Monday, October 8, 2012

Big Generic vs. Small Generic in Salt Lake City

My co-panelists Michelle Moon and John Forti at the market
I can’t help it.  I spend a lot of time thinking and occasionally writing about the kinds of spaces—usually large downtown hotels and convention centers—where those of us with an academic and professional interest in place, memory, and history tend to congregate for our meetings. These places usually reflect (but seldom admit to) histories of urban displacement and consolidation that often add up to a feeling of placelessness, and much of downtown Salt Lake City reflects this.  But as in so many cities and towns, the still-expanding local food scene is helping to create very different, if still mostly ephemeral, spaces of encounter and consumption, as my fellow panelists and I discovered after our “From Sustenance to Relevance: Reinterpreting Food, Place, and Local History” panel at the AmericanAssociation for State and Local History conference this weekend.

Convention center and farmers market locations in SLC
Salt Lake City’s convention center bears the hallmarks of familiar patterns of downtown redevelopment in American cities:  successively larger structures designed to attract and accommodate mega-events of various kinds.  The original 1899 “Salt Palace” for which the current center was named incorporated a race track and dance hall;  a 1910 replacement was itself replaced in 1969 ahead of the city’s first unsuccessful bid to host the Winter Olympics (it tried again in 1998 and finally won in 2002).  That facility was demolished in 1994, and the current gigantic convention center and an adjoining arts and culture complex now cover three full city blocks, about the same size as—but far more monolithic than—the Mormon Temple campus just to the northeast.  The convention center served as the media headquarters for the 2002 Winter Olympics, which was famously rescued by local hero and successful venture capitalist Mitt Romney, and the whole area, along with much of the rest of the downtown, has the feel of something that was constructed to  demonstrate that the city was ready to enter the new era of global spectacle and competition.

City Creek, adapted for its new setting
Two enormous and fairly new shopping complexes bracket the convention center, including the City Creek Center, built on the site of the city’s first market.  It’s very easy, if you’re given to noticing such things, to spot the traces of a covered-over past here:  the plaques marking vanished buildings (including, in a weird twist, the original city museum), the now-tightly-sculpted eponymous creek, and even the critters that presumably once hopped and waddled through here, represented in stone and bronze for all time (or at least until this type of mall development becomes passé and is replaced by something new).  

The desert cottontail once hopped through here











Plaque in the City Creek Center marking SLC's first market
After wandering around these downtown spaces for a while, it was a nice change to go to the outdoor farmers market after our Saturday morning panel.  Interestingly, these local-food markets have become ubiquitous enough that like the downtown developments, they actually feel somewhat generic to me, even as they try to assert a very specific sense of place.  The artisanal cheese- and soap-makers, bountiful displays of fruits, veggies, and baked goods, variably-talented buskers, and displays of dangly earrings vary only slightly from region to region.  With minor variations in the types of squash and sausage being sold, we could have been in Boston’s Copley Square or one of Portland, Oregon’s multiple outdoor markets.

But I find this somewhat generic quality much less troubling at farmers markets than at downtown convention centers or constructed shopping environments.  First, it’s all about scale:  even a large market like the Saturday one in Salt Lake City represents many small producers rather than a single large owner in partnership with a lot of chain businesses.

Giant convention centers often create landscapes like this one
And second, the networks through which the patterns seen in contemporary farmers market are spreading are quite different from those that disseminate widely-copied urban planning orthodoxies like arts districts, massive convention centers, and the like.  Those networks do sometimes intersect, interestingly, and the same city planners who are ready to gut out several downtown blocks to build a behemoth of a convention center may also enthusiastically support a farmers market, if it dovetails with a general project of appearing vibrant and diverse. 

But in general, the widely-circulating ideas about local food and alternative farming economies are traveling along different circuits.  The decentralized and far-flung networks spreading the Small Generic gospel are filled with people and groups who are much readier to question the economic, environmental, and social effects of globalized industrial capitalism, rather than being—like the downtown redevelopers—pretty much in step with those who are trying to extend its reach as far as possible.  It’s exciting to see how those alternative networks have continued to expand throughout the worst recession since the Great Depression, suggesting that Big Generic may one of these days have a real run for its money.

Now if our public history organizations could just find someplace to meet that didn’t require navigating the cognitive dissonance between convention centers and farmers markets…

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