Professor Sharon Zukin
Broeklundian Professor of Sociology,
Brooklyn College, City University of New York
I want to express my thanks to the Central Policy Unit and to the people
of Hong Kong and its Government, for inviting me as their guest to speak
with you today. It is a great honour for me to be here.
I understand that the subject of our discussion is what I prefer to call the
symbolic economy. Loosely speaking, the symbolic economy is defined
by three points: it is urban; it is based on the production of symbols as
basic commodities; and third, it is based on the production, in a very
self-conscious way, of spaces as both sites and symbols of the city and of
The symbolic economy has become a subject of interest in cities around
the world since the 1970s. That was an auspicious era, both in Hong
Kong and in the United States as well as in Western Europe, because of
the decline and relocation of manufacturing facilities, which left a gap in
many traditional industrial economies. The gap, to a small degree, was
filled by the rise of the so-called knowledge-based industries and
activities that placed design and innovation at the forefront of production.
Another factor that made the symbolic economy economically important
is the rise of flexibility in organization, in production and in
specialization, which gave primacy to the bright, the quick and the
innovative, whether they are firms, cities or individuals.
From the 1980s three additional factors made attention to the symbolic
economy more important in cities. First, the rise of consumer product
industries and multi-media industries. Second, the development of the
global market place with its geographical dispersion and dis-aggregation
of production and aggregation of consumption.
These various changes in industrial organization led to a greater
standardization of products and a replication of the same sorts of facilities
all over the world, whether these were industrial facilities or cultural
facilities. But the competition between these facilities and the
organizations that support them required these organizations to develop
more differentiation, which they did and continue to do, in cultural terms
- in terms of design, in terms of symbolic production.
In various regions around the world, therefore, government policies have
gradually come to focus on the support of culture in a different way from
governmental policies in the past. In the United States, governmental
support of culture is seen as a less costly subsidy to the economy than a
subsidy to business. Second, government support of culture promises to
improve the quality of life for all people in the population. Of course,
that is the promise; it remains to be seen whether that promise is kept.
And third, governmental support of culture is seen as a way of enhancing
the reputation of specific places. That, of course, brings us to the subject
of today’s conference, ‘The Cultures of World Cities’, with a significance
for both business and quality of life.
So, culture, in the large sense, becomes the product of the symbolic
economy and reverses the historical meaning of culture and the historical
position of culture, in the great cities of the world. Culture used to be a
by-product of wealth. Now, culture is seen as a generator of wealth.
And therefore, governments, businesses and various organizations pursue
culture in a much more determined and ambitious way than they have in
By the same token, the very term ‘World Cities’, which I believe is a 20 th
century term - although the phenomenon, as Professor Chang says, is an
ancient one - the term ‘World Cities’, as a 20th century term, binds
together business and culture. Patrick Geddes, the British urbanist,
wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, that world cities are cities
where a disproportionate amount of the world’s business is conducted.
Closer to our time, in the 1960s, another British urbanist, Peter Hall,
wrote about world cities as places where we find the greatest
concentration of political power, trade, rich people and entertainment
facilities. In a more recent book, in the 1990s, Peter Hall added cultural
creativity to the definition of world cities.
John Friedeman and Gertz Wolfe in the 1980s, wrote about world
cities as places where there is a disproportionate amount of capital
accumulation – again, emphasizing the role of financial institutions – in
the development of culture. And Saskia Sassen, in a book on ‘The
Global City’ at the beginning of the 1990s, also concentrated on world
cities as centres for the co-ordination of finance.
So there seems to be, for 100 years at least, a strong merger of culture and
business in the symbolic economy of world cities. If we break down the
merger of culture and business in world cities we find three main points.
First, an assumption that culture attracts business. Second, as I
suggested earlier, we find a suggestion that culture strengthens a city’s
reputation for innovation. Third, in more crudely economic terms, we
find an assumption that culture enables a city to establish a monopoly on
uniqueness, a monopoly on identity, and this monopoly enables various
institutions in the private sector to charge monopoly prices.
But the situation in world cities in the 21st century is more complex than
it used to be. I simplify for the purposes of a diagram and I speak, of
course, from the perspective of the development of the United States. In
the 19th and 20th centuries, the old industrial paradigm of spaces in world
cities was relatively simple. There were people who moved between
their homes and their work places. There were also important
intermediate spaces that I would call ethnic spaces in the sense of being
traditional cultural spaces, based on language, based on common popular
traditions, and based on common religion.
In the 21st century, the spaces in which people move in world cities, and
in all large cities, indeed are more complex. First of all, people are more
mobile than ever before, both in their daily patterns and in their
occasional trips to other regions of the world. Second, communications
and interactions between people are more dependent on media. We
would say, relations between people are more mediated than direct. Third,
there are more fluid boundaries between different institutional and
organizations spheres, so that people, as well as symbols, move more
easily between their places of origin, whether their places of origin are
geographical or institutional.
This mobility, this degree of mobility, makes it much more significant
than ever before to construct images – to construct images of cities in
what I would call ‘the urban imaginary’; to attract people, to draw them
in; to improve the life of the public sphere. But the construction of the
urban imaginary is not just a deliberate effort by government or by
business or by the media. Branding, for example – as interesting as it
may be and as commercially rewarding as it has been for many
businesses – branding is only one small part of the urban imaginary.
The urban imaginary is made up of ordinary people walking everyday in
the streets, ordinary people talking, wearing clothes, cooking food, and
developing the sense of excitement that we find in world cities.
The urban imaginary also includes the struggle between forces of social
control and forces that try to break loose from social control. In culture
that struggle is particularly important because as people have become
mobile, access to the means of cultural production has become more
democratic and the influence on culture from below has become much
more significant, in terms of both personal meaning and commercial
profit. From popular music to clothing, there has been much more of
an emphasis on style that emerges democratically from young people,
from the streets, from new people who start out without resources but
develop on the basis of their new ideas.
And yet, here we come to a paradox: as style, as access to the means of
cultural expression becomes more democratic, centralized monopolies try
to maintain control over the production of symbols, whether those
symbols are art museums or culture industries. I know that we have
many examples from the business world: the suppression of NAPSTA on
the Internet, for example, is a recent example of an established monopoly
trying to prevent a more democratic access to cultural commodities.
But I see this paradox as a permanent paradox, a paradox between
centralized monopolies that attempts to control cultural production, and
the new ideas that require democratic access to the means of cultural
expression in order to create new styles, new fashions, new ideas, new
ways of life.
How is this paradox acted-out in the spaces of the city? It is acted-out in
two major ways. In the first way, the paradox between cultural
monopolies and democratic expression is acted-out by people trying to
challenge symbolic languages of inclusion and entitlement to central
public spaces. One important central public space, even when land is
scarce as in Hong Kong, is the street itself, and park space, open space,
where people may meet, where they may gather, where they may express
themselves individually and collectively.
A second area in which the paradox between centralized monopolies and
democratic access is acted-out is in residential space. Where property
values are high and housing prices are also high, there is always a
struggle for new people and people without resources to gain living space
and work space, and for cultural groups, often performance space.
In New York City, as well as other large cities of the world, over the past
40 years, small pockets of central spaces have been carved out through
gentrification, through the insertion of artists, cultural producers and
cultural consumers into areas that otherwise would be demolished,
destroyed, torn down and rebuilt as higher-value commercial facilities.
So that the insertion of artists and cultural producers into central spaces of
the city for living and for work, as well as for rehearsal and performance,
for studio space as we say in New York City, has been a very important
site of conflict between those who wish democratic access of the means
of cultural production and those who would impose or retain centralized
monopolies, whether those monopolies are commercial monopolies or
A third area in which the struggle between democratic access and
centralized monopolies is acted-out is in specific performance spaces and
specific practice spaces, which cultural producers require at low rents in
order to stay as part of the urban economy. Someone told me in one of
my meetings yesterday, about an oil-depot, in North Point I believe, that
was given temporarily to some cultural producers for workspace. But,
as often happens in big cities, in the United States as well as in Hong
Kong, when a more profitable use of that space opened up, the artists had
to move. This, again, is a recurrent acting-out of the struggle between
those who need democratic access to the means of cultural production
and those centralized monopolies that keep control of the production of
Another area in which there is always a struggle between the two
opposing forces is in the actual content of exhibitions and performance,
and even in the architectural programme of cultural facilities, so that in
every city around the world the property developers and government
officials create a new convention centre, a new art museum and other
monumental buildings that bring the public in, but under controlled
In the United States, of course, there is a constant struggle that is
expressed quite openly in politics, between those who want to devote
more resources to building monumental buildings and those who want to
devote more resources to subsidizing the small infill, small pocket spaces
that cultural producers need.
And finally, of course, there is always the conflict between those people
who would rather go to see kung fu action movies – at least in New York
City – and those who would rather use the central areas of the city to
erect more monumental spaces in the forms of opera houses and
museums. No one can resolve this struggle, this is one of the permanent
paradoxes of having a world city.
There have been changes, also, in the way we experience the spaces of
cities, the morphology of cities, the relation between spaces of cities, the
built environment in terms of architecture and the general sensory or
sensual - visual, as well as tactile and smell and audio experience of cities
- over the past 100 years as culture has become a more important and a
more self-conscious part of city planning.
The paradigm of city spaces in the early 20 th century was drawn by the
Chicago school of urban sociologists from the University of Chicago, but
their diagram has relevance to our understanding of how the central
spaces of the city have been opened up by new cultural forms over the
past 50 years. In the early 20th century, cities had a historic centre that
contained a relatively small high-culture core. This area was surrounded
by zones that were inhabited by low-income groups, often different ethnic
groups, who concentrated together in factory spaces, in the home as well
as in separate factory buildings, and these areas were often considered
closed to others from outside the ethnic group or the social class. They
were considered ‘dirty’ by those who enjoyed the high-culture facilities of
the centre. Every city had these areas of the city until quite recently.
The area of Soho, in Lower Manhattan, was called, until the late 1960s,
‘Hell’s Hundred Acres’, because it was such a closed area with so many
garment manufacturers, particularly at the low-end of garment
manufacturing, that the firefighters hated to go in there to try to put out
fires. Wanchai probably has a similar reputation or had a similar
reputation, for different reasons. Usually, the areas around central bus
terminals and central train stations have that reputation for being dirty
In the 1970s however, the conversion of old manufacturing facilities, in
American cities, supported new cultural facilities – the workspaces, the
performance spaces of artists, new restaurants, small entrepreneurial
organizations that did not necessarily operate for a profit but did try to
build up cultural value in the old districts of cities. The population was
divided, some people continued to see these districts as being dirty,
derelict, abandoned, but other people, particularly young people and
portions of the middle-class, were attracted to these quarters. And
through cultural performances and cultural consumption of other sorts,
new people were brought in who found these quarters of the city open
rather than closed, and clean rather than dirty.
By the same token, in American cities’ rents in these quarters remained
low, so that they became incubators - as the urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote of
them around 1960 - they became incubators of new cultural industries.
During the 1960s, a change of mentality in the United States enhanced
the building up of cultural value in these quarters. There was a sense
that modernization had moved so fast we lost the old world of aesthetic
values that people find in low-rise buildings, in old materials, in less
monumental spaces. And the pressure by more educated people at first,
and then by various community groups, resulted in the development of
laws to preserve the historic fabric of old sections of buildings. So that
in the United States, lofts – hence the term loft-living – lofts or old
manufacturing spaces became spaces of cultural value, spaces that people
appreciated for their sensory qualities, as well as for the possibilities they
opened for cultural production of various types. People began to live in
lofts, people began to open art galleries in lofts, whole sections of New
York City where loft buildings were preserved, became the generators of
new commercial districts and eventually touristic districts.
The disadvantage of that sort of development, of course, is that property
values rose over a period of time, so that the original artists and cultural
producers often had to move elsewhere. In New York City, where I live,
the transformation of Soho from an arts district to a place where you find
branches of upscale shops from Chanel to Hermes, has been one of the
more surprising transformations of the past 20 years. The arts character
of a district then moves on to another district, but without some support,
in terms of the use of land and the protection of buildings on the part of
the government, these old quarters never have a chance to assume cultural
By our time, now, there is much more mobility among spaces with old
cultural capital and new cultural capital than there ever was before. The
revitalization of old streets and buildings by design shops, as well as
restaurants, art galleries and performance spaces, proceeds so that there is
a constant flow of people among different districts. The presence of
young artists who create a sense of style, of ‘cool’, of new ideas, benefits
not only the artists themselves but also benefits the art museums and
opera houses that operate at a different level of the production chain and
culture. But the presence of young artists and ‘cool’ stylists and
designers also benefits the financial institutions that want to provide a
better quality of life for the people who work in them. A better quality
of life for people today often means a more interesting quality of life.
By the same token, you notice the reappearance of ethnic spaces here on
my diagram, and the ethnic spaces are recognized today as being greater
contributors to the cultural capital of world cities than they were
recognized for the past few generations. New immigrants to world cities
are considered as contributing not only labour but also symbolic products
that go into the mix of the general production of culture in world cities.
The mass media, particularly those parts of the media that concentrate on
urban lifestyle, have been very important in accentuating the cultural
value as well as the financial value of new immigrants’ cultural products.
When they produce and publish entertainment guides and shopping
guides, they acknowledge the importance of cultural products of new
immigrants in ways that those products have not been recognized before.
The aesthetic and sensual qualities of new cultural producers and new
immigrants cannot be satisfied by building more venues of standardized
cultural consumption, like shopping malls. In American cities we have
been lucky to be able to preserve old buildings, old quarters and the life
of the street in which new immigrants and new cultural producers add
By the same token, there are disadvantages and paradoxes to the new
recognition of the economic significance of new immigrants’ cultural
products. Ethnic cultures in the United States are often commodified so
that those products become the profit-making lines of new corporations.
I don’t know whether on television in Hong Kong you have seen the
American programme “The Sopranos”. It is a series on American Cable
Television that makes a drama, a sort of soap opera, out of the life of
Italian-American gangsters. I don’t watch this very often but I have
watched a couple of episodes of this programme and I was intrigued by
one humorous line that a character says. Two of these Italian-American
gangsters are standing in a café that looks like Starbucks and one of them
says to another, “You know, we Italians invented espresso but now
everyone else is profiting from it”. So one of the dangers of
acknowledging the economic value of immigrants’ cultural products is
that those products become detached from the original ethnic cultures and
become commodities, rootless commodities I would say, just like any
By the same token, another paradox of this development of adding
financial value to the cultural value of certain products, is that artists
themselves become more entrepreneurial. Many want to come to
world cities to be more visible. In contrast, perhaps, to artists who
wanted to move to world cities in the early 20 th century and in earlier
centuries because they wanted to be invisible, they wanted to remove
themselves from the scrutiny of society. And in the early 1980s there
was a very interesting movement of artists in the East Village of
Manhattan who both protested their commercial viability and enjoyed the
buzz, the publicity that they achieved for their products and their cultural
So that when you think of the cultural districts of world cities, you really
can think not only of social networks of people and specific products that
come from these districts, but you can think of these districts as regional
industrial districts in which the basic commodity is culture.
I have used the word downtown with reference to American cities
because these cultural districts are usually found in the centre of cities
which we call, as you know, downtown. And I want to call your
attention only to the general economic processes as well as cultural
processes that make these cultural districts very much like any industrial
district that is successful.
First, there are flows of labour as well as capital; there are clusters or
concentrations of people and institutions; and then there are networks of
people in different institutional spheres who work together. World cities
depend on a constant replenishment of the cultural labour supply. They
depend on new artists moving into the city continually. World cities
depend on new gallery owners coming from other countries, from other
regions, and opening up their venues and their quarters to new consumers
Clusters or concentrations of cultural producers are extremely important.
I don’t know what the concentrations might look like in Hong Kong but
in New York there are and have been for some years, certain districts that
are known for artists cafes, artists’ residences and artists’ studies, whether
those are performing artists or conceptual artists or visual artists.
By 1960 – and that is 40 years ago – by 1960 more than two-thirds of
American artists were living in New York City, so that when you talk
about the building of a world city on the basis of culture, you really have
to go back a long time. I am not saying you have to go back centuries,
but you do have to go back a number of decades. And then that large
concentration of artists in a city must be permitted to break down into
clusters in specific quarters. They must have the spaces to create their
own communities and their own products.
By the same token, property developers have not been left behind in the
development of New York City as a world city since 1960. One of New
York’s big property developers, Donald Trump, emphasized recently that
the importance of being in New York City for a property developer is not
just an importance of making a large profit but an importance of being
surrounded by clusters of people. When he was interviewed by Fortune
Magazine in an article that found New York City to be one of the best
cities for business in the year 2000, Donald Trump said, “Everyone’s
here, so you don’t really have to leave”.
A business owner said, “New York City is a place where you’re taken
seriously”, so that there is a subjective value to operating as either a
business person or an artist in a world city. Again, the media are very
important to encouraging the socializing among different institutional
groups in cities, and the media are important in publicizing the work of
cultural producers as well as financial institutions and property
developers. The idea of ‘buzz’, in other words the idea of publicity, of
excitement, of talk, of news, is common to all three of these spheres –
culture, property development and finance.
The American architect, Hugh Hardy, was quoted in the New York Times
the other day as saying that he prefers to build in New York City, not,
unfortunately, for any qualities of the people or any qualities of the city,
but for the quality of publicity that you find in New York City. And
Hardy said, “When you’re talked about here in New York City, it registers
everywhere, it’s like a great big trumpet”.
I want to bring up one final point which appears to be a paradox and
that’s the paradox between the ability of world cities to charge monopoly
prices on the basis of their reputation and the idea of competition among
cities to become world cities. I think competition is good. I think
competition keeps different cities ambitiously pursuing vitality, buzz, and
excitement. I think without competition cultural producers would not
receive the degree of support they have received for the past few decades.
Yet, competition is frightening, whether the cities that are competing are
New York and Los Angeles or Shanghai and Hong Kong or Madrid and
Recently, the Mayor of Seattle, in Washington in the United States, said
in an interview in the magazine, “Fast Company”, that he would like
Seattle to become the Geneva of the Pacific. Now, I found that very
puzzling. Most people in the United States do not refer to the city of
Geneva in Switzerland at all, so why was the Mayor of Seattle saying he
would like Seattle to be the Geneva of the Pacific Ocean. He meant that
he wanted Seattle to be the place or a place where international ideas can
be exchanged. He said, “We want to be the place where the most
choices bang against each other, where sparks fly”. To that effect, he
and the business leaders and the cultural leaders of Seattle were building
more monumental spaces – a new central library, as you have here in
Hong Kong, they were building a new art museum, as you have here in
Hong Kong, and they were also building, however, incubator spaces for
new artists, both in traditional media and in multimedia. And it is this
incubator idea that is again just as important as building the monumental
Finally, I want to close by quoting a fashion journalist from New York
City who recently compared New York to Paris and said, proudly, if not
arrogantly, that New York had not only surpassed Paris as a generator of
style but is likely to continue to surpass Paris as a generator of style.
This journalist said New York has three qualities that are essential to be a
culture capital of the world. First, New York City has “moxie” – this is
a slang word in America, not everybody knows this word - “moxie”
means courage, energy, audacity and nerve. It is, of course, a quality of
all big cities, but particularly a quality of New York City.
The second quality the journalist mentioned was what I would call ethnic
culture. The journalist said New York has a broad racial dispersion.
But I would suggest it is this ethnic diversity that is closely related to the
fusion culture for which world cities have always been known.
The third quality the journalist mentioned is an unquenchable thirst for
the new. And this I think we would all agree, is the essential quality of a
world city – the thirst for the new, in every sense.
Finally, I might point out that in New York City, the civil society of a
world city is often very uncivil. The city is dirty, the city is often
chaotic – I’m sure it is much more chaotic than Hong Kong in many ways
- but even more than that, civil society in the United States, and
especially in New York City, is often an oppositional sort of culture in
which people frankly speak of their differences and openly speak of their
struggles. I would suggest that world cities remember this – that a civil
society is often uncivil. But perhaps that is the secret of the eternal life
of a world city.