Landscape and Capitalism

23:37 Thu 17 May 2007. Updated: 14:01 18 May 2007
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While walking around San Francisco this evening, I considered how the city’s topography gives it a distinct identity—specifically, how that might influence its assimilation (or lack thereof) into a profoundly brand-driven modern capitalist homogeneity.

When I was last in Manhattan, I was struck by how much of it was composed of big-brand retail outlets, such that they seemed to repeat every few blocks. This form of “globalization” obviously leeches local identity in the sense that different cities become much more alike when they all have a Starbucks on most corners, but it also diminishes neighborhood-level local identity when all the neighborhoods have the same chains. To what extent do inhabitants navigate according to the varying layouts of these stores?

In American cities, the grid system means that there’s always going to be an underlying navigation system that inhabitants use, but its generic aspect almost demands additional flavor. Landmarks provide this, and in a world of highly-recognizable brands, retail outlets work very well as landmarks.

This suggests that in some cities, the majority of landmarks really are branded locations. (There’s a tangent here regarding the branding of American sports venues, which are extremely significant landmarks in most American cities, but I’ll leave that for another time.)

San Francisco, however, is not one of those cities, at least not yet. The distinctive landscape that gives it a strong visual identity helps it with that, but how exactly does that work? It’s not merely a question of landmarks, since landscape and landmarks are not the same.

I’m hoping that this question works as as theme to pursue photographically.

4 Responses to “Landscape and Capitalism”

  1. Lev Says:

    The Transamerica Pyramid and Golden Gate Bridge are such iconic features of the San Francisco skyline that they are essentially brands. While no entity owns the rights to using the images of these structures, they are depicted in countless touristic products in a manner indistinguishable from brand advertising.

  2. NiallM Says:

    Except you can’t buy them.

  3. jamie Says:

    sounds like you’ve started with the harvey, no? I would add however that a certain kind of neighbourhood identity or branding often occurs, but often as a strategy to valorize property markets than to really support a community

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Lev/NiallM: Yes, they’re part of the “San Francisco” brand, but that’s not the same kind of brand as “Nike”—especially not to locals (it could be considered a brand for tourists that they “buy” by coming to the city, although I still think there’s a big distinction).

    Jamie: Heh, sadly, I haven’t even glanced at the Harvey—I haven’t been doing much reading. That thought just struck me while wandering around last week. I agree that “neighborhood identity” tends to be more of a real-estate-values thing these days, sadly.

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