The City vs The Hood: A Google Image Comparison
A picture’s worth a thousand words – Part 2 Methodology & Introduction to this Series >>
"During the past thirty years, media images of cities and neighbourhoods have forged an increasingly important connection between capital, state, and the new urban middle class.." (Zukin, 2011, p. 229).
As media turns neighbourhoods into brands (Zukin, 2011), and digital natives participate in a new mixing culture (mixing offices and homes, coffee shops and bars), the economic survival of our urban system depends on places that not only offer jobs but that are 'fun' and/or 'safe' (McWilliams, 2015). So if this is the case, what can Google Images tell us about our neighbourhoods and our city - is it fun, safe, or something else?
Kingston, Ontario, Canada's first capital, is currently struggling with its' colonial past while trying to remain current and even appealing in an era of social disintegration made evident through its neighbourhood brands. This contested neoliberal, colonial history of Kingston is only exasperated by the complexities of the current pandemic and the city's reliance on the tourism sector as an economic driver of growth and preventing decline. The City of Kingston is currently at a brand turning point in identity politics and a simple Google Image search for "Kingston Ontario" brings this to light with 44% of photos showing limestone buildings, artifacts associated with Sir John A, and/or military fortifications.
What is interesting, however, is that searches at the neighbourhood level in Kingston show only 3% of the images highlighting those same historical and colonial themes. Instead, the neighbourhood scale shows a story much richer in tapestry, acts of daily living, and often with little regard to commercial motivations supporting alternative modes of consumption - perhaps even a form of people's right to the city (Masuda & Bookman, 2018). This creates a juxtaposition with how the city is perceived globally and locally and points out how little 'we' actually know about the places we visit, live, and study (Derrida, 1991, as cited in Nayak & Jeffrey, 2013).
The "Kingston Ontario" brand as told through Google Images is a brand that cares most about tourism attraction and less about its' residents. Through the sources and the target audience, there is a concrete neoliberal brand in search of capital through tourism attraction. It uses its waterfront (56% of images show the waterfront), mixed with grand limestone buildings as the brandscaped backdrop to... almost everything, even if the actual headline speaks to something different entirely (Wood, 2013).
The neighbourhoods at an aggregate level share a branded imaginary of a place that is focused on residents and resident attraction, a place that is rich in history (based on cemeteries and ghost stories more than Sir John A), culture, parks and available housing. The neighbourhoods share stories of revitalization - perhaps as a symbol of capitalism finding its way in at every scale, of the current era of social disintegration, and of social change through activism for current contestations such as Black Lives Matter (McBurney neighbourhood really drives this brand imaginary).
The contrast between the two scales (neighbourhoods vs the city) seems as if you are almost reading an entirely different place. But I would say that Kingston is not 'fun' or 'safe' based on the story Google Images tells the world - perhaps historic, quaint, clean and good for tourists. The neighbourhoods are not 'fun' or 'safe' either when seen through this platform, but are ripe with protest, gentrification, and greenspace - suggesting maybe that the waterfront is for visitors only, and the parks are for the residents.
I will leave you with one more observation - renderings, maps and graphics were most often noted at the neighbourhood level, while the city was represented almost entirely by photos - is this another symbol that neighbourhoods are dreaming, drawing, thinking about the future, and the city is something stuck on stories of the past? If nothing else, it tells us two things - Google Images is perception not reality but instead 'hyper-real' in a world where simulacra and images have greater significance than places experienced through physicality (Avraham & Ketter, 2013; Baudrillard, 1998; Hochman, Manovich, & Yazdani, 2014); and if the city or its residents don't like this perception, it's going to take more than changing a sign or monument - someone is going to have to take a picture and post it for it to become real.
Avraham, E., & Ketter, E. (2013). Marketing Destinations with Prolonged Negative Images: Towards a Theoretical Model. Tourism Geographies, 15(1), 145–164.
Baudrillard, J. (1998). The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. In Theory, Culture & Society. SAGE Publications Ltd.
Hochman, N., Manovich, L., & Yazdani, M. (2014). On Hyper-locality: Performances of Place in Social Media. Proceedings of 2014 International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM).
Masuda, J. R., & Bookman, S. (2018). Neighbourhood branding and the right to the city. Progress in Human Geography, 42(2), 165–182.
McWilliams, D. (2015). Flat White Economy. Duckworth Overlook.
Nayak, A., & Jeffrey, A. (2013). Geographical thought: An introduction to ideas in Human Geography. In Geographical Thought: An Introduction to Ideas in Human Geography.
Wood, D. M. (2013). Brandscapes of control? Surveillance, marketing and the co-construction of subjectivity and space in neo-liberal capitalism. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470593112467264
Zukin, S. (2011). Naked city. the death and life of authentic urban places. Oxford University Press.