culture and commerce: more muddles in the models


There’s an article by Clive Thompson in New York Magazine called The Rise of the Microneighborhood.

Examine almost any area of Manhattan these days and you’ll find it balkanized into a set of breakaway microneighborhoods. (41)

I’m an interested, eager reader of Thompson’s work: interested because he is a fellow Canadian and in my clannish way I want all Canadians to flourish (except Robert McNeil, of course, Do You Speak American? is so tedious, it should be declared anti-intellectual) and eager because he is a bona fide talent.

But this is outing disappoints.

First, theory has yet to catch up to data. Thompson offers glib explanations for microneighborhoods, saying that the phenomenon is “very much a creature of real-estate opportunism” and fuelled by overheated marketing and ‘today’s rampant cult of branding.” (42)

Then he spends the rest of the article teasing out the many, conflicting factors that help decide whether a new neighborhood gets named and whether the naming takes. We begin to see that declaring a new microneighborhood is a performative undertaking, to borrow Austin’s term. That is to say, “wishing (or in this case, saying) makes it so” but only when several “felicity conditions” are satisfied: who is there in the first place (owners, customers, street people, etc), how is persuaded to move in, whether and how the neighborhood is bounded, how investment and value clusters and how long it clusters for.

In sum, the microneighborhood is an “emergent” and dynamic phenomenon, the success of which is driven as much by a shifting complex of factors and not only “real estate opportunism and the rampant cult of branding.” As Thompson notes in the case of BeBeMo, the naming game sometimes fails.

It’s all inside. If Thompson need only conceptualize the factors he describes for Manhattan, to give us a more robust and illuminating explanation. It is in any case time for us to move on from those canards of “opportunism” and “cults,” so obligatory in the 1990s, to something a little more… nuanced. Let’s start with the notion that culture (in this case the organization of urban space) and commerce (in this case, real estate investment) do not so much collide as interpenetrate.

Second, this development in the organization of urban space is part and parcel of a larger trend that escapes Thompson altogether. (This can’t be true. I should say it escapes mention, not Thompson.) Have we not see a balkanization of music, film, fashion, and just about everything else in popular culture? Is there any reason why the real estate market should resist ths notion? Plainly, Manhattan is turning itself into a real life demonstration of Zeno’s paradox, but this is one of the signatures of our culture. Can we not see this trend as driven by larger cultural forces?

Third, there is a failure of reflexivity here. Isn’t Thompson doing with “microneighborhood” precisely what the New York real estate agent is doing with “NOLITA”: trying to be the first one name and claim the next new thing? Isn’t this the name of the game, at least as New York Magazine plays it: scouring pop culture for the next new “neighborhood.” Both Thompson and agent are seeking glory, profit, and, yes, branding advantage for themselves. Indeed, so much of New York City is in on this game, it seems wrong to sneer at real estate agents for doing it and a little odd to hold the journalist apart.


Austin, J.L. How to Do Things With Words. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, Clive. 2005. The Rise of the Microneighborhood. New York. January 2, 2005, pp. 40-43.


Thanks to NotBored for the map of Greenwich village and the regime of cultural surveillance of which New York magazine and real estate agents are both part.

2 thoughts on “culture and commerce: more muddles in the models

  1. steve

    One of the most imaginative tu quoques I’ve read in a while. The way journalistic trend-spotters try to plant flags and colonize new social phenomena is indeed similar to the marketer’s attempt to synthesize or “enact” a new market segment.

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