Review- Tissot, “Good Neighbors”

Sylvie Tissot, “Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End” (2011) (translated from the French by David Broder with Catherine Romatowski) – This fascinating work of sociology (and, I’d argue, either social history or historical sociology, depending on definitional boundaries I don’t fully grasp) examines the transformation of Boston’s South End from a “skid row” slum in the mid-twentieth century to the yuppie conspicuous-consumption domicile it has become today. More than that, French sociologist Sylvie Tissot looks at the formation not just of gentrified space, but of the gentrifying class- the upper-middle class that created the contemporary South End. Taking issue with monochromatic depictions of the bourgeoisie in chronicles of urban gentrification, she seeks to create a more nuanced picture, though not so nuanced she can’t make judgments, as is all too often the case when “nuance” gets invoked.

The beginnings of the gentrification process in the 1960s saw a gestalt of factors come together to create a unique situation. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, famously smash-happy and fresh off of destroying the old West End utterly, started taking a second look at its approach. Urbanist critics like Jane Jacobs had begun singing the praises of mixed-use and mixed-class urbanism. The radical movements of the period inspired tenants unions and other groups to fight draconian “redevelopment” plans. So South End, despite its slum reputation, was spared the West End treatment.

But underneath all of this was a more class-driven dynamic, where younger, largely white, professionals with money started seeing potential in the South End. Its Victorians could be converted to single family homes or condos in a way the “high modernist” apartment blocks the BRA might have built could not. “Pioneers” began moving in, self-consciously trying to both live an urban lifestyle and manage the urban experience according to their own lights. The metaphor of rehabbing old Victorian houses extended to “rehabbing” the neighborhood at large. This entailed the new homeowners coming together (sometimes in alliance with older slum landlords) to both fight new housing developments (in the name of “historical preservation”) and police the habits of the older, less moneyed and white residents, often on their way out of the neighborhood.

An urban experience with lots of different kinds of people was always (notionally) valued by the settlers of the South End, but “diversity” became a buzzword in the nineteen-nineties as the neighborhood was transforming beyond all recognition. Tissot tries a high-wire act of both acknowledging the hypocrisy of the yuppies and hipsters of the South End, with their obvious fear of black and poor people, with the kernel of truth of their investment of diversity. They’re not just lying when they say they want diversity. It’s that “diversity,” conceptually, has always been a bourgeois concept that meant an order of things managed from above to produce a pleasing effect, not a genuine pluralism or even a laissez-faire policy towards who lives where.

Hence the ironic parade Tissot runs by the reader of old South End ways being twisted around into new ones for a new population. The pioneers of South End gentrification deplored the frequent drunkenness of the inhabitants and the sheer amount of bars and liquor stores, and deployed considerable political muscle at City Hall to get many of them shut down… but the social life of the contemporary South End runs on alcohol, just higher-priced and in chi-chi bistros instead of working-class bars. The new South End swapped out the diversity of people from all over — black, Puerto Rican, Chinese, and numerous European immigrant groups — for an equal diversity of ethnic restaurants, most of which the remaining non-gentrifying residents, shunted into public housing around the edges of the neighborhood, can’t afford. Instead of gay cruising spots there are gay families. Most poignant to me (and, I think, to Tissot) are the dogs. The prevalence of dogs and their shit was a common complaint for early South End gentrifiers. Now, dog-ownership is a major part of South End yuppie identity, gay and straight, often a substitute for the children they don’t have or delay. In the name of the dogs, South Enders fiercely control public park space, clearing out people (predictably, mostly the poor and people of color) so their dogs can roam. The dogs are something Tissot, coming from France where they’re less sentimental about them, is clearly put off by in a kind of amusing way.

All told, this is a very worthy addition to the history of the present. Gentrification narratives tend to be either all too moralistic (those damn hipsters!!) or mechanistically economics-driven, and Tissot gracefully avoids both. She tries to do in contemporary miniature what E.P. Thompson did with the English working class- show how a class, in this case upper-middle-class gentrifiers, came to an awareness of themselves through collective action, and she succeeds markedly. *****

Review- Tissot, “Good Neighbors”

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