Book Review: Sylvie Tissot’s Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End

The South End of Boston was one of my first introductions to “the gayborhood.” When I initially moved to that city to pursue my Ph.D., it was in the South End that I first made gay friends and where I went home with folks I’d met at the bars. I took to the gayborhood, and, although I could not afford to live there, it drew me in. While it took me a bit longer to become familiar with the processes we call “gentrification,” I could tell it was a neighborhood deeply divided by inequality and undergoing transition.

The transformation of that section of Boston is the topic of Sylvie Tissot’s Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End (all citations after this refer to the ePub edition read in Apple iBooks). In it, she offers a nuanced approach to the operations of culture and power that upends, to a degree, the “gays and artists” narrative that so often predominates in discussions of gentrification. While lesbians and gay men may have played a significant role, it was much more highly circumscribed by upper-middle class propriety, to match the area’s crown mouldings, in ways that that were foreign to the sexual exploration in the queer theory I was reading and living in the gayborhood.

This book [studies] the way in which a space has been rehabilitated and appropriated by a group of inhabitants much wealthier than those who initially occupied it—without reducing gentrification to the contemporary logics of capitalism or to the repressive impulses of a privileged group. (p. 497)

To be sure, the logics of capitalism and repressive impulses are present. But the political contestations of space taking place here operate by a variety of different logics. Central to Tissot’s approach is an analysis of the ways that “diversity” is used in these contests. This is one area where the “gay-friendliness” of the region is highlighted. It is a “diverse neighborhood” because of the prominence of it’s gay population. But, again, it is a homosexuality that is linked to a heteronormative upper-middle class propriety. These class-based values are expressed in ways ranging from opposite-sex couples only being allowed at the annual South End Historical Society ball to historic “preservation” becoming a central value in promoting the architecture of the neighborhood. In Tissot’s telling “normal” upper-middle class gays who can keep up their homes with the prevailing architectural norms are welcomed; others, much less so.

Contra the traditional narrative of “gays and artists” moving in to downtrodden neighborhoods, Tissot traces the gentrification of the South End to an early influx of heterosexual members of the professional-managerial class in the 1970s. (The artists came in the 2000s, in a developer-driven effort to create a “SoHo-style” feel in one of the last parts of the South End to transition, Washington Street.) We might think of these folks as the progenitors of contemporary upper-middle class urban liberals, devoted to a consumer-based diversity and cultural omnivorousness, but also to a market-based set of economic values that eschew public ownership even as it engages with a privatized form of civic engagement.

Battles over space and its use varied over time, but this privatizing propriety remains constant. Early on, the presence of bars and boarding houses were issues of contention, but by the end of the study, the presence of a dog park becomes a hot item of debate. Central to all of them are the ways that these upper-middle class professionals are able to lay claim to and re-organize space for their own purposes. Being able to do so includes being able to control who has access to spaces and how they will be used. (The discussion of dogs and the cultural politics of dog parks was particularly engaging.)

The meaning and deployment of “diversity” are central to these politics. As I have noted, the presence of a sizable and public gay and lesbian population is a “selling point” for the neighborhood. However, the African American, Asian American and Latino residents of the South End are often erased, particularly if they are poor and working class. Historically, the privatizing impulses that have led people to purchase and refurbish the neighborhood’s architecture have also led them to be hostile to public housing or public assistance for housing. Tissot’s discussion of the relations between the upper-middle class professionals and residents of the Villa Victoria housing project is illustrative; the presence and activities of those residents are understood as things to be managed and controlled.

The neo-liberal logic of diversity is an economic one, and only those who can afford to belong are included under its rubric. Being able to afford this diversity includes being able to dine at the ever-expanding choice of restaurants in the neighborhood, and Tissot demonstrates how these privatizing impulses are also used to fundraise for “public” neighborhood projects within these spaces. Anyone who has worked on a college campus will recognize this “eat your way around the world” form of “diversity,” but here it is also related to “philanthropic” “community service.” It is, centrally, a consumptive form of diversity, especially suited to the post-modern omnivore. It also excludes the neighborhood’s largely Latino public housing residents, many of whom are likely working in these kitchens.

Good Neighbors is an engaging and interesting read. I particularly took to it because it returned me to a beloved neighborhood. It also changed the way I look at that neighborhood, and about processes of gentrification. I recognize myself and my friends in the culinary cultural omnivore. I also recognize the ways that middle-class propriety can exert subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) exclusionary pressures that aren’t necessarily linked to the ability to afford living in a certain neighborhood. This study brought these cultural politics to the fore in a highly engaging manner. Highly recommended.

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