That Kind of Neighborhood: Creating, Contesting, and Commodifying Place Reputation
My current book project argues that the key to understanding neighborhoods is understanding the generative power of reputation. We live in a world where people want to know everything they can about the things they consume, whether those things are records, potential partners, or neighborhoods. More crucially, we live in a world where this is increasingly possible because of the proliferation of media and location-based social networking. As a commercial for the iPhone tells us, “there’s an app for that.” Those who stand to benefit or suffer because of this set of circumstances are incentivized to take advantage of, or ameliorate against, this proliferation of knowledge in their own day-to-day lives. This set of circumstances leads to the question that motivates this dissertation: what are the social consequences—for individuals, for groups, and for neighborhoods themselves—of a society where a place’s reputation is visible, consequential, and potentially manageable?
To answer this question, I look to a group of people particularly vulnerable to—and as a result, particularly attuned to—shifts in a neighborhood’s reputation: neighborhood merchants. Merchants as a group are deeply attuned not only to life in their neighborhoods, but to the way other people understand their neighborhoods. After all, they have to be—their livelihoods depend on people coming to their stores, which in turn depends on people coming to their neighborhoods. More than being attentive observers, merchants are also active participants in the production, consolidation, and/or contestation of their neighborhoods’ reputations, and my dissertation demonstrates the concrete actions merchants take to influence their neighborhoods’ reputations, in pursuit of ends both cultural and economic. I explore the creation, contestation, and commodification of place reputation by looking at three Chicago neighborhoods with very different kinds of reputation and very different reputational processes: Wicker Park’s reputational hipness, Bridgeport’s reputational racism, and Woodlawn’s reputational danger.
In examining the neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Bridgeport, and Woodlawn, I find three ideal-typical responses by neighborhood stakeholders to a neighborhood reputation: consolidation, contestation, and exploitation. These accounts of neighborhood social processes provide an alternate way of understanding how to study neighborhoods, demonstrating how neighborhoods undergoing different processes with different demographic characteristics are subject to the same reputational pressures, even as those pressures manifest themselves in different ways. My dissertation shows how neighborhood reputation represents a symbolic dimension of place that is detached in many ways from the “reality” that we see on the ground. This detachment does not mean reputation is devoid of consequential effects, though. It just means that they are more difficult to measure. This is particularly important for those asking big questions about how society works. This dissertation suggests that if we as a society are to better understand the micro foundations of macro structural inequality, for example, we need to be attentive to symbolic dimensions—like reputation—no matter how detached they are from what we think we see on the ground.
The neighborhood is an object of significance not only for scholars, but also for cities pursuing economic prosperity and for individuals hoping to pursue a good life for themselves and their families. While we recognize this significance, how do we understand what makes places neighborhoods in the first place? While social scientists have done a very good job at identifying what happens in neighborhoods, they have paid less attention to what people think happens in neighborhoods, which is consequential in its own right. I identify two complementary ways urban sociologists can better understand reputation, and thus better understand neighborhoods: by focusing on data that is beyond the scope of survey research and administrative statistics, on one hand, and by shifting focus from single neighborhoods to constellations of neighborhoods on the other. Based on interviews with over 90 merchants and stakeholders and ethnographic fieldwork in three neighborhoods, That Kind of Neighborhood explores the way reputations constitute and influence urban life.