If you seek authenticity for authenticity’s sake you are no longer authentic.
– Jean-Paul Sartre
I live in an old neighborhood in Oklahoma City. At one time, it was pretty much surrounded by urban blight. Fortunately, efforts to achieve historic preservation in the 1970s helped keep encroachment of urban decay at bay.
Gen Xers and the Gritty Urban Core
For many surrounding neighborhoods, however, the process of preservation and revitalization has been much longer. In fact, I don’t think the restoration of some of Oklahoma City’s most blighted neighborhoods including the Paseo, the Las Vegas Addition, Cleveland, Lincoln Terrace and Jefferson Park reached full swing until Gen Xers began returning to the gritty urban core. (I do think the Silents and Baby Boomers along with the City itself accomplished a great deal via planning and good old fashion neighborhood association work. Their commitment to urban revitalization certainly created the foundation Xers built upon.)
I first moved to this area of town in 1991, before much of that work began. As I’ve written about before, my friends and family were a little afraid to come to visit me. It wasn’t that bad, however, in 1993, I decided to move about three miles further north and west. I came to this decision after an incident one night in which I found myself running away from a man who’d just robbed a jewelry store.
I moved back to the area in late 2001 and have been here ever since. There are 12 houses on my street and five of them are owned by Gen Xers.
Gen Xers and the Search for Authenticity
Recently, I came across an article by Adam Mayer, Pondering Urban Authenticity: A look at the new book “Naked City”, published in April on a site called New Geography. Some of the things it says really hit home with me, particularly the part about Xers searching for meaning by seeking out authentic experiences. Here is an excerpt:
Following flight from the city core, an entire generation of Americans, Generation X (born roughly between the early 1960s and early 1980s), was raised in suburban environments which they came to resent as bland and homogenous. Alienated by the conformity of the ‘burbs,, this generation suffered a kind of postmodern malaise which in turn spurred a quest for meaning. Rather than uniting around a single cause like their parents and grandparents, Xers searched for meaning by seeking out a variety of ‘authentic experiences’.
One of the places that more adventurous GenXers sought authentic experience was in gritty but dangerously alluring urban environments. Rejecting the values of post-war America, many looked to the city as a place to reconnect with the hustle and bustle of diverse and ethnic neighborhoods.
I found the article (primarily a book review for Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, by Sharon Zukin) a little disconcerting. Gen Xers, lacking a uniting cause (like a war) returned to the urban core seeking out authentic life experiences. Yet, as the book reveals, authenticity cannot be found in a set of historic buildings, but rather a “continuous process of living and working, a gradual buildup of everyday experience.”
Today, there is so much revitalization and development going on in Oklahoma City’s urban core, it’ll make your head spin. Without a doubt, 10 years can bring enormous change, not to mention 20.
In 2001, I enrolled my oldest child in Oklahoma City’s most urban Catholic school. A rare institution run by a convent of nuns, it was fledgling with low enrollment. We were only one of three families that stuck it out from Pre-K to 4th grade. We knew it was an authentic place, made so by Carmelite nuns who’d been an anchor in a neighborhood long abandoned by virtually everyone else. We knew it was Oklahoma City’s best-kept secret.
The other day, I called to enroll my son who starts Kindergarten in the fall. They now have three Kindergarten classes and we’re on the waiting list. The little school, once adjacent to an abandoned parking garage and a host of vacant historic buildings, is now surrounded by a hospital and YMCA that don neon lights; trendy restaurants; a bakery, a pub, and an elite bridal salon. I love it, but I kind of miss the grit. I wonder if other Xers feel the same.
Generation X Non-Conformity
If non-conformity is part of the Gen X persona, where does that leave those of us who take pride in blazing new trails even if they lead us down dark alleys where we run from would-be gunmen? We came here to embrace a rejected landscape. It was not unlike the garden of our lives; a little neglected, a little overrun. I think we found purpose in nurturing back to life something that was dying. We worked to transform a community in which we seek to both lose and find ourselves. For those unflinching Xers who ignored urban dangers – even found them a bit alluring – the heartache of blight dovetailed the heartache of soul. Honestly, what did we have to lose? If we’d shuffled off to suburbia, our remaining spirit of hope might have become bankrupt. We could not borrow the dreams that belonged to other generations.
Now, with the revitalization of Oklahoma City in full swing and the economic benefits (like shorter commutes) from living in the urban core realized, I find myself thinking about those times I rode bikes with Juliette in vacant parking lots. When we lived in the Garage Loft, I ached for a patch of green. When we took walks downtown, we passed through that vacuous stretch known as Midtown. It was a ghostly interlude, kind of creepy, and the stories it told were rather sad. Today, they’ve been replaced with dramatic and playful compositions, reminding me that the grit I once valued wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be.
It’s like A.O. Scott says Generation X women don’t have midlife crises, they have midlife awakenings. My awakening is this: my youth has passed. I don’t mourn this or fear aging. Experience helps me realize that suburban living is not a counterfeit experience, even if it’s still not my preference. On the same token, the urban core doesn’t have a corner on authenticity, especially when the once-gritty historic properties become clipped and coifed and a bit funereal. Like Zurin says, authenticity must come from within.
I dreamed of the city. My children dream of farms.
Every generation has both manufactured and organic pursuits. The three members of Generation Z who live in my house seem to have a real affinity for the grit of rural America. The farms and fields across Oklahoma have captured their imagination. For them, the wide-open spaces hold promise and adventure. The great thing is, the coming ubiquitous global network will allow them to live Anywhere.
In the late 1980s, my fears had a distinct suburban flair, and so I dreamt of a life in a Sesame Street Brownstone. Today, my children dream of riding horses at sunset. They find my Generation X dreams and brand of authenticity cumbersome, if not confining.