The City, Stories, and Mapping

It’s that time of year! Tufts departments and programs are preparing their Fall 2015 course catalog, and I’m excited to say that I’ll be offering an interdisciplinary course about 20th-century urban space and representation, Mapping Stories of the City. It’s a new, special topics class and will be offered in the Tufts Environmental Studies Program next fall (Course ENV 195-1, Mon/Wed 3-4:15). The course was developed with support from my TIE Fellowship and with the invaluable advice and help of Barbara Parmenter and Antje Danielson. Without their generous support, I don’t think this course would have been as interesting or even possible. So, a big thank you to Barbara and Antje!!

I have a draft schedule of the readings and viewings for “Mapping,” and I invite you to go check it out. Comments welcome! I taught a version of this course in the fall in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute as a “study group leader,” and it was a blast. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to teach it with Osher, class participants were so engaged and there was such a deep investment in the learning and discussion process that our two-hour classes breezed by.

I hope Tufts students will enjoy this class as much as Osher members did, albeit an elaborated version.

Highland Park

Gowri and I were in Los Angeles in December and, while there, we visited a neighborhood undergoing some radical changes in its class and racial demographic, Highland Park. The pics above are taken from our visit.

In 2013, the real estate listing firm, Redfin, identified Highland Park as the nation’s “hottest ‘hood,”  for homebuyers and in Nov/Dec 2014 the public radio show Marketplace aired a special investigative series on the processes of gentrification, with a spotlight on Highland Park. Taking its name from Highland Park’s two main commercial streets, York Boulevard and Figueroa Street, the Marketplace series is called York & Fig and offers one of the most compelling discussions of gentrification that I have come across. Part of what makes the series so interesting is that it begins by asking what gentrification is and who might be identified as a gentrifier. The report avoids presenting simplified representations of “good” and “bad” actors in gentrification. Instead, it reveals how and why gentrification must be understood as an intentional process with multiple actors who have differing levels of political and financial power. Some of the key questions the reporting raised for me was:

  • Is gentrification a negative or positive phenomenon? For whom is it a positive experience and why?
  • Is gentrification part of a “natural” process of change? Is it the outcome of inevitable market forces?
  • Gentrification usually brings about displacement of smaller, older businesses as well as socially vulnerable residents. Is this displacement an inevitable consequence?
  • What are the visual indications of gentrification? Can one see it in the store fronts or among the residences? What are the signs?

The reporters do an amazing job of placing “a human face” on the processes of gentrification through their many interviews. In one conversation, a person actively involved in the redevelopment of Highland Park observes, there are “no air brakes” in this kind of urban revitalization process. As a result those who were a part of a previous wave of gentrification, i.e. residents who benefited from the relative affordability of the neighborhood, may find themselves priced out as property value, taxes, and overall quality-of-life expenses continue to rise.

This gentrification series resonated strongly for me because the Greater Boston area is undergoing a similar process of change. Boston has even been recognized as the nation’s most rapidly gentrifying city. Here are recent reports about gentrification in two working-class communities of color, Dorchester and Chinatown Boston. The city of Somerville, just north of Boston and where I live, is also experiencing rapid changes as 6 new mass transit stations open. Looking for some recent information on the ongoing effects of gentrification in Somerville, I found this short and lucid study created by students from the Tufts Urban Environmental Policy and Planning program (UEP).

It’s an incisive look at how transit-oriented development (TOD) can be a driver of small business displacement. It argues that if specific steps toward sustained community engagement are not undertaken by the city, then small businesses will likely be forced out. And, if this happens, a crucial part of the cultural and class fabric that has made the neighborhood so inviting for new, well-to-do residents and upscale businesses will be lost. The study also makes clear that this kind of change, the potential displacement of small businesses, is not necessarily a “natural” outcome of market forces or economic efficiency, but is part of a strategic plan with specific, and not necessarily malign, goals. Thus, if a city and developer can plan for projects with greater capital return, it can and should also plan more thoughtfully for retaining the  community businesses that have helped make the neighborhood an attractive place for development. The York&Fig series also makes this important point with relation to residential displacement.

You can find the Tufts study here.

A final note to this longish post – you may have noticed that I included an image of a grocery receipt. Gowri and I stopped in at the local market in Highland Park (I really enjoy shopping at local markets, and markets in general really) to pick up snacks and were reminded of the new law – 10 cents for a paper bag. It got me thinking that carrying a light reuseable bag whenever I’m out, since I usually have a purse or bag with me, is a good habit to develop — not just for planned store trips. Also, as a resident on the opposite side of the coast who lives with few if any orange farms nearby, I couldn’t believe the price of the oranges – 3 pounds for a dollar!! I first read it as 3 for a dollar and thought that was a great buy. The sweet bread rolls were also amazingly priced — I think this market fits the bill of a neighborhood grocery store with neighborhood prices.

About Me

Huge, immense, and extra-big thanks to my wonderful partner, Gowri, for helping me launch this website! This blog will be an outlet for my latest readings and thoughts about urban space, environmental sustainability, and culture. There is so much happening in both academic and mainstream circles related to environmental humanities that I am inspired to use this space as a site for threading together some of those conversations, and also for my own explorations of the complex and rich intersection of environmental studies and art.

A bit about me: I’m a graduate student in Somerville, Mass. working on a dissertation about 20th and 21st-century American literature and urban space discourse. For more about my graduate work, click here. A significant part of my interest in urban space comes from my experience as a community organizer in Chinatown Boston. I was not a community organizer for very long, two years. Nonetheless it was an immensely powerful learning experience because Chinatown was just beginning to face the current wave of urban revitalization and gentrification that has been changing its borders and skyline since the early millennium. My experience there taught me a lot about the challenges in urban development and ideas of progress. Still, my organizing work left me with many more questions than answers so I decided to continue my interest in urban processes in my graduate work.

In my free time, I volunteer in a local Chinese American women’s oral history group and enjoy traveling. So, some of my posts may be reflections from my wanderings. Thank you for visiting the website!