New Urban Chic: The Semiotic Landscape of Gentrification in US Cities

Authors: Gabriella Modan*, The Ohio State University
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural Geography, Landscape
Keywords: language, semiotic landscape, gentrification
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Embassy Room, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


City streets are texts written in words, images, and architectural features. As cities over the world undergo rapid change and revaluation, the meanings of the built environment change as new signs and symbols replace or are added to old ones. Concurrently, new symbolic configurations on city streets shape the meanings of the linguistic elements that appear in those environments. This is what’s happening with the word urban in the US.

The word 'Urban' has commonly served as a euphemism for characteristics popularly associated with the disinvested city (e.g. 'urban problems', 'urban blight'). With the increasing caché of city living and concomitant rapid gentrification, such meanings are fading. Taking a semiotic landscape approach, I investigate how material manifestations of language, in concert with other signs in the built environment, promote physical and symbolic reconfiguration of urban space and a shift in the meaning of 'urban'. I examine upscale establishments in central Washington DC that display the word urban on facades as part of a shop name or advertising slogan, and artisanal products branded as local with DC-based names or the DC map or flag.

These products, architectural building features and sign wording, typeface, and construction material mutually shape each other’s meaning and together reshape popular meanings of urban culture, whereby inner-city neighborhoods are inscribed as chic, wealthy enclaves. In casting urban culture as chic, these practices marginalize city dwellers and city spaces that don’t conform to urban’s new meaning.

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