For a week in my Political Economy 101 course, my professor would walk in, stand in front of the class, and ask us, “So, what’s in the news?” Instead of jumping right into the day’s lesson, we looked at the events that were actively going on in the world. I realized that the reason my professor chose to begin our discussion by asking us what was in the news is because the best way to learn about our political economy is to see it in action. You can learn about capitalism and trade and the intersectionality of structures, but you can’t fully understand them until you grasp on to the idea that they are shaping every part of our global landscape. I took this idea and I applied it to my own hometown of Geneva, New York.
If you were to look at the local news in the Finger Lakes Times newspaper from February 5th, 2018, you would see the most recent story is about the 14-year prison sentence of a Geneva man – a 24 year old African American – for weapons and drug charges; the following story is titled “City of Geneva looks to give small business a boost,” through the Microenterprise Assistance Program; featuring a fairly new business (Monaco’s Coffee) owned by two, young, local, white men; up next there’s a story covering the business of the week (Lake Drum Brewing, owned by a 2008 graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges); and the final story – breaking news – "Shots fired at Geneva Garden Apartments".
The juxtaposition of these news segments perfectly reflects the essence of Geneva, New York itself.
Located at the northern end of Seneca Lake, Geneva has become one of the biggest attractions of the Finger Lakes area. The growing winery and brewery industries have brought in a surplus of local businesses, skilled workers, and interest in the area.
As a lifelong resident of Geneva, I’ve witnessed its transformation first-hand. From my point of view - the point of view of a young, middle-class, white woman who grew up on the East side of Seneca Lake surrounded by forestry, farms, vineyards, and the beautiful Seneca Lake as my backyard - Geneva appears to be thriving. My impression of Geneva is shaped by my ability to adapt to its transformation. I can try out the new farm-to-table restaurants that have sprouted across downtown, I can attend the local concerts playing at FLX Live every Saturday night, I can buy local vegetables, fruits, and bread from the farmer’s market every Thursday in the summer, and I can afford to live on Seneca Lake and experience it in its full integrity.
However, this might not be the reality for 24.1% of the population who live in poverty in Geneva.
Starting from the residents living in the crime-filled areas of Geneva Garden Apartments or Charter’s Homes right down the street from the vibrant, lively, re-invented downtown – there is a whole community who cannot take part in the Geneva that is publicized across tourism websites and Hobart and William Smith admissions pamphlets.
Beneath the crafted surface of fine-dining, praised wines, local businesses, entertainment, and art, there is a dark underbelly of crime, poverty, and oppression.
Geneva, though a small city of roughly 13,000 people, is uniquely urban in large part because of the recent emphasis on localism. Keeping up with trend of the times, residents of Geneva have shifted their focus to supporting the businesses and people in Geneva that are homegrown; they buy their produce at farmers markets over Wal-Mart, they eat at the new farm-to-table restaurant on Linden Street over Olive Garden, and they prefer getting their morning coffee at Opus Espresso and Food Bar over Dunkin Donuts. I see this shift both as an effect of globalization and as an attempt to brand the city in such a way that sells itself as a trendy hot-spot in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Ultimately, Geneva’s rise in popularity is an outcome of its new brand – one that focuses on local businesses, farm-to-table cuisine, entertainment, tourism, and the aesthetic of the area to bring in a new generation of people.
The issue with any brand, however, is they are often viewed solely at the surface level, or from the point that sells. With money as the driving force behind a brand, the implications of them often go unnoticed. In the case of Geneva, the transition to an image-saturated society ultimately shadows the impact revitalization has on the residents of Geneva who cannot afford the lifestyle the urban regrowth would create. Therefore, we can see this localized branding as a classic example of capitalism’s ability to adopt and adapt popular movements to further the capitalist agenda, which is always to generate more profits.
Revitalization – The Genesis of Geneva’s Brand
In July 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Geneva as the winner of the ten-million-dollar Downtown Revitalization Initiative. The goal of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) is to “transform local neighborhoods into vibrant communities where the next generation of New Yorkers will want to live and work.”
When I heard the news, I was overjoyed at the prospect, and not very surprised.
Over the past decade, Geneva has boomed. It serves as the perfect platform for Governor Cuomo’s DRI as it has already been blossoming economically, socially, and culturally. Under the DRI, “the City will focus on the rehabilitation of key buildings; diversification of housing and retail options; access to healthy food; and building the entrepreneurship in the downtown area.”
It all sounds extremely idealistic; already on this route, but especially with the DRI, Geneva has the potential to grow into a thriving, trendy city – attracting the “next generation of New Yorkers,” just as the Initiative hopes to achieve.
The revitalization of cities into urban hot-spots isn’t a new concept. The marketability of cultural activities such as food, music, and art is directly associated with the rise of a cultural economy. The cultural economy encompasses economic, political, and cultural ideals that stray away from past trends of mass production, consumption, the welfare state, rigid categories of race, gender, class, sexuality, and are directed toward a flexible labor force, the promotion of markets, and an emphasis on individual experiences and lifestyles.
It sets the stage for the ‘creative city’ – urban development built on entertainment, art, food, music and the attraction from young, educated, diverse, and creative people (Jossart-Marcelli). In Richard Florida’s Cities and the Creative Class, Florida focuses on the intersection of “talent, technology, and tolerance” – the three T’s – to generate economic growth in the development of the ‘creative city.’
While the concept of the ‘creative city’ primarily applies to global cities, nonetheless, this strategy is strikingly similar to the goals of Andrew Cuomo’s DRI for Geneva – “to transform neighborhoods into vibrant communities,” to “attract the next generation of New Yorkers,” through the introduction of new businesses, healthy food, and diversification of housing. The key elements of the proposal are all very trendy right now – supporting local shops; knowing where your food comes from i.e. farm to table, organic, local; diversity; innovation – all to attract young, educated, creative individuals to the area.
I’d like to argue this urban branding goes hand in hand with Naomi Klein’s section on branding in her book No Is Not Enough. Klein refers to the idea of “hollow brands,” and the transition from selling products for their use value to selling them for their sign-exchange value - for an idea and an image.
The Impact of Image
In a 2005 article, Kevin Fox Gotham explains the re-birth of the city as a result of “a shift to an image-saturated society where advertising, entertainment, television, mass media, and other cultural industries increasingly define and shape urban life while obscuring the alienating effects of capitalism.” Continuing my point on branding and its impact on Geneva’s revitalization, I think this quote from Gotham reflects how emphasis on “image” – on selling ideas rather than actual things – has become a driving factor in the development of Geneva.
Between the combination of Hobart and William Smith’s wealthy, beautiful, exclusive liberal arts campus, the selling aesthetic of Seneca Lake, and localism in response to globalization, Geneva has created a brand that sells itself for the positive, attractive, innovative, trendy, and ‘diverse’ elements of the place.
This is a brand that ultimately covers-up the other side of Geneva – the parts found in the under-developed areas where primarily poor, minority groups of the population reside. As Gotham says, the image – the brand – “[obscures] the alienating effects of capitalism,” ultimately illustrating the problem with the ‘creative city’: how it privileges a particular kind of social class and fails to address the impact of new, innovative, hip industries on those who cannot afford to take part.
The Price of Aesthetic
The attraction to supporting local businesses, knowing the source of your food, the admiration of aesthetic all are trending values in today’s society. The rebirth of small cities in response to globalization is becoming more and more common. The shift to a cultural economy – one that thrives on the marketability of food, music, art, activities, and place – supported by young, creative, diverse, educated individuals, is very in vogue right now. I’ve seen Geneva grow and re-create itself; branding itself with the ideals of a ‘creative city,’ ultimately changing the landscape of the place. As someone who can afford to live in the revitalized Geneva and benefit from its popularity, I had never acknowledged the change as anything but positive. However, after reading Klein’s book and with a better understanding of the capitalist society, I realized the impact the initiatives in Geneva and the emphasis of hollow brands that promotes localism could have on the under-represented population.
The shift to an image-centered society, as shown through even my small hometown of Geneva, NY, is a reflection of a system that continues to dominate our global sphere, ultimately creating another generation of people who care more about how something looks than digging deeper to see what’s hidden underneath.
Banner image: Linden St. in Geneva, New York. (Image courtesy of the author)