Yesterday, I looked at the Jurys hotel here in Boston and the way it uses the Boston Police Headquarters, the site on which it sits. (Our theme: how capitalism uses local meanings as part of the "value proposition".)
It turns out that the Jurys has used something more than the grand historical reference. The hotel bar is called "Cuffs" and it contains a small display that features Billy clubs and a "come along" used to attach a criminal to the arresting officer.
Even the staff are quickening to the opportunity. A hotel waiter told me he thinks he’s found the room that once held the Boston Strangler. The door man believes that Sacco and Vanzetti were incarcerated here. (If this building is haunted, it is really, really haunted.)
This is the real challenge of the new strategy. To acknowledge the site as a former jail and the infamy of its inmates pushes capitalist practice more than a little. Potentially, it takes us into a contemplation of misery.
As a jail, this place was a box o woe. I found myself "running the numbers" to estimate how much misery Boston would have to create to sustain a building this big. X is the amount of misery it would take to make the client criminals in the first place. Y is the amount of misery these criminals would inflict on Bostonians before their apprehension. Z is the amount of misery it would take to detain, house and punish the criminals. Boston in the 18th and 19th centuries may have looked like one of those Indian trains (think people standing on roof tops and hanging from the sides) as immigrants struggled blindly for a place on the American "fast train."
If you spend anytime at Cuffs dwelling on cuffs, you will be reordering often and drinking hard. Jurys are evoking meanings that are enough to make you weep. This takes us a long way away from the usual capitalist approach which steers us toward pleasure, or its bastard child, the pleasant.
Clearly, this is a necessary trade off. If we want to make places more interesting and particular, we will have to score the surface of the consumer experience with difficulty. Only thus will it take the "epoxy" of engagement and recollection.
This means two things to the meaning producer, in this case, the Jurys hotel. On the one hand, you are letting a hundred flowers bloom. You have empowered your staff to create and communicate an oral culture in which they begin to elaborate the hotel story with imaginative departures. (Didnt Maggie Smith star in a play or movie in which she plays a museum docent who flat out invents everything she tells the museum visitor?).
The trade off is clear. The more you want to make your place local, authentic and actual, the more you must engage these powers of invention. The more you engage them, the less control you have of the commercial message. You had better be persuaded of the value of the multiple, various, contradictory message, because thats precisely what you are going to get. Site specificity is a high gain, high risk strategy.
Second, this strategy evokes meanings new to the capitalist inventory. This puts me in mind of a story told me by a General Motors executive in the 1980s. He said that Detroit developed new testing methods, to sniff out any time any consumer disliked any part of a new car design. The result: boring boxy little cars that no one cared about. Finally, he said, Detroit decided that to make cars that some people really liked, they were obliged to make cars that some people really disliked. (The happy discovery: that some of the dislikers would eventually come on board.)
So there is a trade off here too: to delivery the authentic and the actual and the real, it is necessary to trade in meanings that are not always pleasurable or pleasant. It may be necessary, in the extreme case, to reduce the consumer to tears.
In this event, capitalism comes charging across the traditional divide between culture and commerce and appropriates the freedoms and the difficulties normally associated with art. I am not saying that Sacco and Vanzetti will serve someday serve as spokesmen, but even anarchists may turn out to have a role to play in the new capitalism.
Why does this not surprise us?