By Dennis E. Gale
Sylvie Tissot. Good Neighbors. (London and New York: Verso, 2015)
A study of Boston’s South End, Good Neighbors examines the once-declining neighborhood’s revitalization from the 1960s to 2010. Tissot’s ethnographic approach yields a multi-layered account of her interviews and observations of South End residents, as well as insights gleaned from print media. We “hear” the voices and words of gentrifiers and observe their tastes in interior decorating, dining and yes, even alcoholic beverages. Several pages are devoted to the culture and class distinctions of gentry preferences for various dog breeds. We also glean insights from neighborhood activists, preservationists, realtors and others. Tissot’s methods, alas, leave precious little room to address the city renewal agency’s role and tactics in catalyzing reinvestment. Nor is there much in the way of statistical evidence or maps to document the demographic or physical changes that ensued. Thus, some readers may wish for a more holistic perspective.
When the Boston Redevelopment Authority undertook the South End’s renewal in the mid-1960s, small numbers of homes were already being renovated by new in-movers. Mob violence in several cities and widespread criticism of urban renewal’s wholesale neighborhood clearance strategy persuaded the BRA to capitalize on the South End’s nascent gentrification. The Authority increased citizen participation in planning, minimized housing demolition and concentrated on rehabilitating existing structures. The stated goal was a diverse neighborhood of social classes, races and ethnicities with market-rate and subsidized housing. Good Neighbors traces the outcome of this diversity policy. Tissot argues that as the decades passed, the neighborhood’s increasingly up-market residents, businesses and historic preservationists became progressively more resistant to new affordable housing. Their economic and class hegemony allowed them to impose their own tastes and preferences on substantial areas of the South End. Although the community’s current diversity exceeds levels found in most of Boston, it is found wanting by the author.
Of special note is the sarcasm Tissot reserves for her gentry informants. While gaining their confidence and availing herself of their good will, she acknowledges her own class biases against bourgeois privilege. Flirting with deception, she seems to assure readers that – in effect – the ends justify the means. As is the fashion now in some scholarly circles, Tissot seems to surrender the goal of objectivity, leaving readers to decide for themselves how much credence to place in her not infrequent subjective assessments.
The full review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.
Dennis E. Gale
Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University
Lecturer, Stanford University