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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

How Histories of Neighborhood Violence and Privilege Shape Street Life: Insights from Brightmoor, Detroit

Many researchers have shown how the built environment of a neighborhood and individual characteristics such as class, gender, and race, shape urban interactions. But only a few studies explore how residents’ different historical experiences can shape street life.

In a new paper published in Urban Affairs Review, I show that Black and white longtime residents and white newcomers in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood tend to navigate street life in surprisingly conflicting ways. The article, which is based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork while I lived in Brightmoor and 25 in-depth interviews, shows that these differences are shaped by residents’ disparate historical experiences.

Brightmoor is an extremely depopulated, majority Black neighborhood. Since 1970 its population declined from 26,040 to 9,372 residents, a staggering 64 percent population loss – and shifted from all-white to 83 percent Black. Over decades of neighborhood decline, public and private disinvestments, and growing poverty, many of Brightmoor’s Black and white longtime residents witnessed and experienced extreme neighborhood violence, including arson, shootings, and violent home invasions. While, historically, Brightmoor had seen periods of high neighborhood violence, in recent years reported crime rates showed a steep decrease: violent crime per 100,000 declined by 45 percent and property crime by 55 percent between 2009 and 2016. Nonetheless, longtimers continued to use a “vigilant” style of public life, mobilizing alertness, self-defense weapons, and a range of safety habits to protect themselves.

Since 2006, Brightmoor also saw small-scale, early gentrification by a group of white newcomers. Attracted to its devastated real estate market and the green outgrowths of depopulation, new residents bought foreclosed homes for as little as $500 and planted gardens and farms on vacated lots. Most had little to no personal experience with neighborhood violence and had moved from white, middle-class neighborhoods. In sharp contrast to longtimers’ street life, these newcomers deployed an “aspirational” style of public life, oriented toward their white, middle-class ideals of place. This included organizing a farmers’ market near a notorious drug dealing spot, leisurely walks with baby strollers in depopulated streets, and sunbathing in front of an abandoned school building.

I explain the co-existence and persistence of these two conflicting styles through what I call the “hysteresis of street life.” Hysteresis means “to be behind,” and is a process whereby the effects of some force continue, even after the initial force has stopped. I use it to understand a cultural process: street life practices shaped by residents’ historical neighborhood experiences may linger, even after neighborhoods change. We can understand both longtimers’ and newcomers’ street life practices far better in the context of their historical neighborhood experiences.

For example, Miss Donna was a 64 year old Black resident who had experienced five break-ins in her Brightmoor home over the last 25 years (which she considered few) and had witnessed a lifetime of arson: “[In] the late 80s, yeah, [drug dealers] came in and just, tore up, burning down houses, people wouldn’t let them in, they’d burn their houses up, you know, just got crazy. People were scared, they weren’t coming out their houses. People started locking their doors more, [became] very edgy about somebody knocking on their door.”

She was now vigilant, keeping an eye on her neighbors, most of whom she knew, and told me: “Remember, this is Brightmoor. Anything can and will happen.”

White newcomers’ street life practices and expectations, in turn, were shaped by their often-privileged experiences living in white, middle-class neighborhoods. For example, white-Hispanic newcomer Lucy resented not being able to wear short shorts and a tank top on the vacant field where she and her partner were squatting with a tiny house: “I’m in my yard at a dead-end street. I’m not trying to pick you up.” She contrasted this against Portland, where she had lived before: “In Oregon, it’s legal being naked.” Despite an awareness of how out-of-place their practices were, white newcomers did not adjust. Instead, they mobilized their street life practices both as ends-in-themselves (as part of the urban farmer lifestyle they envisioned in Brightmoor) and as a means for neighborhood change.

Overall, the paper introduces a new notion of cultural lingering (i.e. hysteresis) to understand cultural continuity, change, and conflict in shifting neighborhoods. It helps us better understand how longtime residents of neighborhoods with historically high violence cope with shifts in neighborhood violence, emphasizing the roles of vigilance and strategy in the face of uncertainty. It also contributes to our understanding of gentrification, by foregrounding the “aspirational” style of gentrifiers’ street life, and showing how they mobilized street life practices as ends-in-themselves and means for neighborhood change. Finally, the notion of the “hysteresis of street life” helps us understand how place-based inequalities become durable, as it highlights how unequal historical neighborhood experiences can shape contemporary variations in urban life, which may linger even after neighborhoods change.

Resident-made sign in Brightmoor stating that residents are watching their block, next to illegally dumped trash on side of road.

Resident-made sign stating that residents are watching their block, next to illegally dumped trash on side of road. Photo by author.