Flickr/Susan Sermoneta

New research out of Philadelphia finds race to be the biggest predictor of how residents defined their changing communities.    

A year ago, Spike Lee told a New York audience exactly how he felt about gentrification: “[W]hy does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?” he roared.

You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. …What do they call Bushwick now? What’s the word? [Audience: East Williamsburg] ... Motherfuckin’… These real estate motherfuckers are changing names! Stuyvesant Heights? 110th to 125th, there’s another name for Harlem. What is it? What? What is it? No, no, not Morningside Heights. There’s a new one. [Audience: SpaHa] What the fuck is that? How you changin’ names?

If gentrification remains one of the most hotly debated and most poorly understood urban issues, Lee’s rant makes one thing patently clear: Black and white residents who live in rapidly changing neighborhoods perceive them (and talk about them) very differently.

That’s the main finding of a detailed new study by sociologist Jackelyn Hwang, a doctoral student at Harvard University. Hwang’s work, which focused on a gentrifying neighborhood in South Philadelphia, centers on interviews with 56 residents conducted in 2006. Once a depopulated, 80 percent African-American neighborhood with high poverty and high crime, this western half of the larger Center City district underwent serious revitalization beginning in the late 1990s. By 2006, when Hwang conducted her research, the neighborhood had attracted middle- and high-income residents, many of whom lived in newly developed townhomes. The median household income in the neighborhood shot up by 140 percent between 1990 and the mid-aughts, to a little over $40,000. The racial composition of the neighborhood also changed, to 50 percent non-Hispanic white.

Hwang divided the neighborhood into four areas (see the map below). The bulk of her research focused on Area II, which was at the heart of the area’s demographic changes.

(Hwang)

To better gauge how resident perceptions of their changing neighborhoods can differ, Hwang carefully constructed an interview sample of 26 black residents, 26 white residents, two mixed race residents and two Native American residents. To get at the different perceptions of newer residents versus long-term residents, she divided the sample not just by race but by educational attainment, length of time in the neighborhood, income and age. Twenty-three out of 26 (88 percent) of the white residents she interviewed had at least a college degree, while just 23 percent of the black residents said the same.* The length of time white residents lived in the neighborhood was much shorter than the same statistic for blacks: a median of five years for white respondents, compared to 23 years for the black residents she interviewed.

Hwang’s interviews, which took between 20 minutes and an hour, focused on resident perceptions of the neighborhood and how residents “gave meaning" to their own neighborhood and those nearby. Her questions probed respondents on the neighborhood’s changes over time, in particular its identities and boundaries. In an interesting twist, Hwang also asked participants to draw maps of their neighborhood, including neighborhood boundaries and place names, to better understand the cognitive maps they use to comprehend and identify with those places.

*****

The map below was drawn by Alan, a 59-year-old, black, college-educated, longtime resident of the neighborhood. Alan calls the entire area “South Philly,” as many of Hwang’s minority respondents did, and used a number of major roads to define the boundary of his neighborhood. Alan didn’t define his neighborhood by crime or change. As Hwang notes, many of the non-white respondents “stated that crime and neighborhood changes were everywhere and not distinct to particular neighborhoods.”

(Hwang)

Alan, along with the majority of the non-white respondents, used his map to resist exclusion and “reify” the neighborhood’s older identity in the midst of change. To divide their neighborhood into smaller areas would, in their view, be “inauthentic.”

By contrast, many white respondents did not use the “South Philly” name favored by non-white residents, favoring instead newer monikers like “Graduate Hospital,” “G-Ho,” “South Rittenhouse,” and “Southwest Center City.” They often expressed uncertainty about neighborhood boundaries because of the changing nature of the area, and as a result, tended to use more unconventional markers as boundaries.

The map drawn by Melissa, a 30-year-old, college-educated, white resident, demonstrates this approach. She singles out the southern and eastern boundaries of her neighborhood (those with thick, black lines) as “crime areas,” without a neighborhood name. This boundary, as Hwang notes, is a few blocks from Melissa’s home; she places herself firmly outside the crime area.

(Hwang)

Hwang points out that the area Melissa and many other white participants singled out as unsafe did not actually have more overall crime. In fact, the vast majority of property crime occurred in the whiter, wealthier areas to the north of Melissa's "crime area."

Ultimately, Hwang finds that neighborhoods and their boundaries have important symbolic meanings. The way residents define their neighborhoods, she writes, turns on “whether or not a group feels that they fit with the identity associated with a space and their strategies to exclude or include others to make the neighborhood identity align with their personal identity.” Indeed, the differences in the way white and black residents discussed their Philadelphia neighborhood held regardless of income or years of residency.

The big takeaway: Black and white residents define and identify with their changing neighborhoods very differently. Hwang’s black residents “defined the neighborhood as a large and inclusive spatial area, using a single name and conventional boundaries, invoking the area’s black cultural history, and often directly responding to the alternative way residents defined their neighborhoods.” But white residents saw their neighborhood as smaller, and used a number of names and more unconventional boundaries. They used these boundaries to delineate between their neighborhood and areas they saw as low-income or high crime.

While it’s easy to dismiss these differences as simple semantics, Hwang’s results show that inequality shapes the way neighborhoods are perceived and socially constructed. Those perceptions have real world consequences. Reinvestment and redevelopment funds, for example, are sometimes distributed based on informal neighborhood boundaries. That means that certain areas can be “defined out” of much-needed money as “new” neighborhoods’ reputations and fortunes rise.

*****

As Hwang notes, urban theorists have long been preoccupied with defining the neighborhood. The early Chicago school theorists Robert Park and Earnest Burgess, who continue to influence the way we think and talk about urban areas, viewed the city as a living, breathing organism, and defined the neighborhood by its “natural” features, composed of people with similar socioeconomic and racial characteristics and divided by streets, rivers, transit lines and other physical features. Though Park and Burgess thought neighborhoods underwent biology-influenced “invasion” and “succession” processes, their definitions remained relatively static.

But Hwang, echoing Jane Jacobs, finds actual neighborhoods to be far more dynamic. They do change, and dramatically. The question of how we define neighborhoods has particular salience, she finds, in neighborhoods in the midst of transition.

"Most whites defined the area as many things, except how minority respondents defined the area,” Hwang writes. “The large and inclusive socially constructed neighborhood was eventually displaced,” she adds. In other words, the newcomers won out.

*CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misstated how many white and minority study participants had obtained college degrees. It was 88 percent of whites and 23 percent of blacks, not 23 percent of whites and 10 percent of blacks.

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