Melissa Deas ‘10
Harvard University, Department of Sociology
Who has the “legitimate” right to define a place’s identity? In this ethnographic study I use the frame of a plan to rebrand a gentrifying Boston commercial district as Boston’s Latin Quarter to examine this question. Looking at the perspective of white gentrifiers and Latinos I analyze how these groups understand this question. I will argue that white gentrifiers’ support of or opposition to the name change reflects their own internal insecurities about their role as gentrifiers and members of the community. Even more, both white gentrifiers who support and who oppose the name Boston’s Latin Quarter use authenticity to defend their own right, or the right of Latinos, to define place. Interestingly, those who support the name change define authenticity in terms of people, whereas those who oppose the name change define authenticity in terms of place. While newer Latino residents also express concern about the name change and maintaining authenticity in the community, older Latinos appear less concerned about authenticity and even gentrification than many of the white people in the neighborhood. Instead, these Latinos seem to care more about gaining recognition and maintaining a sense of cultural pride in the next generation.
This paper examines how white gentrifiers and Latino community members understand authenticity within their community and how this affects their support of a recent plan to change the name of a Boston commercial district from “Hyde Jackson Square” (HJS) to “Boston’s Latin Quarter.” While the board members of a local non-profit—Hyde Jackson Square Main Street—are united in their decision to rename this commercial district “Boston’s Latin Quarter” and in their desire to define this commercial district of their neighborhood as a Latino place, the community’s perspectives on this plan are complex. Through in-depth interviews with white and Latino residents and business owners, I discovered that those who live and work in the neighborhood hold a variety of ideas about who has the right to define and call this neighborhood their home. Using Brown-Saracino’s (2004, 2007, 2009) typology of gentrifiers and old-timers, this paper explores some of the issues surrounding this debate: the different ideologies among white gentrifiers within this diverse community, the concept of Latino and “authentic” old-timers within the community, and the notion of preserving an authentic Latin Quarter. I compare the white gentrifiers’ perspectives on the neighborhood and rebranding to those of Latino old-timers, showing that the older Latino residents see the purpose of Boston’s Latin Quarter differently. They stress cultural remembrance rather than authenticity. Also, I compare gentrifiers who support the rebranding plan to those who do not, finding that Brown-Saracino’s typology of gentrifiers is reflected in these two groups’ agendas. Additionally, I extend Brown-Saracino’s work as I explore how both groups of gentrifiers use authenticity to frame their arguments over who has a legitimate right to define the district’s identity. Overall, I show that the ways in which the actors in this community define authenticity mirror their personal and cultural perceptions of their own role in the community.
This paper analyzes a small urban community struggling to define its place-based identity. To be a “place,” rather than simply some abstract geographic space, a location must have an identity, a sense of significance attached to it that makes it meaningful and recognizable (Gieryn 2000). The place in this study is a small multicultural Boston neighborhood called Hyde Jackson Square (HJS), which is currently renegotiating the meaning of place as it confronts gentrification. The frame of my study is a marketing plan implemented by a local non-profit organization (called Hyde Jackson Square Main Street or HJSMS), which recently rebranded the commercial district of this diverse neighborhood as “Boston’s Latin Quarter.” During interviews, board members of HJSMS explained that this particular re-branding decision is based on the desire to attract people to the commercial district and celebrate the prevalence of Latino businesses and people in the neighborhood.
In the confines of this paper I cannot delve deeply into the complex history and demographics of this neighborhood. However, it is important to note that the neighborhood is not entirely Latino. Based on 2007 Census estimates, 43% of the population of HJS identified as Hispanic, 35% as Non-Hispanic white, 16% as Non-Hispanic black, and about 4% as Asian or other (Figure 1). These demographics highlight how the rebranding of the commercial strip of the neighborhood as Boston’s Latin Quarter is a choice to focus on just one aspect of this diverse community.
It is also important to understand that this is, arguably, a neighborhood in the beginning stages of gentrification. All of the census tracts in HJS, except for the one that contains a large public housing development, have seen substantial increases in median household income since the 1970s (Table 1). Despite this, the neighborhood is still racially/ethnically diverse (Figure 1), and still has many of the common signs of a working class neighborhood that Zukin (2010) identifies: dollar stores, small bodegas, and cash advance agencies.
This feeling of impending gentrification is also apparent in the words and memories of long-term community members. They explained to me that in the 1970s HJS experienced dramatic white flight (Figure 1). During my in-depth interviews, long-term residents explain that with this white flight came a dramatic economic decline and HJS became a hotbed of violent and often drug-related crime. While older white residents fled HJS, the neighborhood became an affordable place for immigrants—mostly from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic—to open businesses and build a community. Today, many residents feel like the neighborhood is moving in the “right direction.” While there is still crime, its reputation is improving. José, who grew up in HJS, recalls that when he was a child the only white people he saw there were the ones who came to buy drugs. This is no longer the case. The vast majority of the people I interviewed reported that more affluent and often white residents are moving back to HJS, shopping and spending much more time there. While residents generally appreciate the fact that the neighborhood is becoming safer, many worry about the increased cost of living.
Theoretical understandings of gentrification
Gentrification is a concept that is constantly being redefined, negotiated, narrowed, and expanded within the literature. However, gentrification traditionally is understood as a process in which the inhabitants of a place change from a group that has less social status to one with more social status. This definition is based on Ruth Glass’s original 1964 study on a London community in which working-class families were pushed out of their homes by more affluent ones. She coined the term gentrification. In her study she notes how the “working-class quarter of London” was “invaded by the middle classes,” transforming the “shabby, modest mews and cottages” into “elegant expensive residences” (p. xviii). Glass continues, “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed” (p. xviii). The term gentrification is literal in that the wealthier, often white residents, the “gentry,” push out the lower class. As Glass highlights, gentrification not only results in physical displacement, but a new “social character” for the neighborhood.
Who are the gentrifiers?
When studying gentrification, it is important to identify who the gentrifiers are within the community. Traditionally, gentrifiers are understood to be middle-class residents attracted to the affordability of a neighborhood (Glass 1964). However, more recent studies emphasize that they may be attracted to a particular place for cultural, rather than economic, reasons (Zukin 2010; Brown-Saracino 2009).
Scholars, such as Rose (1984), caution against treating gentrifiers as a single group. Rose asks an important question: “What conceptual grounds exist for assuming that the ‘first stage’ and the ‘end stage’ affluent residents have anything in common other than the fact that their household incomes are higher than the original residents?” (p. 58). She asserts that gentrification is a “chaotic” process with a great deal of variability. She notes that the initial gentrifiers may be motivated by the belief that the neighborhood will be more tolerant to a particular group of people (such as lesbian and gay populations) than other neighborhoods, while later gentrifiers may be more economically motivated.
While these issues of diversity are important, Brown-Saracino (2009, 2007, 2004) suggests a different approach to defining the differences between gentrifiers. She argues that gentrifiers fit into three categories based on their ideologies surrounding gentrification and how they define themselves as gentrifiers: 1) pioneers who ruthlessly retake space from the others; 2) social homesteaders “who engage in transformation of poor and working-class neighborhoods to serve middle-class purposes,” (2009:10) but do so cautiously because they are also attracted to the idea of living in a neighborhood that is diverse and affordable; 3) social preservationists who “engage in a set of political, symbolic, and private practices to maintain the authenticity of their place of residence, primarily by working to prevent old-timers’ displacement” (2009:9). Interestingly in her discussion regarding this last point she notes that in three out of her four studies these “old timers” belong to a racial or ethnic group different from the gentrifiers—they are Portuguese fisherman, Swedish immigrants, or Asian merchants while the gentrifiers are white. When I apply Brown-Saracino’s typology of gentrifiers to HJS, I contend that the old-timers are arguably the Latino population and that gentrification is, at least in part, reflective of a social preservationist model.
Who or what is worth preserving?
Through my research it became obvious that authenticity is a primary concern within the neighborhood, particularly in the face of changes brought on by gentrification. Residents and business owners worry that this new place-identity, Boston’s Latin Quarter, will create something artificial. Others worry that if Latinos are entirely displaced, this authentic Latino enclave will be destroyed. Zukin (2010) observes that the term authenticity “has crept into popular language in the past few years” (p. xi). Increasingly, it is seen as beneficial to claim authenticity in both the sense that a place is historical and traditional, as well as the sense that it is “unique, historically new, innovative and creative” (p. xi). Cities market themselves as “authentic” because people increasingly travel searching for authentic tastes, experiences, and smells (also Judd 2003). Gentrifiers also move to places they identify as authentic (Brown-Saracino 2009, 2007, 2004; Zukin 2010). Clearly there is a strong drive for authenticity, but why?
Brown-Saracino (2009, 2007, 2004) points out that there are certain “authentic” groups that become the focus of social preservationist movements. These gentrifiers identify “old-timers” in a neighborhood as valuable because they see these people as more “authentic” than themselves. In her description of old timers she notes some specific characteristics: “social preservationists appreciate those who appear autonomous: who seem to live a ‘simple’ life and depend on their own labor, land, bodies, families, and local networks” (2007:446). They are the farmers or the merchants. She observes that social preservationists define old-timers as possessing “qualities they associate with real community and that they believe they do not personally possess: independence, tradition, and a place-based way of life” (2009:153). These people are not only seen as having long-lasting ties to the community, but also as living in more traditional and arguably anti-modern ways. The fact that white respondents in HJS often described Latinos as hard-workers and independent small business owners with strong family traditions validate Brown-Saracino’s observation.
Brown-Saracino’s (2009) description of social preservationists also suggests that the desire for authenticity is rooted in both nostalgia and the desire for stability over time. She finds that social preservationists “express nostalgia for ‘traditional’ community rooted in fear of the constant evolution of space” (p. 152), that is, they worry further gentrification will destroy authenticity. However at the same time “social preservation is not an effort to return to an earlier era. Rather, it is an effort to prevent change, to freeze a place before gentrification alters it” (Brown-Saracino 2004:152-53). In this sense, authenticity represents a desire to experience a unique temporal moment in the process of gentrification, during which neighborhoods are multicultural and socioeconomically diverse.
Zukin (2010), on the other hand, frames gentrifiers’ desire for authenticity in terms of place rather than people. She argues that the search for authenticity is motivated by people searching for a sense of real connection to a place: “Though we think authenticity refers to a neighborhood’s innate qualities, it really expresses our own anxieties about how places change” (p. 220). Authenticity is about a need to feel that those places and neighbors that are here today will be here tomorrow. It is about the search for a place that will be invested with the same sets of meaning over time. This is impossible, since each social actor in the neighborhood has his or her own image of when and how the neighborhood was authentic. Moreover, in Zukin’s opinion, the presence of gentrifiers in these neighborhoods will, by their own consumptive practices, set into motion homogenizing forces that recreate these places into white urban neighborhoods.
This paper does not focus on whether or not authenticity is possible, nor does it attempt to answer the question of why people are attracted to authenticity. Instead it uses Brown-Saracino’s typology of gentrifiers to investigate the white gentrifiers’ and Latino old-timers’ perspectives on Boston’s Latin Quarter and their use of authenticity to defend these opinions. It extends previous research by showing that each category—social preservationist, social homesteader, and old-timer—uses a different definition of authenticity to justify its beliefs.
In addition to my experiences living and working in the community over the span of two summers, the primary data used in this paper comes from 49 in-depth interviews collected over the last two years. The majority of the respondents live in the HJS area. Nineteen owned or worked in businesses within HJS. Eighteen worked at and/or had served on the board of a local non-profit agency. Eight were on the current board of directors for HJSMS. Others lived, but did not work in the neighborhood. There was a great range in the number of years participants lived or worked in HJS, with the average being 17. My interviewees also ranged in age from 19 to 76 years. About half of my sample was white, and half were Latino. Additionally there was one African American participant and two Asian participants.
In this paper I attempt to apply Brown-Saracino’s typology of social preservationist, social homesteaders and pioneers. It is important to note that this typology is an oversimplification. While gentrifiers are generally framed as a more affluent class of people, there is also an assumption that gentrifiers tend to be white (Brown-Saracino 2009). However, there is evidence that an influx of middle-class people of color would have similar impacts on neighborhoods because change due to gentrification may be more a result of consumption practices based on class position rather than ethnic ethos (Patillo 2007; McKinnish et al. 2009). While I am defining gentrifiers in this paper as white to reflect how most of my interview respondents defined gentrifiers and to show certain patterns, it is important to keep in mind that the assumption that only white residents are gentrifying HJS is an oversimplification.
Although the categories are imperfect, I will treat long-term Latino residents and business owners (more than 15 years) as what Brown-Saracino calls “authentic old-timers,” and white residents who are either wealthy or recent (have lived in the neighborhood less than 15 years) as gentrifiers. I identified 12 people who are old-timer Latinos and 12 who are gentrifiers—white, middle class, fairly recent inhabitants of HJS. These 12 gentrifiers were divided in their support of Boston’s Latin Quarter: four of them strongly supported the name, five were clearly against the idea, and three were ambivalent. While this group of residents is fairly socioeconomically and politically diverse, those who support Boston’s Latin Quarter have more characteristics of Brown-Saracino’s (2009, 2007, 2004) social preservationists than did those who opposed the rebranding. On the other hand, those who were against the rebranding effort seemed to fall more into her category of social homesteader. In my interviews nobody appeared to fall into the pioneer category—unapologetically supporting the displacement of working-class residents and often motivated by profits. While the absence of this ideology in my interviews does not mean that it is not at all present among gentrifiers in the neighborhood, it does support Brown-Saracino’s finding that this ideology is less prevalent than earlier gentrification scholars made it appear.
How people define place, and who they feel has a legitimate right to do so, depends on many factors. When imagining Boston’s Latin Quarter, many white gentrifiers worry about the current residents who are threatened by gentrification; about the businesses that might have to shut their doors if they do not find sources of revenue; and about how they, as white gentrifiers, would fit in. They worry about how to preserve the neighborhood —to insulate it from the destructive forces of gentrification that would destroy the authentic Latino flavor of HJS.
However, some of the Latino merchants and residents see things differently. They understand that their children will be culturally different from them. They understand that the neighborhood will not be the same tomorrow as it is today. For these Latinos, being defined as somehow more authentic by whites means imagining their culture as stuck in time. For younger Latinos who are assimilating and changing, this authentic culture is already a memory.
In this section I will first outline three perspectives: first that of white gentrifiers I label as social preservationists, explaining why they fit into this category, how this influences their feelings about rebranding the neighborhood as Boston’s Latin Quarter, and how this reflects how they define “authenticity”; next, that of gentrifiers whom I define as social homesteaders, showing how they utilize a place-based rather than people-based definition of authenticity; and finally that of the Latino residents, demonstrating how their image of authenticity differs from that of the white gentrifiers.
Gentrifiers: white social preservationists
The four gentrifiers who strongly supported the rebranding of HJS as Boston’s Latin Quarter were all highly representative of Brown-Saracino’s definition of social preservationists: they see Latinos as authentic old-timers and seek to preserve them through symbolic, political, and private practices.
Orientation toward the neighborhood
Congruent with Brown-Saracino’s (2009, 2007, 2004) description of social preservationists, these white residents did not want to live in a gentrified, homogenized place. While they understand that their own presence in HJS could result in this scenario, they see the preservation of the Latino residents as an opportunity to prevent it. Sandra, the resident who most clearly portrays the social preservationist ideology, explains:
I really moved to Hyde Jackson Square because it was not gentrified. I love living in Hyde Square because of that reason, and that’s the fear that I have…And it’s a little strange saying that coming from my background. You could look at it as well, I’m kind of part of that gentrification, in essence. But I moved here with full embracing of being in this Latin community and taking it for what it is, not trying to change it. Being part of what’s here, going down the street, partaking in a few sentences of Spanish or the smells, the feel. It almost feels like I’m in Mexico, and I’m just going about 200 steps out my door, which is so great. Working with the tailor down the street and trying to communicate with him on how to do alterations, looking up words in the dictionary to help my communication with him. I find all of that perfect, and I don’t want that to change. (47-year-old white woman, resident)
Sandra likes living among Latinos and feeling like a tourist in her own neighborhood, her own country. Like the other gentrifiers who support Boston’s Latin Quarter, she makes an effort to shop locally and support the mom-and-pop businesses in HJS. She also recognizes that as a white person her views on gentrification are somewhat hypocritical because she is in many respects a gentrifier. However, she does not see herself as the stereotypical gentrifier, who does not care about the Latinos in the community. Instead, she imagines herself as someone who cares deeply about the community and actively tries to engage with the Latinos. She defines Latinos as the legitimate members of the community and states that her goals are to not “change” that.
This ideology is clearly reflected in these gentrifiers’ reasons for wanting to live in the neighborhood. Kim, for example, says that one of the reasons she came and has stayed in HJS is because she really loves the Latino restaurants in the district. However, it was not only the food that attracted her, but the culture in the restaurants themselves. In her words:
They’re all amazing staples of this neighborhood. It brings people together. I’ve always had an appreciation for Latin American families and their unity. I feel like this is a—even for single people, this is a very family-oriented neighborhood. So even if your family is not literally here, you still feel like you’re part of a family, and that’s really kind of what I think of. (32-year-old white woman, resident)
Although she is white, she enjoys living in a neighborhood with so many Latinos because of their family values and welcoming attitudes. These values mesh with hers and allow her to feel as though she is part of a tight-knit community. This is such a large part of her attraction to the community that she goes so far as to say that she would move out of the neighborhood if this family feel that Latinos create went away.
The other residents who support the idea of Boston’s Latin Quarter expressed similar beliefs. Amanda mentions that beyond the affordability of the neighborhood, she is attracted to the diversity, saying:
My child is gonna grow up having all this be normal. I feel like where I grew up, in the middle of the woods, essentially, everything was a culture shock from there. He’s gonna grow up hearing multi-languages, seeing and hearing and smelling things that are different from what we might do at our own house…I feel like that variety and just being able to eat different kinds of Spanish food I think is just really unique. It’s something that you’re just not gonna find in a lot of different neighborhoods. Everybody always has their favorite plantain spot, their favorite this or that. (33-year-old white woman, resident, board member)
For Amanda, the diversity gives the neighborhood its value. She wants her child to understand cultures different from her own. Through her cohabitation in this space, Amanda sees an opportunity to give her son a life different from what she had growing up, shaped by the Latino culture. If Latinos disappear in the neighborhood, this desirable aspect will also disappear.
Rebranding as preserving the authentic
Based on this strong desire to maintain the current atmosphere of the neighborhood, these residents participate in efforts they feel would help preserve the Latino culture here. In line with Brown-Saracino’s (2009, 2007, 2004) definition, these social preservationists participate in private practices that they feel support local community, including shopping locally and making personal connections with Latino neighbors and business owners. Amanda and Sandra also participate in more political ways as well. Amanda (a HJSMS board member) serves on another local board in support of building affordable housing in the neighborhood, which she hopes will slow down the process of gentrification. Sandra similarly takes part in other efforts that help support Latinos; in describing one non-profit’s efforts to build affordable housing on the site of an abandoned church she says:
I’ve never seen something work so incredible as that. Reach out to the community, keeping people informed on what’s going on, and be constant about it. I’ve never experienced anything like it, really. It was fantastic. Then you get your little things, like, too much parking, those nitpicky things that go on with people. I think they should put as much parking as they can down there underneath those buildings. My neighbor is like, “No. If they put more parking than they need, then we’re gonna have more people.” Well, the businesses need people.
Sandra, as a social preservationist, does not understand why other residents in the neighborhood would oppose affordable housing for the parking that comes with it. In her eyes the parking will help the Latino businesses that are the backbone of the neighborhood she wants to preserve.
It is not terribly surprising that these same residents who fulfill the social preservationist ideology are also the ones who support the project of Boston’s Latin Quarter. Boston’s Latin Quarter can be interpreted as both a form of political and symbolic preservation. It is political in the sense that the Main Streets organizational agenda is connected to the city of Boston. Therefore, this rebranding plan gives political recognition to the Latino businesses in the district and bestows a legitimate right to define place in HJS. It is symbolic in the sense that the businesses in the district are in many ways the face of the neighborhood and influence how people see and understand their adjoining residential neighborhood. If the commercial district stays in the hands of the Latino business owners, then the neighborhood will retain a Latino identity even if the residential population becomes less Latino. In this sense, the businesses themselves become symbolic replacements of Latinos in the neighborhood. Even more, the advertising campaign meant to support this neighborhood will drive this symbolic representation: Latino style festivals and events, murals, street signs, and so on. These will all reinforce the impression that this is a Latino neighborhood.
When I asked these residents if they felt the Boston’s Latin Quarter name made sense, they all responded yes, that they felt that the name properly described the neighborhood, and more specifically the business district. When I asked what they understood as the motivation for redefining the commercial district as Boston’s Latin Quarter, these residents often identified the preservation of Latinos as a principal reason. It is important to note that these residents did not see the rebranding effort as the only method of preserving Latinos in the neighborhood. They also supported affordable housing and rent controls for the businesses as measures that would help slow gentrification.
Social preservationists and authenticity
How do the social preservationists use authenticity? As Brown-Saracino describes in her work (2009, 2007, 2004), social preservationists define authenticity in terms of old-timers. Accordingly, these residents define Latinos as the authentic inhabitants of HJS. They see themselves as guests without the same moral rights to live here. This ideology motivates them to do things that they believe will prevent displacement of the community’s Latinos.
First, these white social preservationists do not view white people like themselves as legitimate members of the neighborhood. At one point in the interview Amanda articulates this feeling, comparing HJS to the North End, the now highly gentrified Italian neighborhood of Boston:
I feel like people who live there who weren’t Italian, it felt like—I would imagine, they would say, “I live in an Italian neighborhood, this is the flavor of it, this is the culture, and I took advantage of this, it was great. It was wonderful to be able to live in a community like that.” But I don’t think that anybody who was not Italian would say, “I’m from the North End.” They would say, “I live in the North End.” I feel like it’s different. I can’t after nine years saying I’m from Hyde Jackson Square.
While Amanda lives, works and raises her family in HJS, she does not see herself as a legitimate, authentic community resident. Just as non-Italians cannot be part of the North End, non-Latinos cannot be true residents of HJS. They can only enjoy the neighborhood as a Latino place.
When I asked the social preservationists whether the Latin Quarter could be authentic, most expressed concern. They realize Boston’s Latin Quarter could become “theme-park”-like. However, when pressed further they still seemed to feel that rebranding was a good path to follow. Amanda points out that HJS, not being at the center of town and still largely working class, needs active promotion to get people to visit, and that for the ultimate good of the business district, and the Latinos who run it, this promotion is necessary. Another resident, Lesley, pointed out that with the affordable housing being built in the neighborhood she does not see this as becoming a big issue. However, the businesses, since they are not subject to rent controls, are vulnerable, and ultimately need the support of Main Street if they hope to survive.
Sandra stated that because branding the area as Boston’s Latin Quarter is a business plan, she sees authenticity as a problem. However, she encourages the local businesses not to change. When asked if she felt that visitors would find the businesses accessible, she says:
I would like to hope that they’re accessible to everybody. I’ve never had any ill experiences with any of those vendors down there. They’ve all been fantastic. They have helped me with my Spanish. I have helped them with their English. Not everybody’s like me, though. That’s the challenge. I can see some people coming from somewhere else and not being as able to enter the door. Especially somebody that’s never been to Mexico, somebody that doesn’t identify with any kind of Latina/Latino culture. They might have a hard time, but you know what? That’s why it’s there. When they’re ready, it’s there waitin’ for ‘em, right?
While she does readily admit that some people might not be as comfortable going to these businesses as she is, she does not think that the businesses should become more accommodating. They should wait for the kind of people who are okay with being in a “foreign” setting. In this way authenticity can still be maintained, and the businesses can benefit from increased visitors.
Whether or not these residents’ predictions about how best to maintain the authentic “other” are accurate, this ideology is interesting in itself. These white gentrifiers enjoy living in a diverse neighborhood with Latino old-timers, and they see Boston’s Latin Quarter as a method to preserve the Latino identity, and to recognize the Latino presence in the neighborhood. Following Brown-Saracino’s description of social preservationists, they connect authenticity to these ethnic old-timers in the neighborhood and work to preserve the neighborhood’s authenticity through the preservation of these people. However, this rebranding plan does not only impact the Latino residents and business owners. White residents also benefit from this plan. Through their support of the rebranding efforts they can better justify themselves as not the kind of gentrifiers who simply try to invade and push out Latino residents. Furthermore, by actively supporting the preservation of Latino people, they define themselves as white. The definition of a Latino place that is distinct from other parts of the city reinforces the concept of Latino: a people who have their own non-white sociocultural practices. The mirror image of this is that the creation of Boston’s Latin Quarter simultaneously maintains whiteness as different from this image. Also, if Latino people assimilated with the white population, or moved elsewhere, these social preservationists could no longer benefit from living in this multicultural neighborhood that they so enjoy.
Gentrifiers: white social homesteaders
In contrast to the white residential population who support Boston’s Latin Quarter, non-supporters were much more reflective of Brown-Saracino’s social homesteaders, those who like the diversity of the neighborhood but also believe that they have as much of a right to establish roots in the neighborhood as the Latinos.
Orientation toward the neighborhood
These residents moved into the neighborhood to build a home for themselves and their families. While they appreciate the Latino identity of the neighborhood, this was, at most, a secondary reason for moving here. Instead, this group came to live with significant others or family members or they came because the neighborhood offered them a chance to buy an affordable home. While this group was not necessarily any less educated or less liberal than the social preservationists, they simply had different priorities.
Another interesting finding is that this group seemed to particularly appreciate the diversity of the neighborhood, rather than simply the Latino identity. These residents were attracted by the fact that HJS is known for being progressive and liberal, open to gay men, lesbians, and non-white residents. For example, when I asked Mark what has kept him in the neighborhood so long, he explains:
Well, I like the diversity of it. I like the fact that there’s a strong component of liberal, progressive openness to the lifestyles, a general acceptance of gay people, same-sex marriage. I like the fact that it’s got a thriving downtown. We have a couple friends that live in JP now. I like the fact that there seems to be a sense of community. (52-year-old white man, resident)
While Mark certainly recognizes that there are a lot of Latino people within the neighborhood, and later will say that it is fun to live in a place that is so diverse, Latinos are not the first group he mentions. Similarly, in Brian’s description of what he feels attracts people, there is a nod to diversity, but no mention of Latino people or culture. He explains what he likes:
The greenness of it, the fact that there’s a lot of parks here, and the pond, surrounded by a park, and the fact that it’s very low-crime, at least from what I see…. There’s a lot less—it seems like there’s a lot of homeowners here, but it’s not like Beacon Hill, where they’re extremely affluent. I think there’s a lot of first-time homebuyers here in this community, and a lot of ‘em live in the houses that they own. They’re not rental, they’re not bought to rent out and make money off of, so people really enjoy their houses and do a good job of landscaping and gardening and stuff like that and really try to beautify their neighborhood from their doorstep outward.…There’s a lot less trash on the streets than in some of the other neighborhoods in Boston, and a general sense of racial equality or whatever….I think there’s such a diverse population that everybody feels like they belong in JP. Obviously, sexual orientation in this community isn’t really an issue, and that’s kind of really soothing or whatever…I think everybody enjoys the fact that everybody is pretty free to wave their freak flag, no matter what that flag is. You don’t really hear too many people givin’ anybody any grief over it. (40-year-old white man, resident, business owner)
While these definitions show that residents have diverse reasons for wanting to move to HJS, it also highlights why these people may be less concerned about gentrification and the preservation of Latinos. This group likes that HJS is not full of WASPs and yuppies; the diversity they see is not a diversity that will be negatively impacted by their own presence. For example, HJS is more recently a home to a lesbian population, which is mentioned by both Mark and Brian. Since they add to the diversity and progressive feel of HJS, this group is at less risk of displacement due to gentrification. This broadened definition of who belongs here to include groups that are generally more upwardly mobile arguably allows these gentrifiers to be more comfortable with their own role in the neighborhood. They are simply people who add to the diversity.
Another interesting finding within the social homesteaders is that three out of the five people in this group expressed that they felt that Latinos in the neighborhood resented their presence. For example, Mark explains:
I don’t feel as at home in Hyde Square…I like it, I enjoy it, but I don’t connect in the same way. I’ll go into a convenience store to pick up some milk and it’ll be friendly, but there’s a sense…whether it’s because of the language barrier or because of the history of gentrification in the neighborhood, there’s a real feeling that it takes a long time for an Anglo to feel welcome and not a lot of eye contact happens on the street. There’s a lot of distancing, whether it’s us that does it or them that do it. My perception is that we’re more outgoing and smiling than we’re getting from the Latino community.
Unlike the social preservationists, Mark does not describe Latino people as warm or friendly. While Sandra saw interactions with Latinos as an opportunity to practice her Spanish, and Amanda expressed excitement that her son would grow up accustomed to diversity, Mark feels like a cultural outsider, excluded in his own neighborhood. He feels he cannot engage in or fully become part of the community. He feels unwanted by the Latino community. While he understands that there might be some resentment towards him because he is viewed as a gentrifier, he does not see himself this way. The three people who described feeling resented also were quick to point out that they came to the neighborhood because it was so affordable. They do not see themselves as part of the gentrification. Whether or not this is actually the case, they felt a need to justify their right to live here. These are not the expressions of social pioneers, who would be unconcerned by feelings of resentment or outsider status. Instead, these are simply people who want to feel more at home in HJS.
Rebranding as exclusion
Unlike the social preservationists, this group felt that the name Boston’s Latin Quarter was exclusionary; not surprising when these social homesteaders already feel somewhat resented within the neighborhood. For example, Chris explains:
My wife and I were talking about it last night…We live here, we appreciate Hispanic culture. I’ve been to Brazil, she’s been to the Dominican Republic. I’ve worked with Hispanics. I’ve employed Hispanics. My wife and I both speak quite a bit of Spanish. I appreciate siestas [laughs] and that whole thing. But I guess we don’t—I guess we won’t feel comfortable where—we feel like there’s a lot of Latin pride around here and this might push it a little further and make us not feel welcome, basically. (39-year-old white man, resident)
His wife, Tracy, later adds that she feels that the name would not be good for the community, because it might deter other non-Latinos from moving in. She points out that while they were looking for a diverse neighborhood to live in, they did not move into Chinatown, because they did not want to be the only Anglo people in a neighborhood. While Chris and Tracy tried very hard to make sure I understood that they were not prejudiced toward Latino people, they were threatened by the idea of living in an area that had so much Latino pride that they would feel unwelcome in it. They are not comfortable with the idea of being the only white faces within a neighborhood and would not have chosen HJS if it had been called Boston’s Latin Quarter when they moved here six years ago. While they argued that they were not gentrifiers themselves, they would ultimately like to see more white people move in. They want to feel part of a community of diverse people, rather than cultural outsiders living amongst people with whom they do not identify.
Julianne, who did not feel at all resented within the community, believes that Boston’s Latin Quarter would be exclusive for a very different reason: it would not have enough diversity. She explains, “I’m lazy. I prefer to have a lot of variety near my house, instead of having to feel like I should go really far away for specific things.” She would like to see Indian restaurants and sushi places, rather than Latino restaurant after Latino restaurant. While she admits this is a shallow reason of her own, it is not a terribly unreasonable one. People like having a variety of places near where they live. It is convenient. However, this response would not necessarily come from a social preservationist. Julianne is expressing that she wants the community to serve her own needs, perhaps over the needs of the old-timer Latinos.
Homesteaders, authenticity, and Boston’s Latin Quarter. The other argument that is prevalent among social homesteaders is that Boston’s Latin Quarter feels artificial. This complicates Brown-Saracino’s typology—showing that the social preservationists are not the only gentrifiers primarily concerned about authenticity. For example, when I asked Julianne if she thinks the name made sense for the neighborhood, she compares it to the gentrified Italian North End:
It seems like it tries to hold something in time that is artificial. To reiterate, just the way the North End feels to me now. It does not have the stores that we used to shop in. There aren’t any stores. There are boutiques, and there are restaurants, but you don’t shop there. You don’t get your groceries. You don’t have your chickens and your lamb hanging in the storefronts and the bags of coffee and herbs and stuff. It just doesn’t exist any more. (48-year-old white woman, resident)
While Julianne and the others who did not support the Latin Quarter enjoyed aspects of living in a diverse neighborhood, they are more concerned about living in an authentic place. Therefore, she proposes that rather than market the neighborhood and turn it into a tourist trap that does not service the people who live there, the community should foster authenticity in other ways. For example, she says that some Dominican ball-players for the Red-Sox come here for haircuts, which could be a source of pride for HJS and a way to foster the Latino identity of the place.
Similarly, Mark points out that he would be more comfortable in seeing the non-profits do educational programs teaching about Latino cultures, rather than a promotional campaign that will bring in non-community members. He explains:
I don’t know. I think if you’re preserving culture, it’s a tricky thing. Culture is ever-changing and always being influenced by other cultures. If the mechanism to preserve a culture is to actually make it more open to outside culture, then what you’re doing is, you’re really creating a museum. And …that doesn’t make sense. But I think you preserve culture not through what kind of stores are there or what language it’s in—although I’m sure that helps sustain the feeling of community, but it really has to do with organizations that bring people together to teach them about their culture, their heritage, like spontaneous celebrations. Not that that’s purely a Latino thing, but there seems to be a big institution there. Maybe that brings people together. Church brings people together to create a sense of community. I think that’s where the preservation that’s not museum-like comes into effect. That’s just my opinion.
Mark feels that marketing Latino culture to outsiders is not the best course of action because it turns their culture into a museum and does not build community. In some ways, he is expressing a concept that the Latino residents very much agree with: culture is not static. He sees Boston’s Latin Quarter as something that will be inflexible and will destroy the feeling of the neighborhood as an authentic and strong community, making it a place for outsiders to come see a manufactured image of Latinos.
While Brown-Saracino stresses that social preservationists are concerned with living in authentic places surrounded by authentic old-timers, it seems that social homesteaders are equally concerned with authenticity. However, they define authenticity in a way that gives them, as legitimate members of the community, a right to live in their image of an “authentic” community. In other words they have a right to live in a place that does not feel like a tourist trap, some Latino version of Disneyland.
It seems ironic that social homesteaders—who expressed so much concern about defining authenticity of place and who for the most part believe that Boston’s Latin Quarter will result in a commercialized, inauthentic representation of Latino people—were not terribly concerned about actually preserving the Latino presence in the neighborhood. However, when one considers the fact that these residents use a broadened definition of diversity that allows them to include themselves as legitimate members of the community, these ideological decisions make more sense. Even more, mirroring Zukin’s (2010) argument, these gentrifiers are more concerned about maintaining an authentic place rather than an authentic people. This adds a dimension to Brown-Saracino’s work showing that social-homesteaders’ ideological stance towards preservation is still rooted in authenticity, but not authenticity grounded in authentic old-timers.
While Latinos are just as torn about their support of the Latin Quarter as the white population, they did not talk about their concerns surrounding authenticity in the same ways.
Only two of the Latinos I spoke with were highly concerned about the commercialization of the Latino businesses, and both of them were younger, well-educated newcomers to the community who in some ways are more similar to the gentrifiers than the older Latino immigrant stock. While these two people stood out from the typical Latino attitudes toward Boston’s Latin Quarter, their opinions and voices are just as important as those of the older residents.
Antonio says that he will never use the name Boston’s Latin Quarter. This is partially because the name does not define him; he makes it clear that this marketing plan is not meant for Latinos:
It’s in English, for one. It automatically takes us out of the equation. So who is it for? It pushes to me further from what we’re fighting for as far as gentrification is concerned. I will draw a parallel to youth development, which is, a young person who is clear about their identity and their history and their culture is better poised to succeed as an adult. I would say that can be true to districts also. What has made Hyde Jackson Square this whole time special is the people that live and work in it, so I think that that should be reflected in the name. Who’s Latin? I don’t know what that is. I don’t ever consider myself Latin. And I see a lot of Caribbean here. There are some South and Central American also… I wonder if many people identify themselves as “Latin.” Latinos. I’m sure that Latino Quarter doesn’t make a lot of sense. (35-year-old Latino man, resident, youth-organizer)
In many ways the name Boston’s Latin Quarter is a representation of an abstract concept. While this issue of whether the Latin Quarter properly describes the neighborhood might seem like a debate of semantics, it has important implications. The idea of Latinos, or Latin people, is very much a constructed category. The term Latino assumes that people from South and Central America, as well as the Hispanic Caribbean, are largely similar. As Antonio points out, if the name itself is not how Latinos living in the community imagine themselves, then who is Boston’s Latin Quarter for? Is the primary target audience for such a plan non-Latinos who are attracted by the “exotic” and “trendy” image they have of the community? Is it, as Antonio describes, going to result in whites “coming to stare at the brown people?”
Emilia also worried that this plan would create inauthentic representations having nothing to do with how Latinos actually see themselves. Like Antonio, Emilia does not want to see Latinos reduced to commodities for white consumption. She likes shopping in the stores and the down-home feel of the neighborhood, and she cannot imagine that tourists would be attracted to these places. Therefore, she envisions that in Boston’s Latin Quarter the businesses would have to change. For her, this would be “terrifying” as it would mean that HJS would “lose its soul.”
Prior to my research, these are the reactions I hypothesized I would get from Latinos based on the extensive literature surrounding the term “Latino” that is often not how those who fall underneath its umbrella see or describe themselves (Gimenez 1996; Dávila 2000, Oboler 1998). I similarly was worried that the name covered up heterogeneity among the Latino population and was based on a manufactured, stereotyped image of Latinos that ultimately was meant to attract outsiders rather than Latino people. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised that among the older, long-term Latinos there was very little anger or worry that the neighborhood would become inauthentic or that the name was imprecise. For some who have spent much of their lives as marginalized members of the Boston community, even an inauthentic Latin Quarter has value.
Old-timers who do not identify with Boston’s Latin Quarter
Not all of the old-time Latino residents support the idea of Boston’s Latin Quarter. However, this was not because they felt it would make the neighborhood inauthentic. They simply feel that it is not an accurate description of the community. For example, María, a restaurant owner, claims that the name feels inappropriate because over the last few years many more “Americans” were moving in. Since white Anglo people are replacing the Latino population, it does not make sense to identify the neighborhood with a dying population. She explains that now her customers are almost all white people. Unlike the white members of the community, María does not see gentrification as the sole cause of this change; she points out that as Latinos begin to open businesses in other parts of the city, such as East Boston, Latinos have fewer reasons to make a trip to HJS. Furthermore, some Latinos have moved on to the suburbs and warmer locations out of choice rather than because of displacement.
María’s argument is about authenticity, but she is defining authenticity differently once again: in terms of pure population changes rather than feelings about how culture is represented within the community. This same issue concerned some of the non-Latino residents, but not to the degree that they felt the name was an inappropriate descriptor of the mostly Latino commercial district. However, for María it did not matter terribly that the businesses themselves remained Latino. She has seen her own business change because of the residential demographic shift. While the Latinos who used to eat at her restaurant would order larger meat plates that had that special “Hispanic touch,” the white residents mostly order fast food items such as tacos and burritos, which she views as evidence that the neighborhood is no longer really Latino. Another major difference is that, unlike the white social preservationists, she and the other Latinos who see the neighborhood becoming less Latino are not upset about it. As someone who already moved out of HJS, she seems to simply accept the fact that the Latino population is moving elsewhere. Her tone expressed weariness with the neighborhood. She remembers when HJS was a dangerous place and is exhausted by the years of managing a business here. This is not atypical. Other Latinos I spoke with were counting the days until they could afford to move someplace warmer and quieter and therefore could not care less about the impending gentrification. The demographic change is seen as natural, rather than something to be mourned.
Old-timers who support Boston’s Latin Quarter
There are also a number of Latino business owners and residents who do support the rebranding of Boston’s Latin Quarter. Predictably some business owners are only motivated by the potential economic benefit to them. But other Latinos have more symbolic reasons for supporting the idea. What is most interesting about this symbolic support is that these Latinos are not concerned with keeping the area an “authentic” Latin space that caters primarily to Latinos. Instead, they are interested in gaining recognition.
José does not think that businesses necessarily have to change, or become less Latino, to accommodate white populations. He compares the neighborhood to Chinatown, where outsiders come in understanding that there will be language barriers and cultural differences and simply get past them. However, he also feels that as the demographics change the business district needs to be willing to change in order to stay afloat. While he makes these arguments, he also explains that authenticity is not his primary concern. The main benefit he sees from Boston’s Latin Quarter is that it will serve as a reminder for the next generation. Even if HJS becomes less authentic and less Latino residentially, he feels the most important reason to maintain this area as a Latin space is to remind the next generation about their culture, saying:
I think today a lot of our children are more lost than ever as far as our own culture, and you have so many different influences coming in, it’s really tough to say, “You know what? You can be open to some of these other cultures, but you definitely need to learn and keep on to our culture.” And I think by having a neighborhood like that, it at least helps. It’s not gonna solve the problem, but it at least helps. (35-year-old Latino man, resident, business owner)
For José, preserving an area as Boston’s Latin Quarter is not about creating an authentic space, but maintaining the image of Latinos. While he sees assimilation among the third and fourth generations as inevitable, he sees Boston’s Latin Quarter as a symbolic representation of the history of Latinos, reminding future generations that their heritage is distinct and different.
José is not the only person to make this argument. Amado, who is on the board of HJSMS himself, admits that the rebranding effort is a generation too late and that it is an inauthentic representation of the neighborhood. However, he disputes that authenticity ultimately was what the decision was about. For Amado, whose three children have forgotten their Spanish, the process of assimilation is not only inevitable but is also good. He explains that the next generations of Latinos will be more educated and more successful than his generation. He feels that it is silly to try and freeze the neighborhood in time, because you cannot hope to reproduce the past and fight the natural progression. He attests that over his own lifetime his understanding of himself as a Dominican, a Latino, and a person of color has transformed. Like his self-identity, the identity of the neighborhood will change, and cannot possibly remain “authentically” Latino as it used to be. The assumption that Latino culture is something static is unrealistic. Despite this belief, he argues that the name “does make sense.” saying, “I think it’s never too late if you want to do something positive.” For him, this is a way for Latinos to get political recognition, to be remembered as active players in Boston’s history. While it may not be authentic, and it may commodify Latinos, for him it will stand as a reminder to his three children that they have a place in Boston’s past and are valued by the city.
Underlying the rebranding effort of Boston’s Latin Quarter is a debate about the goals of redefining this place and about how this redefinition can fit the ideas of what distinct groups of people feel is authentically appropriate. There are many conflicting ideas about how, why, and even if this place should be redefined. The renaming to Boston’s Latin Quarter can be used as a lens to examine the debate over place identity, particularly as gentrification plays out, and as people imagine how their neighborhood will change because of it.
Validating and complicating Brown-Saracino’s (2004, 2007, 2009) typology, some gentrifiers (social preservationists) in this neighborhood do not see themselves as legitimate within the neighborhood and therefore support the maintenance of Latinos as the authentic defining agents of place. Other gentrifiers (social homesteaders) defend their presence in the neighborhood, claiming that they too are authentic community members. They are less concerned about preserving Latino people than they are with preserving an authentic diverse community; they do not want their neighborhood or Latinos turned into a tourist attraction. Building on Brown-Saracino’s typology, I argue that the two viewpoints show the divide between gentrifiers who seek to live amongst “authentic” people, and those who wish to live in an “authentic” place. While this distinction shows that authenticity can be used to support very different agendas and ideas about how place should be defined, it simultaneously shows how these gentrifiers defend their own presence. Social preservationists counteract their negative feelings about gentrification by trying to slow the process down through the preservation of old-timers. Social homesteaders counteract their negative feelings about gentrification by imagining themselves as legitimate members of the community. Homesteaders also defend their stance against the attempted preservation of Latino merchants as Boston’s Latin Quarter with the argument that this is not ultimately good for Latinos—it will make them inauthentic.
A comparison between the responses of the white gentrifiers and the group of Latin old-timers also shows important differences between these respondents’ perspectives. While there are some who support and some who oppose the rebranding effort within both groups, what is interesting is that their reasons are not the same. While some white residents (the social-homesteaders) oppose the Boston Latin Quarter plan because they feel it would commodify the Latino population and commercialize the neighborhood as a tourist destination, this concern was only an issue for newer Latino residents who had shallower roots in the community and were more similar to gentrifiers in terms of socioeconomic status. The support for the Latin Quarter among Latinos and non-Latinos was in some ways more similar. Both Latinos and social-preservationist white residents expressed that there was some benefit to recognizing a space as legitimately Latino. They also both ascribed a benefit to having an area that would remind people that Latinos were distinct and unique. However, for the white population, this maintenance of social distance and the authentic other allowed them to hold onto their identity as “good” white gentrifiers, open to other populations and actively supporting them. For Latinos, the goal was more about remembrance; they hoped to remind the next generation of Latinos about their culture and the role of Latinos in shaping the city.
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1. As I begin to present data from my interviews I ask my reader to remember that my respondents cannot possibly be representative of all people within HJS. As Small (2009) argues, each represents one case-study that provides a window into this particular community. While each interviewee’s words and perspectives on their community are valid, they do not necessarily represent the views of others in the community. While the opinions in this paper are not representative, they are congruent with my own experiences living, working, and interacting with members of the community over the two years of my study.
2. In reality both white and Latino populations in HJS are socioeconomically diverse. The Latino population is not equally susceptible to gentrification. Some of the Latino people to whom I spoke were homeowners, comfortably middle-class, and well-educated. These Latinos could be as much of a threat to the older working-class Latino community as non-Latinos. The same distinction could be made in the white population. Some are low income and could be displaced by increased gentrification. Despite this diversity, during interviews it became clear that respondents saw the white population as the gentrifying population. Perhaps this is simply a conflation of race and class, or perhaps it is because the white population is changing the cultural fabric of the district—demanding coffee shops and organic food aisles rather than small bodegas and Latino owned restaurants.
3. While 15 is admittedly an arbitrary number, it does place these newcomers as having moved to HJS sometime in or after the 1990s, which is when many interviewees felt the process of gentrification in HJS began.
4. Interestingly, a couple of the Latino people I interviewed expressed this same idea that they would like to see more variety of restaurants in their own neighborhood beyond the Latino places.