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How gentrifiers gentrify


A new issue of Public Books dropped today, and it includes a compelling essay by Max Holleran called "How Gentrifiers Gentrify." He writes about the book Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End by Sylvie Tissot, which Holleran commends for demonstrating empirically how culture is used as a “cudgel” for neighborhood displacement. An excerpt:

Writing on gentrification has generally taken two very different approaches: the bird’s-eye view (popular in critical geography), in which gentrifiers are cogs in an unequal economy that manifests itself in disputes over city space; and the ground-level focus on the cultural trappings of newcomers: flat white coffee, vintage T-shirts, artisanal beer, and vegan cupcakes. Good Neighbors brings together culture and politics to show how such tastes can lead to political power for gentrifiers, creating a wedge with which they penetrate neighborhood organizations and assume authority over others. The process of forming a neighborhood elite in Boston’s South End happened, according to Tissot, not always through the often-colorful world of the city’s democratic politics but through voluntary associations that, despite being private, wielded considerable power—interior design or park conservation is not just a hobby. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of how groups use cultural capital for social advancement, Parisian sociologist Tissot shows how wealthier newcomers used city boards and nonprofits to mold Boston’s South End in their own image and to actively exclude those who lived there before them from decision-making and positions of power.

Through such benign-sounding activities as philanthropy, historic preservation, and serving on committees for parks and liquor licenses, gentrifiers solidified their position in the community and began to erase the cultural presence of those who preceded them. Tissot draws on years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, as well as historical material on the South End (much of which appears in fascinating boxed-text asides), to demonstrate how culture was used as a cudgel in a protracted battle of neighborhood realpolitik.

Image: Braddock Park, in the South End (2011) by Payton Chung. Via Public Books.


In parts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, where I live as a result of this process (Gilbert and George date back well over 40 years now) as in the Lower East Side (store front galleries with radical names) when R Deutsch wrote ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’, art has long been the cutting edge of real estate. It’s important to keep tracking this process especially as this shows that in Boston, as in Whitechapel, the selection of authentic detail, the costs of restoration and so forth are essentially and profoundly drivers of racism and exclusion, a re-whiting of the social on a real estate scale equivalent, let us say, to Girls as a TV(sic) series. Interesting also, and a relief in the bleak urban landscape of manhattanisation, to see how Raven Row in London manages to turn the process back on itself - but it needs a lot more than good intentions - But at what point do we become refusers of the offering, in art as such?