Beware the Four-Letter Words of Vibrant Downtowns

Homepage for the River Landing, a Miami lifestyle center. (Source:  River Landing )

Homepage for the River Landing, a Miami lifestyle center. (Source: River Landing)

On a recent visit to West Palm Beach, Florida, I had the opportunity to visit CityPlace, an “upscale lifestyle center” in the city’s downtown. Even if you don’t recognize lifestyle centers by name, you may have seen them in practice: Modern urban alternatives to the shopping malls of yore, featuring open-air chain storefronts, focus-grouped cocktails, luxury condominiums, and — in this case — a high-end bowling lounge that made me feel like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

I quite enjoyed CityPlace - I’m a sucker for bright blue twists on classic martinis, and bowling like an oil baron is a luxury I didn’t know I needed in my life. There was a lively energy and large crowd of people soaking in the atmosphere, from well-dressed couples on date nights to children running and dancing in front of the live jazz band. With all the area’s shops and scenery, it’s hard not to have a good time.

But the most fun I have in such places is when I'm playing Vibrancy Bingo: The search for the four-letter words that inevitably advertise such luxury spaces. Whether they’re written on banners hanging from retro street lamps or projected onto impossibly clean sidewalks, you’re practically guaranteed to find some permutation of the words “Shop. Play. Dine. Stay.”, the rhythmic marketing mantra of the modern lifestyle center.

I think that it’s telling that for all the amenities offered, these lifestyle centers are so often interchangeable. From the four-letter words and impossibly attractive 30-somethings in ads, to the Cheesecake Factories and towering luxury condos, these developments are no more connected to the neighborhoods they inhabit than the strip malls and convention centers that came before them. It’s a modern twist on the suburban “geography of nowhere”.

This isn’t to say that cities shouldn’t aim to build nice, fancy spaces, nor that they shouldn’t attract outsiders with money; tourism is an important and necessary part of many urban economies, especially as cities struggle financially.

But it’s clear that our cities are shifting from acting in the interests of existing residents toward creating luxury neighborhoods for those who are well off enough to enjoy them. More and more, cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and West Palm Beach are leveraging their most valuable assets — downtown spaces — to create cookie-cutter, quasi-private developments designed solely for the people who can afford the offerings.

Perhaps surprisingly, a strong satire of these developments comes from South Park, a show that has consistently offered pointed societal critiques behind its trademark irreverent humor. In one multi-episode arc, the poor part of town is rebranded as SoDoSoPa (realtor-speak for “South of Downtown South Park”) and is heralded by town officials for providing necessary economic investment.

Faux commercials like this one take lifestyle centers to their absurd conclusion; The soothing narrator promises “A place to gather, a place to mingle with all economic classes, and now it’s a place to live," with both animated and live-action shots of pretty, well-heeled people enjoying the amenities. The running gag of the story arc is that the development is built surrounding the home of the town’s only poor residents (rebranded as “Historic Kenny’s House”). Though the ads promise economic diversity, the city’s poor are left completely out of its exclusive benefits.

While it may be difficult to take a cartoon best known for its fart jokes seriously, the show raises some important questions when it comes to luxury developments and lifestyle centers:

  • Are these developments being driven first and foremost by the city’s residents, or do they come from outside investors with no connection to the place?
  • What about the people who already live in the proposed development area? Do they have a say?
  • Are such massive developments really in the best interest of the city’s residents, or do they find themselves swept up in the glitz of Adobe Illustrator mockups and four-letter words?
  • What happens if the development fails? Is there another use that could take its place, or would it inevitably fall into disrepair?

These are all important questions, and I hope you ask them if you start hearing four-letter words from your town.

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