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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Gentrification Will Be Televised

Some influential writers about cities have been talking about how TV shows contributed to the revitalization of cities. Over and over again, three specific shows seem to be credited with sparking a return to the city: Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex in the City. The thing is, the city has always appeared as the setting for TV shows. When people embrace this narrative that is so factually incorrect, it serves as a window into the way they have perceived the city and approach it in their work to remake it. They are implicitly saying that what counts are places that attract the "creative class," and the experiences of working-class and minority urban residents simply don't matter.

Let's quickly dispel the myth that the city ever actually disappeared as a TV setting. I should note I am not the only person to observe the disconnect between the historical record and the return-to-the-city myth; David King had a blog post not too long ago. There were so many long-running shows, the narrative seems really quite puzzling at first. Here's a quick, partial list of older shows set in cities:
  • The Odd Couple, 1970 - 1975
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970 - 1977
  • Sanford and Son, 1972 - 1977
  • The Bob Newhart Show, 1972 - 1978
  • Barney Miller, 1975 - 1982
  • The Jeffersons, 1975 - 1985
  • Laverne & Shirley, 1976 - 1983
  • WKRP in Cincinnati, 1978 - 1982
  • Taxi, 1978 - 1983
  • Diff'rent Strokes, 1978 - 1985
  • Cheers, 1982 - 1993
  • Night Court, 1984 - 1992
  • The Cosby Show, 1984 - 1992
  • Head of the Class, 1986 - 1992
  • Perfect Strangers, 1986 - 1993
  • Full House, 1987 - 1995
  • Family Matters, 1989 - 1997
The shows that supposedly marked the return to the city don't come in until around the time of the end of this list:
  • Seinfeld, 1989 - 1998
  • Friends, 1994 - 2004
  • Sex and the City, 1998 - 2004
Since there were shows set in cities running constantly for decades, what is it about FriendsSeinfeld, and Sex in the City that is driving these perceptions? In a word: gentrification.

Before delving into more explanation, I think it would be helpful to simply watch the intros for Laverne & Shirley and Friends:

These were both shows about young singles living in the city, but the way their youthful characters experience the city has some stark differences. Laverne & Shirley shows its characters at work - in decidedly blue collar jobs. Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex in the City were about the city as a place of privileged leisure for the "creative class."
For these writers, until cities started gentrifying on the TV screen, shows set in cities didn't matter enough to even recognize their existence, or those shows are rationalized away as somehow not relevant to improving cities. In Walkable City, Jeff Speck shows some awareness that his narrative is at odds with the historical record, so this is how he attempts to deal with the cognitive dissonance:
To be fair, I also caught occasional episodes of The Honeymooners and The Lucille Ball Show, in which the city took the form of a vague, sooty presence outside the window of a cramped apartment - unthreatening but also uninviting.  The only memorable exception was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (p. 20) 
He continues later: "Mary's Minneapolis is sparkling, lively, and brimming with opportunity." (p. 261)

By endorsing The Mary Tyler Moore Show and negating The Honeymooners and The Lucille Ball Show, Speck provides a view into the value filtering that is occurring here. It is not a matter of whether cities make an appearance in our collective fiction. It is not a matter of the format of the television shows or whether their characters are popular, likable urban residents. What matters is transforming the city into a space that appeals to the "creative class," and apparently there is no place for the likes of Ralph and Alice Kramden.

It is worth looking at the fictional representations of cities that these writers ignore or dismiss. Shows prior to the 1990s quite frequently featured the working class and/or families. Diverse populations shared a claim to the city.

The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show, for example, featured successful black families at a time of entrenched negative stereotypes. The stereotypes of minorities extended to the urban neighborhoods where they lived, characterized as "inner-city ghettoes," which generally informed negative attitudes towards cities in general during this era. Shows featuring successful black families stood in contrast to entrenched negative views of race and cities, and probably played some role in chipping away at the very prejudices that have kept segregated neighborhoods so persistent.

Any narrative that denies that these shows even existed can only work to subtly undermine the struggles of all these people, who earned their place in the city. Now that cities are being recognized again as great places to live, the diverse groups who were there putting in the work to keep them that way are being moved aside. Apparently that is just as true for fictional television characters as it is for the working families being priced out of urban neighborhoods. The gentrification will be televised.

A note about the bicycle in the Laverne & Shirley intro is in order. There have been discussions about how bicycles are represented on television as well, and Seinfeld is frequently noted. Commendable as it is, the bicycle in the background in Jerry's apartment serves no other purpose on the show than decoration; I don't think it was ever actually used at any point during the show's entire run (the characters instead frequently take car trips). The intro to Laverne & Shirley, on the other hand, shows the characters really using the bike, and enjoying it, at the beginning of every show. Considering the ongoing discussions about the lower rates of cycling among women, the beginning of Laverne & Shirley was truly a celebration of urban cycling before its time.

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