What Yelp Can Tell Us About Gentrification and Race

A new study found that Yelp restaurant reviews in Brooklyn were less favorable in a traditionally black neighborhood than in an ethnic white neighborhood.

Image Michael Dorausch / Flickr
Michael Dorausch / Flickr

A new, just-published study by the sociologist Sharon Zukin—known for her earlier work on lofts, artists, and gentrification—along with Scarlett Lindeman and Laurie Hurson of the City University of New York, sheds new light on the connection between gentrification, restaurants, and race. The study examines this nexus by using online Yelp reviews of restaurants in two rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods with very different populations: Greenpoint and Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy.

Greenpoint is a historically Polish neighborhood: 57 percent white and just 3 percent black, with a declining Hispanic population. Bed-Stuy is a historically black neighborhood (now 59 percent black), but it has seen a 700 percent increase in its white population from 2000-2010.

A Polish restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Jason Lam / Flickr)*

The study focuses on two categories of reviews—the top ten “most reviewed” restaurants, largely consisting of “trendy” restaurants that opened since 2005, and the top ten “traditional” restaurants, focused on ethnic foods related to that neighborhood (in this case Polish restaurants in Greenpoint and African American soul food and Caribbean food in Bed-Stuy). Ultimately, the study included more than 7,000 reviews. Because most reviews, however, do not mention the neighborhood—and those that did were much more likely to mention Bed-Stuy—the authors focused on a more targeted sample of 1,056 reviews that explicitly mention one of the two Brooklyn neighborhoods (720 for Bed-Stuy and 336 for Greenpoint). The authors then scrutinized the ways in which these Yelp reviews framed perceptions of the two different neighborhoods.

The reviews cast both neighborhoods as “up-and-coming.” But the study did uncover differences in how Yelp reviewers tended to characterize restaurants in the two neighborhoods: reviews of Bed-Stuy restaurants were twice as likely to mention the surrounding neighborhood and three times more likely to mention it among reviews of trendy restaurants compared to Greenpoint.

The reviews also framed the two neighborhoods in very different ways. Reviews of Greenpoint portrayed the neighborhood as a mainstay for authentic ethnic culture. In fact, many reviewers were concerned that gentrification was threatening the historic culture of the neighborhood—what the authors term “cultural preservation.” One Yelp reviewer referred to the neighborhood as “an excellent example of the [P]olish community’s enduring presence in Brooklyn,” while another described Greenpoint as “a pleasant and ethnically sound (predominantly of [P]olish descent) neighborhood.” Reviews praised Greenpoint for being “cozy” and “European,” with “‘authentic’ Polish cuisine.” “It’s like walking into a legitimate European bakery in the middle of Greenpoint,” one reviewer put it. These reviews framed the neighborhood as an “imagined homeland,” as the study’s authors put it, where reviewers felt intimately connected to a neighborhood that was both authentic and a bit exotic.

Bed-Stuy was framed very differently. The reviewers’ descriptions were more conflicted, and many depicted the neighborhood as transitioning from “bad” to “good.” In sharp contrast to Greenpoint, there was little desire to preserve the neighborhood’s culture or history—reflecting what the authors refer to as a “neo-imperialist” perspective. “We are happy to witness a changing neighborhood,” wrote one reviewer. “The divide between who was in the café and the dominant population of the neighborhood speaks volumes,” another put it. Various reviewers used the words “dangerous,” “gritty,” “sketchy,” “hood,” and “ghetto” to describe the neighborhood. A number of reviewers expressed feeling unsafe, and one even warned of the “dark alleys of Bed-Stuy.” These reviewers saw gentrification as a good thing for the neighborhood and had more favorable views of new, trendy restaurants, with a reviewer describing one of these restaurants as “the kind of place Bed-Stuy needs.” The study casts Bed-Stuy as a much more “contested terrain” of gentrification as opposed to the “imagined homeland” of Greenpoint.

A coffee shop in Bed-Stuy. (Brooklyn Kolache Co / Yelp)

When it came time to rate Bed-Stuy’s traditional, black-owned restaurants, many—if not most—reviews were negative and often reflected the same stereotypes that are noted above. These reactions lie in opposition to reviews of the cozy, authentic restaurants in Greenpoint. In this way, the study points out, “Yelp reviews mobilize racialized biases to effect a discursive redlining of majority-Black districts.”

The study also features some asides about the role of so-called hipsters in gentrification. The majority of reviewers in both neighborhoods, for instance, saw “hipsters” as an alarming signal of gentrification. One Bed-Stuy reviewer referred to a restaurant as “a bastion of hipsters in a sea of poverty,’’ while another reviewer forecasted that a Greenpoint restaurant would become “another douche-bag hipster lounge.’’

The study suggests that Yelp reviews not only reflect the impacts and public perception of gentrification, but ultimately help to determine who occupies a neighborhood as well. Indeed, the study concludes that, “intentionally or not, Yelp restaurant reviewers may encourage, confirm, or even accelerate processes of gentrification by signaling that a locality is good for people who share their tastes.” Beyond persuading potential customers to visit a restaurant, social media may in fact be part of the process of actually transforming neighborhoods.

*UPDATE: A previous photo at the top of this story displayed a restaurant located in the East Village. The photo has since been updated.

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