Wednesday, July 8, 2015

How Do You Define Your Neighborhood?

Mural of a couple
Flickr/Susan Semoneta
Hello Everyone:

It is time once again to go through the drop box folder and pull out some long neglected articles.  Today's post is an article by Richard Florida published in March of this year in CitylLab, titled "How Gentrifiers Change the Definition of a Neighborhood."  It is a discussion of research conducted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which revealed that race was the biggest indicator of how residents defined their changing neighborhoods. Whether it was change for the better or worse remains to been but the study looked how those differences in community definition can have a wide reaching effect on the future.

Richard Florida begins by quoting director Spike Lee who ranted to 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 facilities to get better?...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]...(expletive)...These real estate (expletive) are changing names!  Stuyvesant Heights?  110th to 125th, there's another name for Harlem.  What is it?  What is it?  What is it?  No, no, not Morningside Heights.  There's a new one. [Audience: SpaHa]  What the (expletive) is that?  How you changin' names?

South Philadelphia street
The name given to a particular neighborhood matters when it comes to perception.  Specifically, "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."  Think about that for a minute or two.

This was the main conclusion in a very detailed study published by Harvard University sociologist and doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang.  Ms. Hwang's work focused on the gentrifying community in South Philadelphia, centered on interviews conducted on fifty-six residents in 2006.  South Philadelphia was once a depopulated, predominantly African-American neighborhood with high poverty and crime.  In the late nineties, the western portion of the larger Center City district began a revitalization process.  By 2006, when Ms. Hwang undertook her research, the neighborhood became a magnet for for middle- and high-income residents, most of home lived in newly developed townhomes.  The median household income soared by 140 percent between 1990 and the mid-aughts, about a little more than $40,000.  Also, the racial composition shifted to 50 percent non-Hispanic white.

Map of research site
Jackelyn Hwang
Jackelyn Hwang divided the neighborhood into four sectors (see map on the left), primarily focusing her attention Area II, the core of the demographic changes.  Ms. Hwang's methodology was designed to get a better understanding of how residents's perception of their changing neighborhoods differ.  She carefully structured a sampling of twenty-six African-American residents and an equal number of Caucasian residents, two bi-racial residents, and two Native-American residents. She further subdivided the sample according to level of education, length of time in the community, income, and age.  Nearly one in four of the Caucasian residents had a least a college degree and just a little 10 percent of the African-American residents had the same.  Ms, Hwang found that the Caucasian residents lived in the neighborhood for a shorter period of time than a similar number of African-American residents-median of fiver years for Caucasians versus 23 years for African-American residents.

The interviews lasted between 20 minutes to an hour, concentrating on resident perceptions of the neighborhood and how the defined their owned neighborhood and those adjacent.  Mr. Florida writes, "Her questions probed the respondents on the neighborhood's changes over time, in particular its identities and boundaries.  The respondents were also asked to draw maps of their neighborhoods, complete with boundaries and place names, as a way to better comprehend the cognitive maps they use understand and relate with the places.

Alan's neighborhood definition
LHS: drawn by Alan
RHS:transformation of boundaries on map of this section
Jackelyn Hwang
The map on the left hand side was drawn by Alan, 59-years-old, African-American, college educated, longtime resident of South Philadelphia.  Alan referred to the entire area as "South Philly," in a likewise manner as the minority participants in Ms. Hwang's study, using a number of major streets to define his neighborhood's boundaries.  Alan did not define his community in context to crime or change.  This is something that Ms. Hwang noted in many of her non-Caucasian participants, stated that crime and neighborhood changes were everywhere and not distinct to particular neighborhoods.

Richard Florida writes, "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.'" Interestingly, the Caucasian participants did not identify the neighborhood as "South Philly," choosing the newer monikers of "Graduate Hospital," "G-Ho" (that can have all sorts of connotations), "South Rittenhouse," and "Southwest Center City."  They often expressed ambivalence about boundaries and as a result skewed toward using less conventional boundary markers.  For example:

Melissa's neighborhood definition
LHS: drawn by Melissa
RHS:transformation of boundaries on map of this section
Jackelyn Hwang
The map on the left hand side was drawn by Melissa, a 30-year-old college-educated Caucasian resident.  Melissa used thick black lines to indicate the southern and eastern borders of her neighborhood as nameless crime areas.  Ms. Hwang observed that this crime-ridden No Man's Land was a few blocks from Melissa's home and Melissa had firmly placed herself outside the area. Ms. Hwang further observed, "...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.'"

Eventually, Ms. Hwang discovered "...that neighborhoods and their boundaries have important symbolic meanings."  She writes in her study, the way residents define their communities ignites whether or not a group feel that they fit with the identity associated with a space and their strategies to exclude or include other to make the neighborhood identity align with with their personal identity.  A Harvard University study is really not necessary to measure the way Caucasian and African-American residents identify their Philadelphia neighborhood regardless of income or length of residency.

South Philadelphia
The big and most obvious takeaway: African-American and Caucasian define and identify with their changing neighborhood differently. Ms. Hwang's African-American participants defined the neighborhood as a large and inclusive spatial area, using single name and conventional boundaries, invoking the area's black cultural history, and often directly responding to the alternative way residents defined their neighborhood.  Yet, Caucasian respondents viewed their neighborhood  as smaller, called it different names and used unorthodox boundaries.  These borders were used to distinguish their neighborhoods and the areas they perceived as low-income or high crime.

South Street Bridge
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
One the one hand, you can dismiss these differences as a matter of semantics.  Ms. Hwang's conclusions demonstrate this inequality forms "...the way neighborhoods are perceived and socially constructed."  It is those perceptions that have real world consequences.  One place these differing perceptions have real effect is in the distribution of reinvestment and redevelopment funds, which are disbursed according to informal community boundaries. Mr. Florida writes, "That means that certain areas can be 'defined out' of much-needed money as 'new' neighborhoods' reputations and fortunes rise.

South Street Headhouse District
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
 Jackelyn Hwang noted that "...urban theorists have long been preoccupied with defining the neighborhood."  To wit, "The early Chicago school theorists Robert Park and Earnest Burgess, who continue to influence the way we think and talk about urban areas,, breathing organisms, and defined the neighborhood by its 'natural' features, composed of people with similar socioeconomic and racial characteristics and divided by streets, rivers..."  Although Messrs. Park and Burgess believed that neighborhoods underwent biological-type "invasion" and "succession" processes, their concept has stayed essentially static.

Be that as it may, Ms. Hwang echoes Jane Jacobs, finding real neighborhoods have more dynamic characteristics.  Neighborhoods do change and change dramatically.  She found that the issue of how we define neighborhoods has particular relevance in neighborhoods in states of flux.  Ms. Hwang writes,

Most whites defined the areas as many things, except how minority respondents defined the area...The large and inclusive socially constructed neighborhood was eventually replaced.  In short, the gentrifiers won out.

No comments:

Post a Comment