Diversity With Borders

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A review of Good Neighbors by Sylvie Tissot (translation of De bons voisins, published 2015 by Verso Books).

By Chris Lovett

If Robert Frost built the great American monument to discomfort with boundaries from rock-solid custom of the New England countryside, the French sociologist Sylvie Tissot has made her own discomforting study in the gentrified brickscape of Boston’s South End.

With its demographic mix and progressive tilt, the South End might seem at first glance the antithesis of a gated community. The main subject of Tissot’s Good Neighbors, the South End’s mostly white, upper middle-class property owners, take pride in the architectural pedigree of their restored brownstones, but they also profess and, to a considerable degree, practice an embrace of diversity. There’s also a high degree of civic engagement among the South End’s neighborhood associations, whether in philanthropy or safeguarding “quality of life,” not to mention the rationing of parking spaces.

When Tissot began researching her book, in 2004, the intense conflict over social change in the South End, along class and racial lines, had largely subsided. The early confrontations over urban renewal, starting in the 1960’s, resulted in some gains for affordable housing—most notably Villa Victoria and Tent City. But, by the decade of condo conversions in the 1980’s, the influx of “urban pioneers” had also resulted in the displacement of 25,000 people, many of them Blacks, Latinos or other people of low income in rooming houses.

Despite being the first neighborhood to be gentrified in Boston, the South End still has a mix of race, income and sexual orientation. But the impression made on Tissot is hardly the mélange of equals envisioned by the South End’s leading adversary of displacement, former State Representative Mel King. Instead, she finds one more example of segregation on a Sunday morning, the turnout for brunch on Tremont Street: “it’s there that the impression of homogeneity is strongest, on summer weekends, when the restaurants are full and the outdoor tables are packed.”

For many in Boston, the scene on Tremont Street is hardly surprising, nor is it that brunch might be too expensive or simply less appealing for residents of Villa Victoria and the Cathedral Public Housing Development. What Tissot shows in addition is how much the conspicuous homogeneity, while in close quarters with diversity, depends on cultural barriers and sets the tone for the neighborhood at large.

As Tissot explains, the barriers in the South End take their cue from the ancien régime of Boston’s Brahmin elite and begin taking shape with the restoration of brownstones—the once fashionable and often dilapidated brick townhouses dating from the mid-19th century. A repudiation of homogeneity in the suburbs and the planned Modernist visions for the “New Boston,” the restoration movement in the South End was both elitist and counter-cultural. If the South End’s “pioneers” fell in love with quality materials and design, they were also drawn—perhaps almost romantically—to the adventure of transforming what many of them saw as the interchangeable clutter of “slum housing” into something exalted and singular.

Tissot presents the brownstone phenomenon as more than a large-scale version of This Old House. She takes the leap from renovation to “crystallization,” a loaded word that Stendhal famously defined as a mental process of discovering new perfections in an object of attraction. In this case, when pioneers come under the spell of a South End brownstone, the discoveries can be inventoried in a rich lexicon of Victorian architecture.

As Tissot relates, the South End Historical Society went beyond raising awareness of architectural heritage. Its house tours were coordinated with efforts by real estate agents to attract buyers willing and able to make costly improvements. The Historical Society also held costume ball fundraisers—fêtes galantes that provoked the ire of activists fighting displacement. If the restorations sometimes veered into revisionism (e.g., exposed brick interiors) and the masquerades were too self-conscious to be replicas of the past, the effect, Tissot maintains, was to create a sensibility. This was reinforced by a not-so-academic version of history that celebrated the South End’s Victorian past, while leaving the rest of its history (from immigrant and racial diversity to “skid row” rooming houses) largely in the shadows.

The new young professionals don’t copy their Victorian antecedents so much as cultivate what Tissot calls a “taste for the past.” The effect is almost a Watteau painting in reverse: a fashionable gathering situated, not in a scenic outdoor landscape, but in townhouses near the center of a city. Minus the trappings of decline, and the early 20th century street life recorded in paintings by Allan Rohan Crite, the brownstones are very much a spectacle unto themselves. And, for all the wonders of architectural detail, the most dramatic transformation is the cast of new players taking the stage.

Tissot follows the efforts of “cultural entrepreneurs” to a more contentious level with a group of South End property owners pushing back against other residents advocating more subsidized housing. Then comes a campaign to eliminate the downscale bars that figured in the South End’s notoriety as Boston’s “skid row.” After the bars give way to upscale restaurants, and the elevated Orange Line vanishes in 1987, gentrification spreads to the more industrial southeast side of Washington Street, reinvented as post-industrial arts and food hub, “SoWa” (after SoHo neighborhood in Lower Manhattan).

If later tours of the South End would be a far cry from the elitist narrative of the Historical Society, Tissot finds there would be still more boundaries drawn by neighborhood groups. In this case, the agenda has less to do with style and branding than with grassroots attention to the prosaic details that regulate the quality of life, whether the closing time for a restaurant serving alcohol or cleaning streets in the wake of Boston’s Gay Pride Parade.

In the last decade, the most dramatic example of setting boundaries came with the conflict between groups of property owners over supportive housing to be operated by the homeless shelter, the Pine Street Inn, in a group of the brownstones on Upton Street. Once there was agreement over the number of properties to be used for the program, there would be conditions set over the population served, the traffic of visitors, even where residents could congregate outside their buildings.

Whether monitoring or even resisting supportive housing, South End residents are hardly exceptional, and neighborhood associations are dominated by property owners throughout most of Boston. And South End residents can hardly be faulted for taking ownership of their neighborhood—even putting up some of their own money for maintaining public parks. But the South End is also different because of the level of public intervention that made gentrification possible, not to mention the effects of displacement on former South End residents and other neighborhoods.

In addition to the more formal activities of associations, Tissot shows how a character of vigilance, without any physical barrier, can manage details of everyday life. If a young man plays his guitar in a park for local residents without permission, a vigilant neighbor politely asks him to leave. At a restaurant, displays of affection have to change, as a “gay-friendly” neighborhood becomes more family-normative. Or, as the “SoWa” frontier near the Pine Street Inn lights up at nighttime with trendy galleries and restaurants, the homeless population becomes less visible–in the undiplomatic words of a promoter, scattering like cockroaches.

The ultimate paradox of the South End is how a single park can have subdivisions with different people in different activities—Latino youth playing basketball and Asian women doing Tai Chi, while gay and straight people mingle with animals and each other in an off-leash dog run. As in a pricy restaurant where the spectacle of food preparation intensifies the feel of being at home (unlike a more formulaic chain restaurant) and the focus on style, there’s a pattern of customizing—the public realm as a boutique. For all its pride in diversity, Tissot argues, the upper middle-class never really goes far from the comfort zones that were established, for many, while growing up in the suburbs.

“There is, in the first place, the desire to enact a way of life different from the suburbs, to make certain progressive ideas a reality,” Tissot observes. “At the same time, the fear of the ‘ghettos’ and ‘other’ incarnated by Blacks remains profoundly anchored.”

If the people juxtaposed at the park are all welcomed as a way to keep out “undesirables” who might be using drugs or passed out on a bench, that doesn’t make South End neighbors very different from many people who grew up in Dorchester, Roxbury or South Boston. But, while the customized public spaces and co-existence with subsidized housing developments qualify as a mark of tolerance, Tissot argues that doesn’t necessarily mean inclusion.

By way of example, Tissot mentioned one unsuccessful effort to get support from the larger neighborhood for tours involving a Villa Victoria resident, bridging a divide between brownstones and subsidized housing (with its own proud history). Likewise, an attempt to foster connections among groups throughout the South End results in members of neighborhood associations feeling adrift and impatient with a lack of specific projects.

Even within neighborhood associations, Tissot records at least one person sensing a divide between upper middle-class residents and those of middle income. At the same time, she sees the attention and money lavished on dogs as a way to marginalize and diminish what makes them animals. Though it might go too far to argue this could also mean breaking down a boundary between animals and humans, it’s harder to dispute that human relationships with dogs, more than in Boston’s other neighborhoods, are indeed being highly customized, complete with a boutique economy providing dogs with baked goods, yoga and massage.

Could it be that, with all the customization of common ground, the notion of diversity itself is little more than a mark of style? The answer to that question would require more comment from the South End’s Black and Latino residents and, especially, a closer look at how different populations fare in the common ground of a neighborhood school. But the larger task of helping different populations act together as equals is usually beyond the scope of neighborhood associations, despite all their skill with managing the tangible assets of city life.

Appearing roughly forty years after the beginning of urban renewal in the South End, as well as the Paris student uprisings of 1968, Good Neighbors revisits a time of conflict that many in Boston had left behind or never experienced. But elements of the strategy for renewal in the South End would migrate to other Boston neighborhoods—at first mainly as a response to disinvestment, and more often later as a bridgehead (intended or not) to gentrification.

As conflicts over gentrification spread to other neighborhoods–East Boston, South Boston, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, the South End’s past has even more relevance to the city’s future. And the dearth of working poor and middle-income residents that made the South End unusual has become more and more typical in a time of widening gaps in income.

During the late1960’s, at the height of conflict over renewal in the South End, there was also a French revolt against planners trying to drive less privileged urban populations toward outlying areas. Instead of more pigeonholing, with more social and economic isolation, thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre rallied around what they called the “right to the city”—access to a public realm (in space and time) where different people acting as equals had a better chance to shape their destiny.

As the American sociologist Richard Sennett has noted, admission to the public stage comes with a price, a sacrifice of off-leash personal comfort and unanimity for the power to cross boundaries and explore new connections. With the physical dimensions of a village, and the near absence of a middle ground between its poor and its upper middle class, the South End by itself might be hard pressed to deliver on the promise of a fully inclusive city. While that shortcoming, with its respect for diversity, might still be commendable, it offers little hope for bridging divides on a larger scale.

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