White residents of areas undergoing gentrification are more likely than minorities to define their neighborhood as a smaller subset of an area that they perceive to have lower socioeconomic status and more crime, and to refer to their neighborhoods by new names that are often dreamed up or at least popularized by real estate agents.

That’s one takeaway from a study by a Harvard University doctoral candidate that looked at how residents of a gentrifying neighborhood in South Philadelphia “socially construct” neighborhood boundaries and names, potentially contributing to inequality.

In their eagerness to embrace new neighborhood boundaries and names, white residents may be making things tougher for minorities who live in areas that are excluded. Informal neighborhood boundaries are sometimes used to allocate reinvestment and redevelopment funds, and some areas may miss out on much-needed assistance if they are “defined out” of areas seen as up-and-coming, writes CityLab.com’s Richard Florida.

In “The Social Construction of a Gentrifying Neighborhood,” Harvard University doctoral candidate Jackelyn Hwang interviewed 56 residents of a gentrifying neighborhood in South Philadelphia.

Most minority respondents — regardless of their socioeconomic status and or how long they’d lived in the area — defined their neighborhood as “South Philly” — “a large and inclusive spatial area” that invoked the area’s black cultural history, Hwang reported.

Whites tended to carve up the area studied into smaller neighborhoods, with newer names like “Graduate Hospital,” “G-Ho,” “South Rittenhouse” and “Southwest Center City.”

Real estate agents are often seen as inventing or at least popularizing new neighborhood boundaries and names — Florida cites a New York magazine article in which film director Spike Lee rails against gentrification, decrying new names for parts of Harlem (“SpaHa”) and Bushwick (“East Williamsburg”).

In Oakland, California, real estate agents have been accused of “rebranding” an area that includes sections of North Oakland, South Berkeley and Emeryville as “NOBE,” to the consternation of some longtime residents and neighborhood groups.

Some of those commenting on Florida’s CityLab.com’s piece also riffed on real estate agents’ purported role in slapping new labels onto communities.

“Realtors have a vested interest in changing the names of areas perceived as “bad,” and popularizing names seen as “good,” said one commenter. “This can increase sales prices.”

Email Teke Wiggin.

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