Urban Consumption

The term urban consumption describes how the meanings of goods and commercially oriented experiences intermingle with space, place, and social identity in ways made possible by metropolitan life and are thereby specific to it. Urban consumption refers not just to purchases that occur within the confines of a city – as opposed to a suburb, or town or rural area. Rather, there is a character peculiar to the contexts of consumption which is both derived from, and is definitive of, urban culture. Urban life, to put it another way, is enmeshed with urban lifestyle.


Markets, Places, and Marketplaces

Max Weber points out that cities are market places where inhabitants have been liberated from direct agricultural production and live primarily off commerce and trade. A certain amount of economic versatility distinguishes cities from towns. The relative permanence of residence of many inhabitants makes both cities and towns distinguishable from their predecessors, the bazaar or crossroads market, where merchants and buyers would meet at regular intervals to exchange goods.

As marketplaces, cities combine the specificities and permanence of place with the dynamic and generalizing tendencies of markets. The great cities of antiquity and modernity – Delhi, Constantinople, Lisbon, Venice, Hong Kong, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo – garnered their character and identity from the dynamism of social and economic intercourse which invites the constant flow and mixing together of peoples, ethnicities, and goods in the form of traders, merchants, laborers, customers, and tourists. Cities, in this way, are portals which acquire and generate their unique culture from an interaction with and integration of many others.

The commercial quality of urban life also figures in the shaping of personal temperament, outlook, and attitude. Georg Simmel under stood that the vibrancy of cities fueled what he called the ‘‘blase attitude’’ of the metropolitan character, whereby urbanites would necessarily come to exhibit an indifference to the liveliness of the streets. In the city, according to Simmel, the dominance of the money economy in conjunction with the proximity of many strangers fosters an individualized kind of freedom which is borne out of the relatively anonymous existence one can lead in urban areas.

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Consumption In and Of the Industrial City

Large, crowded, and lively cities grew from towns at exponential rates across North America throughout the 1800s. Propelled by the social changes wrought by industrialization and fed with surging immigrant populations from first Western then Eastern and Southern Europe over the 1880–1924 period, a historically unique public culture arose on the streets of the new industrial cities. Inexpensive, public amusements became increasingly available to a growing number of urban inhabitants. Spurred on by technological advances in lighting and electricity, evening performances on the Vaudeville circuit, nickel movie houses known as Nickelodeons, amusement parks like those found at Coney Island in New York City, sports arenas, dance halls, and large, extravagant department stores became some of the most popular and visible of consumer entertainments.

With the increased efficiency and high productivity of mechanized factory production, large varieties and quantities of goods were made available at low prices. When Henry Ford, automobile manufacturer, uniformly raised the wages of his workers to $5 a day and limited them to 8 hour work days in 1914, he was giving concrete recognition that his workers were also consumers who were in need of time and money to participate in the new world of commercial goods and leisure activities. Professional occupations needed to service and coordinate the new economy – secretaries, accountants, lawyers, copywriters, and editors, among others – arose at this time, thereby giving rise to a new middle class with a growing disposable income. In general, increasing numbers of working people found more and more goods within their reach and these new goods were being made in an ever expanding array of styles and fashions.

The lavish display of many goods in department stores such as Marshall Field’s store in Chicago or John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia recalled that of great palaces or cathedrals. They welcomed women to indulge in shopping as a personal pleasure rather than the mere exercise of domestic labor of shopping for the family. Many of the goods on display – silks, perfumes, jewelry – were, in previous times, available only to royalty and the well to do. Now they were within the physical, monetary, and social reach of the middle class woman shopper. Shopping in these stores and among the goods, being able to touch and handle them, evoked images and feelings of abundance and luxury and encouraged fantasy. Many working class and immigrant women were relegated to another kind of fantasy – window shopping – by viewing the goods separated by the new, large windows that faced the street (Leach 1993).

The new public, urban culture increasingly was experienced as a consumer culture of shopping places, entertainment, and amusements outside of the home. Often understood as having had a ‘‘democratizing’’ influence on social arrangements, the urban cultures of consumption and amusement offered places and activities whereby different people and different kinds of people could come into contact with one another. In these contexts, the varied ways of life brought from different national traditions could be on display for, and mix with, each other. On the other hand, the new forms of public, urban leisure and consumption gave expression to the many social cleavages and social distinctions – such as race, ethnicity, class, and gender – already existing in American life.

The public world of fun and amusement represented a different ‘‘culture’’ than what could be found in the immigrant neighbor hoods of working people. In many neighbor hoods, Old World sensibilities dominated, particularly regarding the proper arrangement between the sexes. For unmarried women of European descent, the home was often the site of traditional authority where restrictive social and sexual mores were enforced by immigrant parents. The public world was heterosocial – mixing males and females – and, by its nature, most often took place outside of the surveillance of family and community. Moralists publicly decried the mixing of sexes in the dark movie theaters. The numerous dance halls, spurred by liquor industry interests, were places where ‘‘unescorted’’ women were welcome and where meeting an unknown man would not automatically call the women’s ‘‘virtue’’ into question.

‘‘Going out’’ meant physically and socially to leave one world behind and to enter a new one which was characterized by a sense of freedom. For many unmarried young women, conflicts with their parents were often over how much of their wages they could keep, and thus over their independence and privacy. A girl’s dress was also often an issue. Evidence from diaries and subsequent testimonials indicates that some women would hide their ‘‘American’’ clothes somewhere outside their residences to be put on in secret for an evening out and, upon returning home, would don the everyday work clothes or ethnic garb. The ‘‘freedom’’ women experienced in the anonymity of the city and the public nature of amusements also allowed a gay, male world to exist in the interstices of straight culture. In New York in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, commercialized leisure spaces such as ballrooms, saloons, and cafeterias existed where forms of dress, code words, and other coded signals marked out a discontinuous, half secret and half known geography of homosexual association.

Married or unmarried, men or women, gay or straight, those of the working classes spent what meager money they had outside of their small, often crowded rooms mixing with others on city streets. Weekend excursions to amusement places like New York’s Coney Island in the early twentieth century gave single women another opportunity to be away from parents and to go on ‘‘dates.’’ The new commercial landscape also divided genders, classes, sexualities, and races even as it appeared to have united them. African Americans remained virtually absent from urban public culture, particularly in the industrial cities of the North. Saloons, the haven of working men, were not welcoming to women. The well to do created their own exclusive sport clubs in the suburban areas of cities so as to ensure and promote race and class solidarity.

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Postindustrial Cities: The City as Consumerspace

Consumption and amusement in the industrial city arose out of commercial and social arrangements that had been based foremost on the structures and cadences defined by the demands of labor. Urban consumption appeared to be derived from and in response to urban production. Commercialized leisure allowed workers to find some sense of self away from the overdetermined environment of the factory, office, or behind the service counter. World’s fairs, particularly those in New York City in 1939 and 1964, proffered images of future cities as clean, streamlined machines of efficiency which privileged work over leisure and consumption as the dominant ideal or mode of city life. In contrast, the opening of Disney World in southern California in 1955 offered a vision of community without obvious laborers or labor whereby all activity is centered around touring and consumption.

The transformation from industrial to post industrial society entails the decline of mass production in favor of flexible forms of production which respond to increasingly specific markets and market fragments. The predominance of part time labor and the rise of the service sector characterize the trajectory of North American and many western, capitalist economies beginning in the 1970s. The rapid suburbanization of the American landscape in the 1950s and 1960s spawned the growth of shopping centers and eventually shopping malls, which brought together a number of stores in one place under the auspices of a single organization. City populations, particularly that of white European Americans, continued to decline also in response to racial urban unrest in the 1960s in a migration pat tern known as white flight. Consequently, by the end of the 1970s, many cities were facing high unemployment, unused factory and office space, and an unflattering image in public culture as places for crime and delinquency.

Urban planners, civic leaders, and real estate developers undertook a variety of efforts over the 1980s and 1990s to ‘‘revitalize’’ city centers by making them attractive places to visit. The key elements of revitalization centered around providing safe, some would say ‘‘sanitized,’’ areas where visitors could walk, browse, eat, shop, and be entertained without much worry about personal safety. Disney’s fantasy of Main Street USA in many ways has become the prototype for many urban areas and commercial zones in the post industrial period.

John Hannigan (1998) notes that the formula hit upon by planners and developers was one of a festival marketplace, which was distinguished from shopping malls in a number of ways. As opposed to standard shops ‘‘anchored’’ on either end by large retailers, festival marketplaces favored an eclectic mix of stores which emphasized eating and entertainment as much as shopping. Many of these marketplaces were built not in suburbs or outlying areas of the city, but often in downtown areas or old industrial areas of a city, often part of a larger plan at revitalization. Many observers point to Baltimore’s Harbor project, San Francisco’s Embarcadero, Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and Chicago’s Navy Pier as quintessential festival marketplaces.

These efforts were spurred by the interest of young urban professionals and artists who, in different ways, saw ‘‘inner city’’ areas as desirable places to live. In the 1970s and 1980s urban artists who were in search of inexpensive living spaces began renting or inhabiting lofts in abandoned or underused factories. Often white and from middle class, college educated backgrounds, the artists’ presence slowly transformed pockets of poorer areas into spaces where shops and restaurants catered to their tastes and lifestyles. During the same period, many white professionals who grew up in sub urban areas but who were employed in cities decided to forego the commuter lifestyle of their parents and live near their workplaces. Some of these yuppies were decidedly upper middle class in taste and lifestyle and they valued the architecture and design sensibilities of earlier periods. Drawn to older homes, many had a penchant for rehabilitating these structures to their original state.

Moving in or near blighted areas with the idea of rehabilitating housing stock is a key component of contemporary gentrification. It is also a process fraught with racial and class tensions, in part due to the seemingly inevitable displacement of the often poorer, non white populations by the gentrifiers, many of whom see themselves as ‘‘pioneers’’ on the urban ‘‘frontier.’’ As housing stock improves and as the newcomers (who wield the kind of social and cultural capital necessary to make larger structures like housing authorities and zoning com missions pay attention to them) begin to enact their vision of the community, the area itself begins to transform (Anderson 1990). Restaurants with vegetarian offerings, European style coffee houses, yoga studios, and second hand stores which feature expensive or vintage clothing are among the kinds of businesses which mark the class identification of these neighbor hoods (Zukin 1991). Eventually, chain retailers such as the Pottery Barn, Z Gallerie, and Whole Foods supermarkets strategically located themselves near their class clientele.

Revitalization and urban consumption have not proven to lift or assist those of racially or economically marginalized groups. As cities have again become places to shop, eat, and seek entertainment, and as more affluent, usually white, populations have come to habitate previously downtrodden areas, some non European ‘‘ethnic’’ businesses and areas have benefited. Chinatowns, Koreatowns, and Thai restaurants, as well as Mexican eateries and marketplaces, have to varying degrees of success found a niche in the consumer space of the city patronized by increasingly health conscious or novelty seeking consumers. Many critics point out that concentrating on upper income visitors and residents as targets for downtown revitalization ignores the majority of the middle and lower income populations who have been displaced to the outskirts of cities, ‘‘ethnic consumption’’ notwithstanding.

Sexually marginalized groups such as gay, lesbian, and transgendered people have found a measure of social enfranchisement through urban living and consumption. Stereotyped as affluent, urban, and cultured in taste, some cities have actively courted gay business owners and have provided social sanction in identifying certain neighborhoods as ‘‘gay’’ or gay dominated. Chicago’s North Halsted Street corridor is a prime example, where a 20 foot tall street marker painted with the gay rainbow flag announce the area’s identity to all.

Urban consumption, in many ways, extends beyond the downtown of the department store or festival marketplace and has come to define the character and identities of populations and neighborhoods with a focus on the particularities of place and population. It is a symbolic activity of identification and social distinction for residents as well as visitors. Spectacular themed environments, stores, and restaurants (e.g., Niketown) have located in high density urban shopping districts. These combine shopping and entertainment organized around a brand identity and offer visitors an easily accessible set of meanings with which to associate.

The relocating or rebuilding of ballparks in or near city centers has also been part of urban revitalization efforts, particularly in the 1990s. Public–private partnerships between cities and teams position the park as an anchor or main attraction around which shopping, restaurants, new transit hubs, and entertainment districts can arise. The parks themselves have become sites of entertainment beyond that of providing seating to view a sports contest. Often featuring extravaganzas of spectacle and consumption, many of the newer ballparks paradoxically recall a fabled ‘‘enchanted’’ era of non commercialized sports through their hyper commercialism (Ritzer & Stillman 2001).

Post industrial leisure and consumption, much like the case with housing stock and gentrification, finds new markets in old ones. The transformation of former working spaces like the South Street Market in New York, as well as tours of former work spaces like factories, point to the transformation of cities being from primarily places based on production to festival marketplaces based on touring and consumption.

Future research will need to examine the extent to which a group or area will have to market itself as a destination for outsiders in order to maintain economic viability. As many city mayors are required to serve as their city’s ‘‘brand manager,’’ it will be important to investigate critically the extent to which self marketing changes the character and identity of cities and neighborhoods and to what extent leveraging small parts of a city as a ‘‘destination’’ harms or helps the large hinterland of non-visitable places where most urban inhabitants live.

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