Critical Theory II: “([Authentic])”

“I hate to use this word, but ‘Authentic’.”

This sort of comment comes up a lot at Schooner Bay. This phrase, a disclaimer, a begging off, an awareness that didn’t quite make it into action, pops into interviews. When describing Schooner Bay, second-home shoppers dance around their pursuit of the ‘authentic’ for a few reasons – a fear of cliche, perhaps, or a fear of appropriation, or an unspoken nervousness that what they’ve bought into isn’t really even authentic at all. Their anxiety is wrapped up in a complicated dialogue about history, development, design, and neocolonialism. To sketch out some vague map of what this word really means, we are going to have to foxtrot our way through the history of Schooner Bay’s development and its relationship to New Urbanism, a somewhat reactionary design philosophy that bubbled up in the 1980s in the face of urban sprawl.

Schooner Bay at dusk.
Schooner Bay at dusk.

New Urbanism aims high – it is a type of planning that comprehensively plots a neighborhood, its economies, its social interactions, or at least aggressively anticipates them. With bated breath, sometimes. As Moore (2014) quotes from Trudeau & Malloy (2011), this design philosophy utilizes density and walkability, mixed-use buildings and zoning, longevity and durability of buildings and materials, “vernacular” or traditional aesthetics, utilization of energy efficient designs and materials, and the promotion of public space, &c. It’s a contested form – New Urbanism remains popular around the world with entire firms dedicated to its philosophy despite critiques. While “New Urbanist neighborhood design has been identified as paradoxically celebrating and neutralizing local class and cultural distinctions…we should be keenly aware that New Urbanist design is about reimagining socio-natural relations but not inherently about equity or ameliorating chronic forms of social difference.”(Moore 2014) It is still development, it is still about the socio-ecological impacts of material forms and infrastructure, and it is still ahistorical development.

Seaside is a famous New Urbanism development, fro example.
Seaside is a famous New Urbanism development, fro example.
I'm compiling an annotated bibliography for Amelia so expect a blog post soon.
I’m compiling an annotated bibliography for Amelia so expect a blog post about it soon.

Ahistorical development – what does this mean? To get at this, we should consider what Schooner Bay wants in the first place: community. The “community style” Schooner Bay desires, that its design conspires to create by the sheer affective mechanisms of a particular style of neighborhood, is that of a “traditional Bahamian village.” Neighbors in close contact, chatting and having each other over for drinks, really living in a place – this is a difficult thing to achieve if the community is predominantly second homes and international clients. Additionally difficult is for a strong community to sprout up without some set of preceding relationships, a sense of shared ideals, or politics, or circumstance. SB hopes that their set of  “core values,” the ones that underpin as many building decisions as financially possible, are shared by their homeowners, and are not just aesthetic, surface-level, contrived. New Urbanist design firms like DPZ purport that their plans can serve to recreate or inspire the set of relationships that once formed for any number of reasons, they use design to inoculate a place with a certain type of community (and it feels, sometimes, like a nightmare of urban renewal on Disneyland’s Main Street, Jane Jacobs gone awry).  As our dear friend Larkin explains, certain materials and structures have “particular tactile qualities that shape ambient life” and that these designs and their poetics are political, that these dimensions “address and constitute subjects.” (2013, 338, 329)

Wow, so photogenic. I bet, like, 100 people have proposed here. Reeaaaaal unique.
Wow, so photogenic. I bet, like, 100 people have proposed here. Reeaaaaal unique.
I am lost, wandering in a picturesque field. Who am I? Perhaps just a passing embodiment, a tourist, eyes with which to add value.
I am lost, wandering in a picturesque field. Who am I? Perhaps just a passing embodiment, a tourist, eyes with which to add value. Or, perhaps, I am just a douche.

Hope Town, a town of Elbow Cay off of Marsh Harbor, is the Bahamian village ideal to which SB strives. Its centerpiece is a densely packed harbor and its candy cane lighthouse, a sentinel at the mouth where the ferries flurry all day long. As briefly noted in a previous post, Amelia and I visited the cay a week ago. Houses are packed along the sharp ridge of the island, looking over and around each other, all brightly colored, well maintained, up for rental. Golf cart rentals, the primary mode of transportation, are sold out on busy weekends. Cemeteries overlook the ocean, and rickety stairs wind around properties to the main highway. Unfortunately the rhetorical creation of Hope Town as the traditional Bahamian village is false. It has its own history, as any place does, and unlike a majority of Bahamian settlements (which scatter along any island, each with their own social dynamics) was originally founded as a Loyalist enclave in 1785.

Inscribed on the gravestone: "I'm fine."
Inscribed on the gravestone: “I am fine.”

As many within the community have noted, to create a lively community takes more than infrastructure. It takes time, attention, human collateral and individual skill. A certain type of giving beyond what you’re paid. A certain amount of romanticism. If Schooner Bay wants a specific development path, a specific history like Hope Town’s, it might have to grapple with a new type of uncomfortable origin story that is ever-more prevalent in the Bahamas – international financing and a gentle elitism. However, the financial reality of SB’s origins isn’t wholly reflective of its intellectual history, I don’t think. There are the clients it’s wanted to attract and those it has had to attract. The baseline SB client is willing to take risk, and hopefully buys into the founding principles. They have been, at least, willing to sit through slower development in name of this principled project – this is less and less the case.

Hope Town Harbor
Hope Town Harbor

Overall, there is a slight confusion over what ‘authentic’ means in Schooner Bay. It certainly doesn’t mean organic – quite the opposite – despite the history that organic urban development brings with it. As a leading member in the SB community notes, it has something to do with the real –  outside of the “cartoon game” Bahamian tourism has played for too long as the country becomes “drunk on cruise ships and big hotels.” No Bahamian, he reported, lives what tourists experience – a curse in some ways, in others a gift. Part of the project that anthropologist have in front of them is to reflect back the lived Bahamas back at the Bahamian people; to aid Bahamians in understanding how to understand themselves and a way to solidify a national identity, a lens that the nation has been denied since formal colonization in 1718. One could argue.

Sandy Point Settlement, in passing.
Sandy Point Settlement, in passing. I want to call this authentic, but now I’m afraid of the word.

Perhaps helpful in this discussion is the glorious Beverly Skeggs. She describes Bhabha’s basic ambivalence of colonial discourse, where the developers continue to pursue development projects that “strive to capture an otherness also conceptualized as wild, chimerical, excessive and unknowable.” (Class, Self, Culture,104) Schooner Bay is certainly not wild, but instead seems to frame itself as a frontier that confronts the wilds of human relation to infrastructure, to global systems, to an Anthropocene era (itself full of unknowns, full of the futures that humans might now be responsible for, quantifiable only as much as one can quantify human ingenuity and imagination).* In this case, the connection to land-culture-architectural history authenticates the personal taste of the developers and assures their work remains on the cutting edge of urban development. (105) For Skeggs it is classes that define themselves as authentically ‘artistic’ and ‘edgy’ by “attaching authenticity to the self through the appropriation of other cultures; cultures that have been evaluated as dangerous,” predicated on the relationship between art and culture – these elements are not lost at SB, where art, too is highlighted as one of the cornerstones of the satisfaction-guaranteed-or-your-money-back community. (105) Could sustainable design find itself in this framework? Think about it. Let’t talk. Love, Rennie

p.s. Follow my Instagram at @reediemeyers for a daily photo-update of my trip thus far. Sorry for the instaspam…

* – Hyperbole. Hyperbole? Eh.   References:

Moore, Amelia. “Islands of Difference: Design, Urbanism, and Sustainable Tourism in the Anthropocene Caribbean” to be published Fall 2014 Sayre, Nathan. “The Politics of the Anthropogenic,” The Annual Review of Anthropology,  Volume 41, 2012. Skeggs, Beverly. “Representing the Working Class” from Class, Self, Culture. London, UK: Routledge, 2004. Trudeau, D. and P. Malloy. 2011. Suburbs in Disguise? Examining the Geographies of the New Urbanism. Urban Geography 32(3): 424-447.

I feel cool when I write bibliographies.
I feel cool when I write bibliographies.

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