By Francesca Perry
Can a pop song condemn a neighbourhood? Can a TV show tarnish a city’s reputation? These may seem like ridiculous questions, but the power of cultural imagery is often stronger than we realise. After the musician Rihanna chose the New Lodge housing estate in north Belfast as her primary filming location for her We Found Love music video – in which the key repeated lyric is “we found love in a hopeless place” – local residents attempted to reclaim the place’s reputation by planting wildflowers. Rihanna, they argued, was making their home synonymous with hopelessness.
“As far as publicity for Belfast as a tourist destination is concerned, it was a disaster,” wrote local resident and columnist Frances Burscough. “It made Belfast and its environs look like a hell-hole, showing graffiti everywhere, grimy slum-like housing and people living in squalor surrounded by drug paraphernalia.”
No doubt the pop star looked to a council estate in a grey-skied climate as a visual cue for the kind of place where the drug-using couple of her video might call home. Often used as the setting for “gritty” dramas about crime and poverty, the cultural depiction of council estates creates a misleading reputation that residents of social housing around the UK and further afield are desperate to shake off.
The odd thing is, even when a place is portrayed in a negative light, it can actually end up having a positive impact on that area. Take the US city of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest metropolis, home to roughly half a million people. It is also home to the fictional characters in the hit TV show, Breaking Bad, about a teacher with cancer who turns to drug dealing. Following the success of the show, tourism to the city was massively boosted – turning around struggling businesses, generating new ones and contributing hugely to the local and state economy.
Many felt the show “put the city on the map” for the first time – even though the city’s visitors bureau admitted “the drugs and violence [in the show] were the reasons we didn’t have anything to do with it at first.” Nothing like an economic boost to change minds.
Still, there remain residents and city officials who are keen to do what they can to distance their home turf from whatever fictional backdrop it has formed for songs, TV shows or films. Portlandia, the comedy TV series which uses fictional characters to mercilessly mock the hippy-hipster reputation built up by the city of Portland, Oregon, ended up the subject of a “fuck you” blogpost written by a local feminist bookshop, In Other Words.
The store, used as a filming location for one of the show’s sketches which also depicts a feminist bookshop, accused the show of being “in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organising to realise. It’s a show which has had a net negative effect on our neighbourhood and the city of Portland as a whole.”
The post goes on to outline the offensive nature of some of the show’s humour. But would people really accuse bookshop owners of having the same views as two fictional characters running a fictional bookshop which was filmed in the same space? Even the mayor of Albuquerque, whose city was depicted as a drug-addled and violent place, seemed cheerily assured that viewers knew Breaking Bad did not reflect the real city: “I’ve never run into anybody that doesn’t understand it’s a fictional drama.”
In Other Words also claimed that Portlandia was “fueling mass displacement in Portland” as the city’s real estate industry apparently used the show to “market the city as something twee and whimsical for the incoming technocrat hordes.” Writing in the The Guardian, Jason Wilson noted that some people saw the show as “the marketing arm of the gentrification driving those changes [in Portland].”
The irony is, Portlandia’s humour is strongly focused on ridiculing the wealthy gentrifiers of the city. Portland started seeing waves of gentrification in the 1990s, and between 2000 and 2013, 58% of its lower-income neighbourhoods gentrified, meaning it saw more gentrification than any other city in America during those 13 years. Portlandia, meanwhile, launched in 2011. If gentrification has continued apace, it is unlikely to be the fault of one TV show which pokes fun at the lifestyle of these gentrifiers.
Compton, a small city in the neighbouring state of California, became saddled with a different kind of reputation. Home to the iconic hip hop group NWA, the city consequently became associated with the things the group rapped about: violence, poverty, gangs. Since the 1990s, Compton has struggled with this reputation “seared into American pop culture”. The impact was so great that even surrounding cities changed the names of streets and neighbourhoods with the word “Compton” in them, to distance themselves from the city.
NWA’s lyrics describing life in the city were based on the real situation Compton found itself in – but the city has changed since then, including a significant drop in crime. When the 2015 movie Straight Outta Compton – about the rise of NWA – came out, local leaders were keen that viewers did not confuse the place portrayed in the movie with the city of today. “People think of Compton as a very dangerous place,” the city’s mayor Aja Brown told the LA Times. “But it’s a different city from 25 years ago.”
The Mexican city of Juárez used to be known as the “murder capital of the world”. In 2010, the border city suffered up to eight killings a day at the height of a drug cartel war. The 2015 film Sicario, a crime thriller about an FBI agent encountering the violent cartels of Juárez – used the city’s reputation and history to create a fictional tale. But fiction or no fiction, Enrique Serrano Escobar, the mayor of Juárez, was so incensed he called for a boycott of the film upon its release. The city had changed much in recent years, he insisted, and was keen to carve out a new reputation for itself, distant from its murder-capital status. Indeed crime has fallen and there have been efforts to reinvigorate local community spirit and culture.
“There is a whole community making an effort to restore the image of the city, and now they come along and speak ill of us,” Serrano told the New York Times, calling the film “out of date” and confessing his concerns about tourists being dissuaded from visiting. He took out adverts in a number of US newspapers, denouncing Sicario’s apparent defamation of the city. The fact that the movie was filmed for “security reasons” in El Paso, Albuquerque and Mexico City, thus contributing nothing to the local economy of Juárez, may have added insult to injury.
The Edinburgh suburb of Leith, meanwhile, was used as the setting for Irvine Welsh’s blockbuster 1993 novel Trainspotting. It was depicted as an area full of poverty, drugs and anti-social behaviour. But just over two decades later, Leith is the area with the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in Scotland.
A pattern emerges: culture responds to reality, but then as reality shifts and changes occur, the places anchored to these cultural images want to shake them off. Still, as the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. Economically at least, this can often be true for places too.
Rihanna’s music video was not the only driver behind the flower-planting initiative in north Belfast. The Sow Wild New Lodge Community Garden redeveloped an unused and overgrown communal space in the area. One project manager, Gerard Rosato, admitted the area was a “concrete jungle”. “North Belfast is very densely built up and nearly anything that can be built on has been built on,” he told the BBC. “My hope is that when this is a success we can get other, similar schemes off the ground and continue to spruce up the area.” It seems in this particular example, a pop star was the trigger for much-needed local regeneration, rather than the sullying of an entire area’s reputation.
Places change. And when we consume cultural depictions of them – from a pop song to a book or TV show – we should be aware of just how transient, if not fictional, these are. But in our Netflix-saturated lives, maybe it’s harder than ever to draw that boundary between fiction and reality.