Consumption and the City

The city is a place of perpetual change.

The city is a place of perpetual change. Skyscrapers rise out of marshland, just as industrial sites fade into fallow fields. Smaller scale places of consumption change with the city as well, rising and falling with its fortunes. Sometimes the change is lightning-fast, with stores and venues shuttered because the rent has doubled since last month. Other times the change is more gradual, almost glacial in its speed. This changing map of cultural consumption in the city speaks to questions of both urban development and “urbanism as a way of life” (Wirth 1938).

In my work, I want to understand how culture shifts with the city, and how urban life is influenced by these shifts. I want to understand how taste interacts with power, like many other sociologists before me. To be more blunt: what I am trying to do is take my passion for studying consumer culture, and combine it with my spatial and quantitative leanings. I’m trying to add to an established body of rich qualitative work (Jane Jacobs, Sharon Zukin, Richard Lloyd, David Grazian) by zooming out beyond individual neighborhoods, to track changes at the city-level over time. My study of record stores is an avenue for me to better understand consumption and urban change.

My initial interest in the subject came from experiences I had as a musician in the city of Milwaukee. The first gig I played in Milwaukee was a basement show in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood. I was 16 or 17. Gigs at bars and clubs in other parts of the city didn’t occur for me until I was of age (in the early 2000s). When I talked with musicians and fans who were generation (or more) older than myself, they revealed to me that venues and record store locations had shifted over time, out of one neighborhood, and into another. There was not a single “music district”; there were multiple, depending on the time, space, and sound. Certain genres of music were at home in some neighborhoods rather than others. So not only is the class and racial composition of the city uneven, the musical landscape is as well, and it changes over time. What those changes to the musical landscape are, and why they might occur is the current focus of my work.


(Rough Trade in Shoreditch, London. photo credit: Thomas Calkins)