OCTOBER 14, 2015
REASONABLE PEOPLE will agree on the evils of racism, sexism, and the destruction of the social safety net in 21st-century America. But as a political issue, gentrification, which at its worst can wreak as much havoc on people’s lives, is more complicated, at least. Sure, rents in gentrifying areas may skyrocket, but do you want a neighborhood of burned-out buildings, unsafe streets, and businesses whose sole purpose is preying on the poor? Do you not want more green spaces, better services, well-functioning schools? On the surface, the situation in Boston’s South End, where gentrification exploded in the aughts, is more complicated still. The members of the group leading the neighborhood’s transformation were staunch liberals (in the American sense) who to all appearances were practically obsessed with “diversity.” The South End gentrifiers were predominantly children of the ’60s, and seemed worlds away from Boston’s old-money, suburban gentry, whom they openly scorned as snobs, elitists, or worse. And by all indications, these sentiments were genuine. But what did this “diversity” consist of? And how does it distinguish the South End’s gentrification, if in fact it does, from the garden-variety, non-diverse kind?
Sociologist Sylvie Tissot’s study of the area, undertaken over several years beginning in 2004, had her attending endless community-association meetings and soirees, and poring over decades-old municipal records, meeting minutes, and newsletters. Her work, as she’s quick to point out, was made easier by her acceptance into the South End’s uppermost social circles due to her status as a white, French academic associated with Harvard University. It was further aided by relationships she formed with two unnamed “allies”: deeply informed, longtime residents of the area who helped her see through some of the more self-serving rewritings of local history that she encountered in her interviews. She was aware that contemporary cases of gentrification in (relatively) bohemian neighborhoods like the South End defy easy, knee-jerk analysis:
What happened in these now sought-after neighborhoods cannot […] be reduced solely to the brutal displacement of the preexisting population. Nor is it a simple matter of cohabitation among different populations, whose consequent encounters or avoidance of one another we could thus analyze. This book hypothesizes instead a highly particular manner of taking over space, constructed across several decades. Transformations of the real estate market did encourage this, but we also need to integrate logics beyond just the economic into our understanding of how these spaces are transformed. The newcomers’ power is constituted in relation to City Hall as well as the world of civic associations. But more broadly it rests on a particular legitimacy, an order at once moral and cultural, which runs through tastes, lifestyles, the writing of an area’s history, a language and an ethos, and which exists not only within the interiors of the newly renovated houses, but is also propagated across the neighborhood’s squares, restaurants and local institutions.
Historical nuances notwithstanding, Tissot found early on that the touted diversity in the new South End — which in the ’60s had been widely seen as a skid row with “5 percent of Boston’s population and 95 percent of its problems” — was largely a sham. Among the members of local associations she met, the majority were owners of renovated, super-appreciated houses with yearly incomes from $100,000 to $400,000 and occupations of “manager” or “professional.” Virtually all were white. A walk around the South End itself revealed a similar lack of diversity, or rather a familiar kind of urban segregation: While the gentrified section boasted ultra-fashionable restaurants, high-end gourmet-food stores, and baby shops selling $500 high chairs, the area’s Dunkin’ Donuts, pizzerias, and inexpensive barber shops had been pushed well away to the same part of town as most of its black population.
The one area where the new South End really could claim points for diversity was in the status of its gay population. While gays in Boston had suffered the same kinds of discrimination in the ’60s that they had in other liberal cities like New York (never mind the more benighted parts of Middle America), their status had changed drastically in the wake of the gay-rights victories of the ’70s and ’80s. In the new South End, class trumped sexual orientation. One gay resident recalled that her neighbors told her, “‘Middle class is middle class!’ They didn’t care that we were a lesbian couple; we were fixing up the property.” (Upper-middle-class, white gays were upper-middle-class first, unlike blacks, gay or straight, who remained largely invisible regardless of their wealth.) But, significantly, the South End exhibited a “conditioned” gay-friendliness, to quote Tissot, with an emphasis on monogamous couples and bourgeois lifestyles, and a tacit aversion to more indelicate displays of gay sexuality. And some hilariously archaic heternormative conventions persisted: At charity balls, for instance, there are apparently still no exceptions to the rule that even gay men must be accompanied by a woman (generally a lesbian).
Somewhat-circumscribed gay-friendliness aside, it’s hard to see where the South End’s trumpeted diversity tangibly manifested itself. To a great extent it was just talk — the kind of grandstanding or lip-service that was and is mandatory in light of the political changes that took place in the ’70s and ’80s. Certainly, undisguised racist or homophobic speech was unwelcome among the new South End elite, who actively purged the more openly reactionary loose cannons from their membership. But in practice, the most visible active diversity in the South End was a mostly superficial one at the level of cultural consumption, or … food consumption. Like 21st-century elites generally, this group exhibited an omnivorousness that embraced lowbrow practices and “other” cultures that had been viewed with contempt by the old upper class, but mainly with the goal of assimilating or recuperating them. (Not coincidentally, this process itself is often described as a form of gentrification.) The kind of “diverse” cuisine eagerly served by, and demanded of, the restaurants frequented by wealthy South End residents was heavy on Continental chic (presented in a scrubbed, minimalist style) and light on the traditional working-class fare of the South End itself. Hamburgers, hot dogs, meatloaf, and macaroni and cheese were, Tissot found, “consigned to the category of illegitimate food, directly emerging as they do from a working-class past that the South End’s white property owners have worked hard to bury.”
So — surprise! — the gentrification of the South End ultimately reduces to class. The decades-long slog among local community associations to “clean up” the South End or “restore it to its former glory,” hard to find fault with on the surface, was largely an attempt to boost housing prices and excise all traces of the working class from the area. In the fight to eradicate so-called quality-of-life crimes (generally those committed by the poor), one campaign waged with surprising fervor (over many years) targeted drinking and alcoholism. This manifested itself mainly as a mission to shut down the South End’s bars and liquor stores, frequented by the area’s poorest and roughest residents — hence incompatible with upper-middle-class values of both the cultural and real estate kind. A Bars Task Force, formed by the mayor’s office in conjunction with neighborhood associations and members of the elite South End Historical Society, aimed to close neighborhood bars and to severely curtail the issuance of new liquor licenses. While there was much noise about the physical danger to women and children posed by the patrons of “problem bars,” Tissot’s interviews with several residents found them referring to the now-banished bar patrons as “dirty people” with “bad habits.” Alcohol appears to be much less of a threat to the area now that it’s consumed mostly in the form of fine wine — available at any number of stylish restaurants, as well as a trendy “sushi wine shop” — rather than cheap beer and hard liquor.
The class-snobbery of many of the South End gentry was increasingly apparent to Tissot as she became more embedded in the cultural milieu of the area, with the powerful members of the community associations becoming more comfortable in her presence — and also, no doubt, thanks to her own cultural status and consequent ability to pass. On the one hand, she witnessed some rather illiberal behavior from people she met at social events. One well-heeled resident, upon learning where she lived (in the banlieue outside of Paris), burst out with, “Montreuil? It’s a slum!” Another, a well-known architect, railed against the “laziness” of the (presumably Socialist) French, who “take six weeks’ holiday a year.” On the other hand, and less amusingly, she found out that a number of the South End’s “pioneers” — people who boasted endlessly about the risks they’d taken early on in order to live in a diverse neighborhood — had in fact been outright hostile to the black and Latino civil rights movements of a few decades earlier. Similarly, Tissot’s interviewees tended to be less than forthcoming about the battles waged by middle-class whites against low-income housing and working-class bars in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s not far-fetched that, having gotten swept up in self-congratulatory exuberance over the new “diversity” of the area, they themselves had forgotten the less pleasant details of their movement’s earlier history.
So what we have in the South End is a more or less typical example of big-city gentrification, but with a thin veneer — okay, a thick veneer — of carefully managed cultural pluralism on top, in the manner of many enlightened urban elites of the 21st century. Most of the businesses in the now-thriving area cater to a wealthy, white clientele, and the poor and working-class have largely been priced out or marginalized. In one bizarre story, the South End’s richest and most powerful residents steamrolled all opposition to create a dog run for their pets within Peters Park, dogs being a bona fide fixation of this group for reasons that are not completely clear. (Expensive, pampered dogs as showcases of high disposable income would certainly be one of the reasons.) This is all very interesting, but what is equally interesting about the South End story is what it reveals about gentrification generally, old or new, diverse or not: The group behind the transformation was well-connected and awash in various kinds of cultural, social, and financial capital that, when they put their minds to it, all but guaranteed their success. They wielded genuine political power and, in ways that members of other social classes couldn’t hope to, were able to work hand-in-hand with government bodies and officials (often with direct funding from them — that is, public money) to further their goals. And so the long tradition continues.