noustheos-deactivated20130311 asked: If, say, I were working on a masters of public policy and needed direction for a piece I'm writing on gentrification in a city TBD, where would you propose that I look for sources? I know you're very familiar with the topic and I'm just curious on getting a backgrounder to acquaint myself with it and figure out how to start this. Ideally focusing on Boston would be good since I'm here, but I'm curious to find out how you went about your research for your thesis on Anacostia. Thank you!
Normally, I’d respond to this privately, but this may be helpful to someone else, somewhere.
“Gentrification” is a big-ass topic (it is also, in my opinion, a word that has little to no meaning anymore, because people use it to describe nearly every form of neighborhood change and every kind of local spat). Pick something specific to write about, so that you can be reading and researching with the intent of looking for evidence to support your argument. Mine was, “Are gentrification and displacement the same thing?”
I read literally everything I could find with “gentrification” in the title, and just as much—if not more—about D.C. and Anacostia’s history. I think historical grounding is critical, and I’m of the mind that you don’t get to make pronouncements about what’s going on in a neighborhood now if you don’t have at the very least a rudimentary knowledge of what was going in a neighborhood pre-now. Then, get familiar with “now.” Read local blogs, read police reports, join listservs, and most importantly, hang out, go to public meetings, and talk to people. Shit, just ask them for directions. A large part of my thesis was ethnographic research, so I was forced into this; it is hard. Sometimes it’s not fun. But it’s important.
Examine your own biases, be reflexive, and if you can, work closely with an adviser or with a professor on this project. My thesis was, well, a thesis. I spent two years bouncing around Anacostia, talking to people about the neighborhood, and talking to my adviser and thesis committee about my research. This is why I am absolutely zero fun to talk to about gentrification (so say my colleagues): I had to unpack everything, for so long, in an academic setting, that I don’t give good soundbites. This is a problem when you work in journalism. But it’s a great thing when you’re in academia. Just be very clear about what you mean when you write “gentrification”—do you mean rising rents, or do you mean a new restaurant opened, or do you mean that the city rerouted a bus line, or, or? Don’t use it as a signifier.
Big theoretical names on gentrification include Neil Smith, Loretta Lees, and Ruth Glass. I like Japonica Brown-Saracino and Alex von Hoffman (von Hoffman moderated a panel that I spoke on last year; like William Julius Wilson, he is not the most nuanced of neighborhood-change theorists, but his research is still really important to me). Lance Freeman’s research was what I based my gentrification-and-or-versus-displacement question on. I think Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is amazing. I also have a strong grounding in critical theory; you’re probably not going to get into the inherent Gramsciness of neighborhood politics, or the Foucaultian elements of newcomers vs. old-timers, but all that insufferable semiotics shit has been immensely useful, especially if you can distill it in a non-jargony way.
There’s a lot out there. The best thing I can tell you is to read as much as you can, even if this is only a project, not a thesis. “Gentrification” is a nasty fucking subject and I think most of the media writing on it is terrible; academic writing is better, but is jumpy and inconsistent (rarely will you find two researchers who use the same definition of the word).
Best of luck.