Monday, November 02, 2015

Moving into the neighborhood: a missiological conversation with Good Neighbors

At the heart of Christian faith is the challenge to be a good neighbor. In John 1:14, Jesus moves into the neighborhood, while in Mark 12:31, Jesus invites us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. In recent times, a major theme in Western understandings of mission has revolved around moving into the neighborhood. Excellent books like Simon Carey Holt’s, God Next Door and Al Roxburgh’s, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood (Allelon Missional Series) provide a rich theology of place. The Parish Collective exists to encourage Christians to love their neighborhoods.

All of which makes Sylvie Tissot’s, Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End an important read. It is a study of a gentrifying suburb in Boston’s South End. Tissot uses ethnography, which allows her to undertake a structural analysis, focused on the local agencies. It analyses how mixing across social groups is defined and controlled. Her argument is that “enthusiasm for diversity ultimately translates into a form of power that operates on a particular combination of inclusion and exclusion.” (6)

“One last specificity is the gentrifiers’ inordinate taste for espresso, cappuccino and other drinks considered sophisticated in the United States.” (8)

Introduction (1-10)

“Gentrification, the rehabilitation of old and degraded neighborhoods as wealthier households move in, is one of the most flagrant manifestations of inequalities that mark the twenty-first century.” (1) Everyone seems resigned to the fact that it is an inevitable social process. Tissot chooses Boston because it has sought as a city to value the neighborhood and because it represents the victory of an arriving upper-middle class in what was a working-class suburb. A key instrument was the use of participatory planning processes, along with the concept of diversity. It is a challenging and provocative thesis, one that Tissot claims she will make by analysing four planes – politics (Chapter 2), morality (Chapter 3), culture (Chapter 4) and public space (Chapter 5).

Chapter 1 (11-36)
This locates the research, researcher and the neighborhood. Between 2004 and 2010, she uses standard ethnography tools of attending (visits over 6 years) and interviewing (77 people). Tissot argues that this is the value of ethnography, a particularity shaped by physical proximity and scientific distance (25). Her method includes finding interlocutors, people who provide different perspectives on the community.

She explores the role “played by neighbourhood associations, the vast majority of whose members were white homeowners” (12). She realizes that what on the surface appears to be an upper class suburb in fact has significant proportions of working class.

“Taking the time to walk around the neighbourhood … I … discovered the still-visible and daily presence of the “undesirables,” and with each stay, my impression that white owners exercised a uniform control over public spaces diminished.” (31)

She will argue that while the upper class claim they value diversity, in fact they have used their influence, primarily through voluntary associations, to create the perception of homogeneity.

Chapter 2 (37-78)
This chapter explores history of neighbourhood. It paints a picture of an ecology, the systems of local government and local community, enmeshed with wider economic and urban developments. It is a mistake to view a neighbourhood as autonomous. Rather it is shaped by an interlocking mesh of groups and structures.

The focus of this chapter is tracing the urban struggles of the 1960s and how they generated an activism that included neighbourhood committees – “resident participation” organised “democratically.” (48) It begins because ethnic-minority activists during the 1960 protest urban renewal strategies. Yet by the turn of the century, upper middle class appropriated these structures.

How did these diverse associations develop into more monochrome? “Efficient professionalism replaced the amateurism of the activists of yesteryear.” (69) Competent people in fact contribute to socioeconomic exclusion. “Websites and e-mail lists provided an opportunity for those who had mastered these techniques to introduce new rules.” (70) In other words, if you want to plan with people, key justice question include who you plan with, and how you plan?

They generate authority by seeming to be committed to diversity. What is the social imagination that adds power to these concepts, mobilizing around values? Addressing this question is the task of the next chapter, as it explores how collective action happens.

Posted by steve at 06:49 PM

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