Why Neighborhoods are Being Reshaped Into Mixed Communities

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Involvement in Neighborhood and Voluntary Associations, Block Social Cohesion (BSC), density of adults versus children and racial concentrations are established predictors or indicators of neighborhood Sense of Community (SOC) (Chipuer & Pretty, 1999; Ohmer, Walker, & Pitner, 2014; Sampson & Graif, 2009; Sampson, Morenoff, & Earls, 1999). However, not so much is known about indicators of SOC in communities undergoing change due to gentrification, where middle- and upper-class residents are moving into neighborhoods that were traditionally composed of ethnic minorities who usually have lower household incomes compared to the newer residents (Lees, Slater, & Wyly, 2008). Such efforts and processes for gentrification are oftentimes promoted by federal and city investments through public advancements that incentivize development by way of “reclaiming the city for business, the middle class, and the market” (Lees et al., 2008, p. 184). However, dissimilar societal groups and cultures along with changing dynamics, have an effect on social elements and power and neighborhood dynamics within the community (Rivera & Erlich, 1998) and gentrification has been criticized for having potential psychological effects on traditional residents (for instance community resentment that could affect SOC and social ties (Chaskin & Joseph, 2014; Graves, 2010; Lees et al.,2008). That raises the question, whether the creation of 'mixed communities' is such a great idea after all?

Menlo Park is an example of a neighborhood where strong BSC, high Involvement in Neighborhood and Voluntary Associations and a historic SOC bring in outside investment and gentrification. Menlo Park is a neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona, with a lot of Latino/Latina inhabitants as well as a mixture of residents with deep rooted indigenous cultural connections to the neighborhood land. The area also has multiple traditional Mexican American cultural festivals, with both immigrant and local influences, that the residents celebrate within the neighborhood all through the year. In the 1970s, 1980s and around the developments of the streetcar in the 2010s, three waves of residents with diverse backgrounds and unique demographics came to move in to the neighborhood, which is in line with national trends on gentrification (Lees et al., 2008). The stable and rich Menlo Park neighborhood history, but also the European style advancements were marketed by developers to be build nearby a new streetcar stop (Devine & McKasson, 2010). Consequently, as a result of the strong SOC in the neighborhood and culture that’s been associated with a traditionally secluded ethnic enclave, new residents were attracted to the area (Devine & McKasson, 2010; Lees et al., 2008).

Such processes for gentrification are oftentimes promoted by federal and city investments through public advancements in transportation that incentivize development around the area of every streetcar stop by way of “reclaiming the city for business, the middle class, and the market” (Lees et al., 2008, p. 184). The new resident demographics and developments bring in typical advantages such as improved pedestrian and transportation amenities, improved business and neighborhood investments, and increased social mixing, but also consequences for the community, like increased displacement of nearby businesses and residents, decreased housing affordability, an increase in transportation costs as the original free bus is been exchanged for the more costly streetcar, effects on social ties and connections in the neighborhood and SOC, community resentment, and psychological costs to traditional residents (Lees et al., 2008). The latest wave of gentrification in the Menlo Park neighborhood has led to positive experiences for the new inhabitants who note that the neighborhood provides them a great quality of living and meets their social needs. The original historic inhabitants on the contrary, note that they resent the increased prices of Mercado District housing and believe that this would have been better affordable to traditional residents and their offspring within the neighborhood with whom they feel stronger connected and attached.

To better understand the residents’ different views from both perspectives, we first need to look at the context and understand why neighborhoods are being reshaped in the first place and what the consequences of this are for the sense of community and social cohesion in the neighborhood. Reshaping neighborhood context by redevelopment is a response to concerns expressed about how “neighborhood effects” work in communities of concentrated disadvantage. A great amount of research, for instance, shows links between living in high poverty areas and a couple of social problems, such as school drop-out rates, adult unemployment, teenage and out-of-wedlock births, high rates of child abuse, and crime and delinquency (Gephart 1997; Sampson, Morenoff and GannonRowley 2002; Small and Newman 2001). Mixed-income and community development approaches to public housing reform aim to tackle the issues created by concentrated disadvantage by modifying structural circumstances, composition and social process dynamics in these communities through the wholesale redevelopment of the built environment, integration of higher-income renters and homeowners, screening out of dubious residents, supplying some supports and services for low-income residents, and the establishment of processes and organizations to set up rules, monitor compliance, and respond to issues as they arise.

The reshaping aims thereby to increase and improve social cohesion and sense of community. Measurements for social cohesion conducted by earlier studies are focused on residents trusting each other, being close-knit and willing to help, but also on not getting along and not sharing the same values (Earls, Brooks-Gunn, Raudenbush, & Sampson, 2007; Sampson & Graif, 2009). More specifically for Mexican Americans it involves social support, familism and contact among family including a sense of shared, mutual, common and communal resources, society and organizations, companionship, or company and the ability to have the power or capacity to work together toward what is possible (Landale, Oropesa, & Bradatan, 2006). Sense of community is conceptualized by four somewhat similar components, namely emotional connection, membership, fulfillment of needs, and influence (Long & Perkins, 2003; McMillan & Chavis, 1986).

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In the light of this context, there are certainly positive sides and benefits to the creation of mixed communities. These arguments for the potential benefits of mixed-income public housing reform can be divided into four broad categories (Joseph, Chaskin and Webber 2007). Starting off with social capital arguments, one could suggest that the integration of public housing residents into economically diverse neighborhoods may result in a connection with the relational networks of their higher-income neighbors and the promotion of access to opportunities and information that would have otherwise not been available through their own rather closed networks. Secondly, social control arguments propose that, since crime is highly correlated with residential stability, homeownership and socioeconomic status, higher-income people may be more inclined to exert pressure to invoke rules and maintain order, and the presence of higher-income residents may result in a foundation for increased harmonious community dynamics and a promotion of contexts of increased safety.

Middle-class “role model” arguments posit that the appearance of higher-income people may be a factor contributing to a change of dreams and ambitions and behavior among those who have been living in isolated poverty toward increased prosocial commitment to community and society. Chaskin & Joseph (2011) are convinced that mixed-income housing forms a friendly homelike environment for people of different class, ethnic, culture, gender and lifestyle in the urban areas, which may consecutively, as declared by Klug, Rubin & Todes (2013), contribute towards the construction of an integrated and compact urban neighborhood. Similar facilities and amenities are being utilized by economically and socially diverse neighbors in the mixed income housing development, since these are oftentimes set aside within or in the proximity of their residence (Onatu, 2010). These public and private services and facilities in the areas of mixed income housing communities make sure that diverse income groups constantly stay in contact with each other (Svendsen, 2010). Essentially, social contact could be considered as one of the most meaningful dimensions of social cohesion and has the potential to lead to what Mugnano & Palvarini (2013) define as a “true friendship that is strong enough to be equivalent to family relationships in the urban landscape”. Arguments about political and market influence lastly, state that the presence of higher income residents could bring in greater investment and provision of more responsive and higher quality services from both public and private-sector sources, which could in return lead to improvements in the organizational, physical and service infrastructure of local communities (Chaskin & Joseph, 2014).

The increase in the proportion of higher-income residents, shaping of defensible space and the promotion of homeownership and residential stability may contribute to higher levels of social control and reductions in crime and counteract the effects of social seclusion, but may also bring about conflict, especially in consideration of how issues of class, race and other dimensions of difference inform social interaction in the context of a rapidly changing neighborhood (Chaskin and Joseph 2013; Freeman 2006; Hyra 2008; Pattillo 2007). In point of fact, the organizational responses and social dynamics that have come forth as a consequence of demographic change and redevelopment have also generated a set of fundamental tensions that contribute to severe contestation about the nature of communities in these contexts and the privileges, rights and responsibilities that are shared or enjoyed in different ways by community members within them.

Concerning sense of community and in terms of social cohesion therefore, one could argue that there are both great benefits as tensions and downsides to the idea of mixed communities. On the other hand, where there is change there will always be resistance. It is inevitable that there will always be a group of people opposed to change, afraid of it and it’s possible consequences. Luckily Menlo Park is not serving as the first guinea pig. In most Western countries, the urban landscape has undergone a great transformation through the development of mixed-income housing which has in fact become the heart of their urban renewal strategy (Kleinhans, 2004).

In the United States of America, low-income households were moved onto the turf of higher-income groups to create socioeconomic heterogeneity, which resulted in a drastic alteration of the country’s urban neighborhood (Rosenbaum, Stroh & Flynn, 1998). In Italy, social cohesion among the residents in the urban landscape had been enhanced by mixed-income housing projects (Mugnano & Palvarini, 2013). And it is the mixed-income housing that has stimulated and supported people in the British society to get along with others from different cultures and classes to bring about greater social integration of various advantaged and disadvantaged groups (Kearns & Mason, 2007). Based on the Western countries’ experiences, it can thus be debated that mixed-income housing has a potential to change the patterns of socio-spatial divisions while cultivating social cohesion in the urban landscape, something most cities of developing countries seem to lack.

Overall, the creation of mixed income housing and communities seems to have greater benefits than disadvantages, but the way they are established might be the key. To both residents, the historic and new ones, the ability to have power or have the capacity to work together toward what is possible seems to be of great value and importance (Landale, Oropesa, & Bradatan, 2006). Both groups want their voices to be heard and what to feel involved in the process. Therefore, newer residents, and in particular the ones that have a leadership role within neighborhood organizations, might need to focus on the development and maintenance of an awareness of the differing meanings and experiences attached to neighborhood events, places, services and interventions.

Social interactions at neighborhood events and community meetings or within neighborhood daily interactions, likely have class, race/ethnicity and/or historic/new resident factors that underlie interactions. An awareness of these nuanced interactions and a focus on ensuring residents who have different views and perspectives of the fact that they are able to describe the meaning they attach to a topic and to voice their experiences, and offer their proposed solutions will likely improve social ties among traditional and new residents and lead to an ability to maintain the strong neighborhood SOC to which traditional and newer residents are committed. This way, the creation of mixed communities could indeed be an opportunity to increase SOC and social cohesion, rather than destroy it.

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