How Gentrifiers Gentrify

Max Holleran

This past spring a new French restaurant opened in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Located on Malcolm X Boulevard, directly across the street from a Crown Fried Chicken, the restaurant—with a menu that includes frog legs and a bottle of Bordeaux that sells for $2,000—is an incongruous new addition to an area of Brooklyn where the median household income is below $35,000. It is named L’Antagoniste, ostensibly for its celebration of the contrarian French personalities pictured on its walls, but neighbors might interpret the name differently.

In Brooklyn the opening of a Francophile farm-to-table restaurant in a neighborhood where many bodegas still have bulletproof glass now follows a well-worn path. Yet if, or more likely when, the restaurant’s patrons move into the neighborhood, they will face off against long-term residents for control. How do gentrifiers take over a place culturally, racially, and socioeconomically different from themselves? In Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End, Sylvie Tissot examines how new neighborhood antagonists come to wield local power.

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.

<i>Braddock Park, in the South End</i> (2011). Photograph by Payton Chung / Wikimedia Commons

Newcomers—armed with more time, education, connections, and “cultural authority”—professionalized the community groups they joined in ways that discouraged broad participation while extoling the virtues of involvement. Under the banner of community improvement and civic-mindedness, gentrifiers were able to concentrate on issues they found important, often over the objections of long-term residents. These issues included: opposing “high density” housing (understood here as a euphemism for public housing, but also for apartment buildings in areas where single-family homes are the norm), more space for dogs, quality-of-life crackdowns on noise and public drinking, and more support for the carefully supervised renovation of Victorian homes. Tissot implies that these gentrifiers, in prioritizing upper-middle-class, white prerogatives, did not just disagree over the proper uses of public spaces but were specifically drawn to concerns that privileged their cultural knowledge and maintained them in a position of prominence.

How do gentrifiers take over a place culturally, racially, and socioeconomically different from themselves?

Historic preservation of Boston’s uniquely large stock of old homes is the key to the book’s cultural argument. In a series of lively accounts of home renovation, Tissot shows how neighborhood boards concerned with scrupulous Victorian “authenticity” for rehabbed houses often alienated community members through conversations littered with arcane architectural terms. That exclusionary discourse, Tissot argues, became the norm across many kinds of organizations and historic preservation itself became the paramount neighborhood issue. Not only did poorer long-term residents have less of a stake in this conversation—because they were less frequently homeowners—but the importance of properly restoring lintels and Doric columns often failed to move those among them living paycheck to paycheck. Tissot makes clear that this new community concern was not just an innocent refocus, based on gentrifiers’ group interests, but a deliberate ordering of what culture matters at the expense of less “worthy” subjects like rent control and subsidized preschool.

Good Neighbors powerfully demonstrates how gentrifiers often fixate on the old (homes) and the marginally political (greenmarkets) so that they do not have to think about the displacement involved in neighborhood change and their own role in it. Newcomers endeavor to project a relaxed and egalitarian nature by working through civic groups rather than more formal channels of institutional and state power (although these are always there if they need them). Yet within these groups they create many barriers for participation: from inconvenient meeting times to all-but-mandatory large donations and discussions held in a language of corporate-speak and legalese. Tissot, using a web of informants, makes the deliberateness of this exclusion clear and she apparently cannot help but acidly lampoon the cultural pretensions of her subjects. At times, her dismissal of some of her informants’ sincere Francophilia or complaints about meeting them in restaurants that charge more than $10 for a glass of wine betrays an authentic loathing for the cappuccino-and-pug culture they have created. But Tissot transcends a mere chronicling of the totems of yuppiness by showing that when these cultural symbols are mobilized as evidence of virtue they can help to confer real neighborhood power. Something that can’t be bought in a coffee shop.