Once characterized by rent increases and upheaval of the poor, the term gentrification today enjoys a broader, more ambivalent definition. Contemporary scholars may retain a negative association with the term, but the visible markers of gentrification are increasingly lauded as positive signs of an improving neighborhood economy, shifting focus away from displacement and toward the experiences of the middle class “resisting” suburbia in search of cafes, galleries, and diversity (Slater 2006). Concerned that scholars were succumbing to the gravitational pull of romanticized notions of “regeneration, revitalization, and renaissance” and allowing questions of displacement to be quieted by calls for the deconcentration of poverty, Slater (2006) implored academics to rededicate themselves to critical research on gentrification (p. 738). In Claiming Neighborhood, John J. Betancur and Janet L. Smith heed that cry. However, rather than focusing solely on gentrification as though it were an isolated phenomenon, Claiming Neighborhood addresses gentrification as both process and product situated in the complex socio-political landscape that defines and controls the concept of “neighborhood.” Betancur and Smith argue that prevailing theories of neighborhood change have divorced neighborhood spaces from their contexts and obscured the role of power in shaping neighborhood theories and neighborhoods themselves. Taking a critical look at the research methods, classification schemes, interventions, and narratives applied to neighborhoods since 1920s, Claiming Neighborhood deconstructs the notions of neighborhood and neighborhood change and offers a path to a more contextualized analysis of neighborhood space. The authors reject long-accepted views of neighborhoods as naturally homogenized spaces of race and class within fixed geographic boundaries. Instead, they describe the social, political, and academic forces that normalized (and legitimized) the idea of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods—a construct which has simultaneously dictated and dismissed the lived experiences of residents and masked the institutional forces controlling both image and reality. Claiming Neighborhood focuses on accumulation and creative destruction as the dominant forces driving urban change and polarizing neighborhood space into sites of gentrification or ghetto. To illustrate how spatial practices produce these polarized sites of and for consumption, Betancur and Smith explore two Chicago neighborhoods commonly presumed to be gentrifying (Pilsen and Bronzeville) and one that has been historically marginalized as a ghetto (Englewood). Invoking historical, genealogical, and dialectical approaches, the authors consulted a multitude of secondary sources, conducted interviews, and recorded first-person observations from time spent directly in each community over multiple years. This approach led to a more nuanced view of these neighborhoods, particularly the discovery that Pilsen and Bronzeville were not as gentrified nor as aligned with specific ethnic identities as had been commonly depicted in media and contemporary research. Whether one is interested in Chicago specifically or neighborhoods generally, the case studies presented provide an excellent exploration of the changing dynamics in Chicago neighborhoods in recent decades, with lessons that go well beyond Chicago. The authors bring life to the real-world limitations of the dominant theories and methods commonly used to describe neighborhood space while simultaneously demonstrating how components of those dominant theories and methods can still be usefully integrated into new approaches. Those who came to understand the concept of neighborhood as a geo-politically bounded space by which to measure demographics and economic indicators will find both familiarity and stretch among the pages of the case studies. In choosing three established neighborhoods, the authors acknowledge the usefulness of geographically fixed neighborhoods and census tracts as tools to uncover evidence that change has occurred. But the majority of the case study chapters are dedicated to discovery of lived experience and the forces acting upon the people and landscape of each neighborhood. Direct quotes from a wide variety of stakeholders give greater voice to the human experience of the neighborhood than is possible through quantitative measures. In fact, while the overall volume is perhaps too academically technical to be a ready-to-use practitioner’s guide, each neighborhood chapter would do well as a stand-alone case study for any policymaker or practitioner interested in gaining a holistic perspective on the impact of neighborhood interventions. Claiming Neighborhood’s analysis of the polarizing push and pull between gentrification and ghettoization demands an uncomfortable reckoning of the actions of neighborhood stakeholders, well-meaning or otherwise. For example, as Englewood became increasingly associated with crime, the city implemented aggressive policing to enforce laws against social disorder, reaffirming the image of residents as dangerous and decimating the possibility of economic or even geographic mobility for the large portion of the population saddled with criminal records. Although Betancur and Smith disappointingly, albeit briefly, indulge in the ever-patronizing requisite hand-wringing over lack of “positive male figures” and all those “single-mother households,” they mostly break out of the blame-the-oppressed logic loop, concluding that “local violence is actually a manifestation of larger (mainly external) forces [in which] … violence [may become] … a means for some residents to cope with conditions, to appropriate and take advantage of whatever is available in order to create their own opportunities, and to develop an autonomous sense of themselves within the suffocating constraints” (p. 93). Nonprofits receive critical scrutiny as well, as the authors describe how established organizations that once called Englewood home, such as Kiwanis and YMCA, “did not encompass black newcomers” and eventually shut down or moved (p. 88). In response, residents created their own organizations. Although unrecognized by outsiders, and lacking “the scale, power, resources, and standing to resolve issues accumulated through the years and maintained by structural forces” (p. 103), these organizations represent neighborhood residents, provide gathering space, and “have never stopped advancing community-based approaches to security and safety” (p. 95). Those who study or work with nonprofits will find a familiar subplot of institutional survival and co-optation woven throughout the book. Nonprofits (particularly, but not exclusively, community development organizations), “caught between the pressures and needs of their communities and priorities and agendas of funders … recognize that government, corporate largess, and foundations will not fund the revolution” (p. 172), enticing some to abandon “their social justice origins and … transform[ ] into extensions of the local governance regime” out of a desperate quest for institutional survival (p. 172). Betancur and Smith extend the discussion of control and displacement into an even deeper critical analysis, framing disinvested space as “land reserves” housing the urban poor until the affluent return to extract new value. To illustrate this phenomenon, the authors use a narrative of change related to, but not bounded by, ordained geo-political neighborhoods: Boystown and Paseo Boricua. These two Chicago communities are known spatially, not because of the boundaries drawn by policymakers or academics, but because of a perceived spatial concentration of shared identity (LGBTQ and Puerto Rican, respectively). Introducing readers to the complexities of such identity-branded spaces, the concept of disinvested areas as “land reserves” becomes more relatable through each example. The study of LGBTQ neighborhoods as a “spatial response to a historically specific form of oppression” (Lauria and Knopp 1985, 152), has given way in recent years to academic inquiries about the commodification of these neighborhoods and subsequent mainstreaming of LGBTQ culture. Take for example, Ghaziani’s (2014) assertion that the “Disneyfication of gayborhoods as moneymaking entertainment districts signals an underlying shift in how the state perceives these areas: from a regulatory problem that required repression and containment in the coming out era to enclaves at a cosmopolitan buffet for hungry tourists” (p. 26). What Claiming Neighborhood adds to this line of inquiry is a questioning of the very nature of “neighborhood” itself. Historically disinvested areas became places of home and culture for the oppressed and marginalized. When those with access to power began to see an opportunity to extract value from these spaces, community resistance to displacement and dilution of culture was eaten by commodification, leaving a “sellable” version of culture and ejecting those without the means to buy into the new version of their neighborhood. The authors use the Boystown example to provoke contemplation of the deeper implications for cities and their residents when the concept of “neighborhood” is conflated with “community.” When a neighborhood space is branded and “sold” as a place of cultural identity, does that space then “belong” to those who share that cultural identity or to those who live there? Whose stake in the neighborhood is stronger? Betancur and Smith hint at the answer—those with the power to shape the narrative are treated as having the stronger (or perhaps, more legitimate) stake. As LGBTQ neighborhoods such as Boystown become increasingly gentrified, the problem of displacement is complicated by the intentional branding of the area as a space of LGBTQ culture. Those who cannot afford to live in the neighborhood (or, as with youth, those who do not have the agency to choose where they live) are seen as “outsiders” when visiting the very area marketed as a place to find community. When excluded groups do attempt to claim space, the result is often a spike in race and class tensions, with poor, queer youth of color disproportionately targeted as predominantly white affluent neighborhood residents raise cries to “take back” the neighborhood (Andersson 2015; Podmore 2013; Williams 2011). This tension might best be summarized by Black Youth Project bloggers reacting to the Boystown struggles: “My concern is who had it in the first place, who took it, and who exactly is trying to ‘take it back’?” (The Black Youth Project 2011). Betancur and Smith do not fully unpack this complicated reality but nudge readers to view these tensions not as something natural or as an unavoidable side effect of market forces but as something stoked by tunnel-visioned efforts to “revitalize” neighborhoods constructed in the image of those in power at the expense of the marginalized. At minimum, Claiming Neighborhood’s use of Boystown and Paseo Boricua to demonstrate the ways “cities and capital appropriate particular ethnicities and [communities of identity]” (p. 44) should give policymakers, practitioners, and researchers pause before plunging into neighborhood “branding” efforts based on perceived cultural identities. Throughout their detailed deconstruction and reconstruction of neighborhood theory and practice, Betancur and Smith intersperse critical analyses of power influences. This seemingly nuanced shift from traditional neighborhood perspectives is academically valuable but could be quite revolutionary if only the authors had explicitly enumerated an action plan for policymakers and practitioners, which is perhaps the text’s greatest omission. It seems almost ironic that a book dedicated to exposing the real-world implications of nearly a century of misguided or simply misused research making its way into policy and practice is itself too academically intense for practical application without translation. Claiming Neighborhood does make it easier to see how neighborhood policies and interventions have gone wrong, but by the end of the book, it is still rather difficult to see how it can be changed. The closing chapter offers what the authors refer to as “a grounded set of recommendations” to improve how we learn about and understand neighborhood change—which may be useful for public administration and urban studies scholars looking for direction as they turn toward a more critical approach to their own neighborhood research—but it left us craving something more readily actionable. To that end, and as the authors hoped their book would “entice others to conduct their own investigations that challenge reigning rationalizations” (p. 205), we offer up to practitioners and policymakers one question and four simple assumptions surmised from Claiming Neighborhood: What if we approached neighborhood research, policy, and intervention with an acknowledgement that ‘neighborhood’ is a social construct which, like race, was constructed by those with the power to do so? What if we then built our policies and interventions from a foundation of four assumptions: (1) homeowning is not naturally “better” for neighborhoods than renting, (2) rising property costs are not uniformly “good” for neighborhoods, (3) community development should prioritize the welfare and rights of the people, with freedom to challenge the power structure, and (4) space sorted by race and class is not inevitable nor natural (simultaneously, neither is “deconcentration” inherently “good” for neighborhoods). Ultimately, Claiming Neighborhood is a cautionary tale of what can happen when research paradigms are employed beyond their scope. The authors demonstrate how classification schemes useful for describing neighborhood change were misconstrued as means to explain neighborhood change, thereby ascribing causation to factors that more likely were effect. The case studies and analysis highlight how these common tools were used in a way that was fundamentally flawed, leading to research, policy, and action that has been limiting at best, destructive and oppressive at worst. Scholars can use this text to learn from past missteps, but, more importantly, scholars might best serve the field by employing some of Betancur and Smith’s own techniques to get out into the neighborhoods themselves and talk to those whose lives are most impacted. The same holds true for policymakers, who must be careful not to base interventions on over-generalized and homogenized views of neighborhoods that ignore the lived experiences of the residents. More than 50 years ago, Jane Jacobs warned against the siren call of neighborhoods distracting from the true needs of urban cities: “Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like a Valentine…. Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense” (Jacobs, 1993, 146). Claiming Neighborhood offers a much-needed dose of good sense. REFERENCES Andersson , J . 2015 . “Wilding” in the West Village: Queer space, racism and Jane Jacobs hagiography . International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39 : 265 – 283 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Ghaziani , A . 2014 . There goes the gayborhood? Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press . Jacobs , J . 1993 . The death and life of great American cities , ed. Modern Library . New York : Modern Library . Lauria , M. , and L. Knopp . 1985 . Toward an analysis of the role of gay communities in the urban renaissance . Urban Geography 6 : 152 – 69 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Podmore , J . 2013 . Critical commentary: Sexualities landscapes beyond homonormativity . Geoforum 49 : 263 – 67 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Slater , T . 2006 . The eviction of critical perspectives from gentrification research . International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30 : 737 – 57 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS The Black Youth Project . 2011 . Take Back Boystown: White vs Right? http://blackyouthproject.com/take-back-boystown-white-vs-right/ (accessed February 6, 2018). Williams , R . 2011 . And your sidewalks will lead straight to me: How black queer youth stake claim to Chicago’s boystown . Culture Health & Sexuality 13 : S156 – 56 . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory – Oxford University Press
Published: May 24, 2018
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