On Kern, Sex & the Revitalized City

As everyone read the Kern chapters, I will use this post to prompt some discussion.

First. There are many things that I appreciate about Kern’s book: among other things, I welcome her ability to explicitly link urban policy, the praxis of development, and the experiences of young women condo owners. I am left wondering about gender, however. In the text, gender works as something of a monolithic category. It is deployed but not necessarily examined. At the same time, there seems to be something of (at times, ever so slight) a re-fashioning of how gender is understood and performed for these middle-class women condo owners. Does gender get re-worked in this text, in your opinion?

Second. Kern’s discussion of community is an important challenge to the notion that communities necessarily emerge out of “shared” space, or that new developments in existing, well-established neighbourhoods will join in with similar kinds of community engagement. It’s actually a mystery to me why anyone would make these assumptions. Perhaps this is because I have also written about community in an effort to unsettle its romantic lure. Following Miranda Joseph and others, I interrogated the ways that my interviewees employed the term/idea, arguing that these women used “community” as a way to assert agency. Here’s a piece of my argument (from Muller 2007, “‘Lesbian Community’ in WNBA Spaces”, Social & Cultural Geography):

“MN Lynx [Women’s National Basketball Association] fans reveal that ‘lesbian community’ is invoked as a claim to agency when markers that previously signalled lesbian space have been rendered incoherent. In other words, ‘community’ discourse can be read as an assertion of empowerment in a time and place when lesbian spaces have been dissolved into the urban landscape, and when there is no clearly identifiable ‘lesbian space’.”

I raise this here as another example of how “community” is marked (and marketed). Just as my focus on WNBA fans highlighted the conflicted uses of “community” discourses, Kern’s discussion illustrates how “community” is both imposed (by developers’ visions of what condo living should look like) and adopted by some condo owners, just as it is impossible to operationalize (see p. 118). What are your thoughts about the way that community works in this book?

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14 thoughts on “On Kern, Sex & the Revitalized City

  1. Regarding gender being referenced as a monolithic category: although Kern mentioned in her introduction that she would not specifically be addressing issues of ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability in her study (meaning she would not ask participants to self-identify within any of these categories), I question if and how this avoidance of an intersectional analysis hinders her findings, and possibly perpetuates the very stereotypical views of citizenship, ownership, and ‘community’ participation she is seeking to problematize. Kern acknowledges the inherent class privilege of her participants, simply because of the fact that they have the financial means to purchase expensive condos. And supposedly, because of this fact, most of the participants are assumed to be white, able-bodied and heterosexual.

    Yet I found myself constantly asking: how would these views, experiences and justifications change if this was a lesbian woman? Or an immigrant woman of colour? For example, when participants talk about feeling “a sense of ownership” over their condo building, or participating in “community” events or dinners – how might this sense of ownership or community participation change depending on experiences of racism in urban environments? Or accessibility issues? Or if a single lesbian woman felt that her non-heteronormative experiences would not be received in this community?

    Kern seems to be interested in complicating monolithic gendered concepts of citizenship, ownership, consumerism, community involvement, etc, by highlighting women’s actual, lived experiences. Yet in failing to address the intersectional aspects of women’s lives I believe she runs the risk of perpetuating simplistic, and even racist/heteronormative/ableist discourses.

    What do you all think?

    • I seemed to have found myself thinking the same things as the previous comments above/below. Last week I posed the question: “How can a city include all aspects of its population rather than just focusing on one at a time?” – in regard to a white, heterosexual female. The un-regonized lesbian, immigrant and lone mother seem to be excluded and I question why? Bringing higher quality to life whether through infrastructures, places or spaces is more than important but Kern seems to have only focused on a generic field of heterosexual women purchasing condos. Bailey brings up a great point as we have all heard of, or seen single women purchasing condos, or apartments, a phenomenon we are all aware of. Georgia also points out that more depth would be beneficial and I agree with this as purchasing condominiums by coloured, immigrant or not heterosexual women is an important area to focus on and view the gender biases and experiences these women may face in regards to white, middle-class heterosexual females.

  2. I definitely felt the same way while reading it, Zoë. While I really appreciated Kern’s complication of the idea of “community”, and the fact that she acknowledged the economic priviledge of her case studies as you mentioned, I also felt the lack of intersectionality or complication of gender made the book less appealing to me.
    At best, Kern is bringing to light the fact that condo ownership is severely one-dimensional in terms of race/ability/etc. – which is great, but I found myself questioning whether this was truly helpful literature or not. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to read about all of the pitfalls that an individual who does not fit this trope encounters in their attempts to claim an urban citizenship? What if someone reading this missed the mark completely and concluded “that’s just the way it is”?
    At worst, she is purposely ignoring identities such as ethnicity or orientation based on an assumption that socioeconomic class accounts for all of these things. It is very possible that some of the women she spoke with were able to secure condo ownership while also experiencing nuances in their daily life that are a direct result of their marginalized status.
    That being said, Kern did point out that even the middle-class, employed, white, consumerist urban woman is a very different idea than what was considered acceptable 60 years ago. It’s just that this analysis of gender was lost on me because as far back as I can remember, I have seen and heard the concept of the single female condo-owner, so it doesn’t seem as topical to me.

  3. I worry that the definition of “community” as it is defined by the developers mentioned by Kern and in the neoliberal perspective in general discounts entire swaths of people from being included. These people, specifically, tend to be the low income individuals who have lived in these areas long before they were selected as a desirable site for condominium development. To this point, the former residents more than likely had advanced communities of their own and according to their own definitions. To me, the most important consequence of Kern’s careful unpacking of the issues regarding simplistic, exclusive definitions of “community” is it’s praxis. Having detailed the problem fairly succinctly, how are we the readers to respond in a meaningful way?

  4. Great points everyone! I agree with Brooke that the definition of “community” by economic/city planners and developers are too narrow. There are brief mentions and acknowledgements of internationality, but I feel it would be beneficial to go into more depth regarding class and race/ethnicity of the individuals being affected – in ways that Brook has mentioned. Also, I would’ve like to have read how and if there have been groups of either women or individuals in generally who have resisted condominium development.

  5. Great points! Unfortunately, I was on the main page before I saw this so my response is to the question posed in the premeeting questions: “In her study, Kern (2010) discusses how developers in Toronto market condominiums to women as their key demographic by creating a sense of ‘community.’ ……Do you think living in a condominium increases your likelihood to meet friends/ partners that you share common interests compared to living in a suburban single family home? Or do you believe the concept of ‘community’ within condominiums is simply a façade created by marketing teams?”

    This is just an anecdote but, from personal experience, the condo that I am renting is probably the furthest thing from community. The courtyard is rarely used by anyone in the building, even in the hot summer months. It is very rare that someone will offer up more than a nod in the elevator and instead of holding doors open, people will literally shut doors in your face (for fear of break-ins). Alright, now that I’ve got that out of my system, on to the discussion of Kern (2010).

    Kern discusses the possibility of close living quarters and communal spaces leading to a sense of community in the building. While I acknowledge this possibility, it seems unlikely that the condo ‘lifestyle’ is conducive to building community. It seems much more likely that people who desire to live in condos, who can afford to live in condos, and who aspire to that ‘lifestyle’ are probably already wrapped up in multiple individualistic discourses that are quite antithetical to building strong communal ties. For instance, the corporate structure precludes any sort of meaningful collective decision making. As Kern mentions, owning a condo is presented as a means to ’empowerment,’ yet this gets translated into much more individualistic terms in which women see their problems as individual shortcomings. In addition, the gym facilities pander to certain disciplinary practices of femininity, namely, the strict adherence to feminine bodily norms and self-regulation of diet and exercise. Again, the ‘modern’ woman is encouraged to focus on individual solutions to her problems such as achieving the perfect body, and this is conceptualized as another means to empowerment. Finally, everything in a condo must be incredibly close by: Skytrains, grocery stores, gyms, yoga studios, liquor stores, etc. From a Foucauldian perspective, this can be seen as the increasing need of modernity to economize time and to organize it in a useful way (Foucault, 1979). Yet Foucault (1979) also notes that these disciplinary measures, that actually empower individuals (in terms of utility) are then dissociated from the power that might result from them by turning it inwards, thereby supplanting external authority for a situation in which the individual regulates herself.

    This is pretty much how I feel about condos. The possibility is there and I can attest to that but it is not materializing (in part) because of all these normative constraints. To be proactive, how do we do better? Anyone have any suggestions?

    The only thing I can think of that I think might be very effective (if it could somehow be feasible) is to supplant the corporate structure with a collective structure with collective decision making. Not sure how possible this is with respect to condominiums but collectives, in general, seem to be one way out of the individualistic discourses that are applied to housing arrangements.

    p.s. everyone made great points about inclusion/exclusion which definitely deserved mention here.
    p.p.s. sorry this is so long.

    • Great ideas everyone! Paisley I enjoyed the points your brought up from the book and your own personal experiences. I too once lived in a condo downtown for just under a year and it was the most detached I’d ever felt to any community I have lived in. Like Tiffany mentioned, communities in this sense are marked and marketed, and I do believe that the ‘community’ is a facade purposefully used by condo developers as a selling point. The sense of community has become a commodity and those who can afford it are given access to it. There is also an already established idea of what kind of community the condo will be and who will be a part of it. Though it is framed as a community in my opinion it does not at all reflect the realities of what kind of community it actually provides. The true nature of the community in condos that is encouraged is very limited and extremely regulated, Kern made a good point that social interaction really only occurs around conflict.
      I don’t think that everyone living in condos are more likely to be individualistic and not wanting much engagement with their communities, I don’t know, but it definitely appears that way as there seems to be very limited interaction between people. However, I think that is what condo’s aim to do, people are not encouraged to engage, concerns over security are high, in and out of the condo that people don’t want to upset others so they remain disengaged. This also made me think of my experience as a woman in elevators in condos. Though I like knowing the people in my community I realize I was not so willing to engage in social interactions with men in my condo for the fear that someone may figure out where I lived or may become interested in me and then I would have to put up with a really awkward situation where it would be out of my control to stay away from this person because they live in the same building. So in a sense I did not want to risk my comfort and safety. It also might be that some men are aware of that dynamic too and hence do not engage socially for not wanting to make a women uncomfortable. I kind of think of it in relation to men crossing to the opposite side of a quiet street at night when there is a woman on their side that might feel threatened.

  6. In response to: In her study, Kern (2010) discusses how developers in Toronto market condominiums to women as their key demographic by creating a sense of ‘community.’ ……Do you think living in a condominium increases your likelihood to meet friends/ partners that you share common interests compared to living in a suburban single family home? Or do you believe the concept of ‘community’ within condominiums is simply a façade created by marketing teams?

    This is just an anecdote but, from personal experience, the condo that I am renting is probably the furthest thing from community. The courtyard is rarely used by anyone in the building, even in the hot summer months. It is very rare that someone will offer up more than a nod in the elevator and instead of holding doors open, people will literally shut doors in your face (for fear of break-ins).

    Alright, now that I’ve got that out of my system, on to the discussion of Kern (2010). Kern discusses the possibility of close living quarters and communal spaces leading to a sense of community in the building. While I acknowledge this possibility, it seems unlikely that the condo ‘lifestyle’ is conducive to building community. It seems much more likely that people who desire to live in condos, who can afford to live in condos, and who aspire to that ‘lifestyle’ are probably already wrapped up in multiple individualistic discourses that are quite antithetical to building strong communal ties. For instance, the corporate structure precludes any sort of meaningful collective decision making. As Kern mentions, owning a condo is presented as a means to ’empowerment,’ yet this gets translated into much more individualistic terms in which women see their problems as individual shortcomings. In addition, the gym facilities pander to certain disciplinary practices of femininity, namely, the strict adherence to feminine bodily norms and self-regulation of diet and exercise. Again, the ‘modern’ woman is encouraged to focus on individual solutions to her problems such as achieving the perfect body, and this is conceptualized as another means to empowerment. Finally, everything in a condo must be incredibly close by: Skytrains, grocery stores, gyms, yoga studios, liquor stores, etc. From a Foucauldian perspective, this can be seen as the increasing need of modernity to economize time and to organize it in a useful way (Foucault, 1979). Yet Foucault (1979) also notes that these disciplinary measures, that actually empower individuals (in terms of utility) are then dissociated from the power that might result from them by turning it inwards, thereby supplanting external authority for a situation in which the individual regulates herself.

    This is pretty much how I feel about condos. The possibility is there and I can attest to that but it is not materializing (in part) because of all these normative constraints. To be proactive, how do we do better? Anyone have any suggestions?

    The only thing I can think of that I think might be very effective (if it could somehow be feasible) is to supplant the corporate structure with a collective structure with collective decision making. Not sure how possible this is with respect to condominiums but collectives, in general, seem to be one way out of the individualistic discourses that are applied to housing arrangements.

    • p.s. I didn’t see this page until I had already responded to a previous pre-meeting question but you all made really good points about inclusion/exclusion that are relevant here as well.

  7. First of all I wanted to say that everyone’s ideas are awesome! I believe it’s an oxymoron to find a sense of ‘community’ in the neoliberal framework built around Kern’s description linking market privatization to condominium ownership. What I find particularly concerning is how the respondents’ comments in Kern’s study reflect how thoroughly they try to accommodate to the self-discipline and individualism offered through the supposed ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ of living life in a condo. As Paisley suggests, these techniques of `self-empowerment` -i.e. on-site exercise venues and programmes- work to promote modernity’s ‘health’ while reducing the welfare state, therefore, letting the government off the hook for their own responsibilities.

  8. After finishing the book, I found that I share similar concerns that others have voiced regarding the lack of analysis of gender and intersectionality by Kern. It really would be valuable to see the ways that factors such as race and sexual orientation might complicate the experience and subjectivities of female condo owners. I also think it might have been interesting if she gave the participants an opportunity to exercise some reflexivity in terms of how they engage with advertiser’s messages about the city instead of assuming that they have simply internalized the myth of urbanity and consumption based on their descriptions of how they think they should be behaving (188). Whether intentionally or not she ends up casting these women somewhat as urban drones and I don’t think that’s very feminist. Also I would have appreciated some comparisons in specific instances with the types of urban male subjectivities that are mobilized and men’s experiences with condo ownership in relation to women. For example, while the women express differing and somewhat ambivalent feelings toward participating in the governance of their buildings, there was no discussion of how their participation contrasts that of men. This would be useful to know because it would reveal whether a gender bias might work its way into life in the building by default due to women’s lack of attendance. Other than that I think Kern’s ‘studying up’ of gentrifiers lends a valuable perspective to the discourse on gentrification.

  9. I agree with Paisley and everyone else ideas! Condos can be seen as increasingly need of modernity as Foucault mentioned. I used to live in condo in New west and everything was pretty close from to skytrain to food stores, gyms, yoga studios, liquor stores you name it. I truly never found any sense of community and the small talk in elevator Kern’s mentioned are some times avoide. Africa is developping countries and most of her population are not educated to know much about this topic, but guess what? They proposed this condominium system and the majority overwhemingly voted NO.

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