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Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End

Lessons for today’s housing struggles can be learned from the tension between privileged defenders of heritage and the rights of prior occupants in the city’s historic South End

While we often see architects and urban planners as the main protagonists in the construction of cities, invisible forces also shape urban spaces, especially in gentrifying neighbourhoods. Through a sociological investigation of lifestyles and civic engagement in the South End of Boston, we can see how a group of recently arrived upper-middle-class homeowners at once appreciate and also carefully control ‘diversity’ in their new neighbourhood. Their taste for Victorian architecture played a major role in the ways in which these gentrifiers reorganised and eventually consolidated social boundaries.

Formerly one of the poorest and most dilapidated neighbourhoods of Boston after the Second World War, the South End is now a sought-after area, with upscale restaurants, rehabilitated brownstones and skyrocketing real-estate values. This transformation began in Boston’s city centre, which was once made up of working-class neighbourhoods, but underwent a brutal urban renewal programme as the city’s economy was rebuilt on the basis of competitive service-sector businesses. The downtown area became more desirable, and young professionals and students were driven to ‘skid rows’ like the South End. In the same period, the civil rights movement had a profound impact on white middle-class youth. Class structures as well as race and gender relations were deeply shaken, posing new challenges to the privileged classes. Moving to mixed neighbourhoods became a way of expressing a break with traditional American middle-class values, as black protest rose nationwide. The confrontation between different lifestyle as well as a new spatial proximity between different racial groups generated new attitudes over the following decades: a commitment to promoting ‘diversity’ that nevertheless went hand in hand with careful efforts to maintain privileges. As I argue in Good Neighbours, the gentrifiers’ engagement in neighbourhood associations epitomised this complicated stance.

‘Moving to mixed neighbourhoods became a way of expressing a break with traditional American middle-class values, as black protest rose nationwide’

These associations also formalised the neighbourly and social relations built around the lending of tools and exchange of advice. For young professionals who bought a brownstone for a few thousand dollars in the late 1960s, the challenge in their move to the South End did not only come from the new-found proximity to poverty and racial minorities; it also meant knocking through walls and renovating buildings, laying carpet and repainting. Meetings in local groups provided material help as well as a means of transforming these intensive efforts into a point of shared pride as ‘pioneers’. ‘The real heroes were the homeowners who took the risk,’ one resident recalls today. The role of City Hall, which overtly encouraged the local activism of the newcomers, was crucial in fostering the emergence of a local elite through these associations. In an era of intense conflicts and demands for ‘participatory planning’ instead of demolition, cooperating with these neighbourhood groups allowed the mayor of Boston at once to improve its own democratic credibility (having encouraged local participation) while marginalising the more radical activists.


95 Waltham 1972. Source: Historical Association

Thus, while waves of protest succeeded in stopping urban renewal, often decried as ‘negro removal’, this activism proves more ambivalent as we examine its development in the subsequent decades. The South End escaped wholesale demolition in the 1960s. Yet ultimately upper-middle-class households appropriated the structures created in that period that were initially dedicated to democratic engagement. A prominent local association in the South End, the Historical Society, illustrates the tensions that emerged. In 1966, educated and wealthy residents created the Society. The group’s advocacy won the designation ‘historic district’ for the neighbourhood, protecting its Victorian architecture from any demolition or exterior modifications, but also from the construction of new public housing projects. Such changes would threaten both the historical heritage and, more importantly to property owners and real-estate agents active in the Society, the real-estate prices in the area. Thus, the ‘noble’ and ‘universal’ cause of historic preservation also proved exclusionary. Promoting a narrative of the neighbourhood’s history centred on the desirable, openly elitist Victorian architecture, the Historical Society contributed to rendering the present-day immigrant and low-income residents of the neighbourhood invisible by linking these populations to an era of decline for the South End that, according to the Historical Society, followed the glory days of the 19th century during which the brownstones were constructed. Simultaneously, this narrative implicitly praised the gentrifying ‘pioneers’, with their efforts to restore the past beauty of the buildings, as the only legitimate residents of the South End today.

The contemporary management of ‘diversity’ that exists in similar neighbourhoods in the US and Europe is also the result of this political and cultural history. In the 1990s, ‘diversity’ established itself as an essential point of reference, and the residents who asserted this value struggled to reconcile it with valorisation of an architecture that was closely associated with an elite. Ultimately, the Historical Society has come to be seen as a conservative body in the eyes of many South End residents. Valuing diversity at the neighbourhood level, and cosmopolitan in their relationship to the outside world, more recently arrived white homeowners break with racial segregation, and they condemn any overt expression of racism, something that was not as taboo among some of the Historical Society’s members.

‘The enthusiasm for diversity ultimately translates into a form of power that operates on a particular combination of inclusion and exclusion’

Yet the enthusiasm for diversity ultimately translates into a form of power that operates on a particular combination of inclusion and exclusion. In working for some inclusion, this approach contrasts with the systematic efforts since the beginning of the 20th century to deny black people access to residential suburbs, and with the establishment of hyper-ghettos after the Second World War. Embracing ‘diversity’ has involved recognition of the right of the poorest populations to live in their neighbourhood, and this sometimes implies resisting market forces or the most reactionary residents in order to maintain some minimal percentage of public housing. Nevertheless, the readiness of ‘good neighbours’ to live among black and Hispanic people, and to share certain social spaces with openly gay people, is paired, at the same time, with very careful organisation of this proximity. Having a right to oversee housing projects, while being in favour of ‘mixed’ construction projects; making generous donations to charity associations, but intervening in the management of aid recipients; favouring the opening of chic and ‘exotic’ restaurants after having had ‘disreputable’ bars closed down; participating in the renovation of parks, only then to limit access to them: all this in the name of a diversity that does not exceed distinct limits.

Sylvie Tissot’s book Good Neighbours: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End is available now from Verso


Source of main photograph: David Binder

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