to “an animal with no owner;” the term also echoes terraines vagues, the self-explanatory term coined by Catalan architect Ignasi de Solà-Morales. 

In short, Luiselli defines relingo by exploring its resemblance to other concepts, and if I add some emphasis to her section on terrain vagues, it’s easy to see how a relingo bears no resemblance whatsoever to The Bradley, with its limiting article and corporately defined history: a relingo, like a terrain vague, is “an ambiguous space, a piece of waste ground without defined borders or limiting fences, a species of plot on the margins of metropolitan life” that exists “as long as we remember them, remember ourselves there, and, above all, as long as we remember what we imagined in them.”

Luiselli’s joyous advocacy for the re-imagination of urban spaces in 2014 stands in bleak contrast to what Banks sees in 2023. In Luiselli’s vision of the city, there are gaps that remain open for interpretation and spontaneous use; in The City Authentic, every urban scrap is defined, packaged, and advertised, a kind of City Efficient for the brand-obsessed digital age. Luiselli wants cities to be actively interpreted, whereas Banks correctly notes that one little article helped morph Bradley’s Tavern from an “active to static” establishment. In my marginalia on the “Relingos” essay, I make exuberant, frantic lists of every secret urban location that felt to me like a “depository for possibilities,” a place where I had once imagined what I or my city needed. Nine years later, my marginalia in Banks’ book concerns municipal expenditures on social media campaigns, which is perhaps the tidiest demonstration of how capital has invented new ways to claim our spaces and infect our imaginations. We participate, of course, in this authenticity-peddling, constructing our cities not brick by brick but like by like, and Banks’s advice is characteristically broad but sound regarding how we might rethink the stories we perpetuate about where we live: “We must exercise a good bit of imagination when it comes to not only what goes on inside cultural institutions, but also what we do with the rest of our lives.”