Photo of Poptahof in 2009 by me. (I would not want to suggest that Poptahof is a ghetto, so please read on.)
In an article titled ‘Gentrifier? Who, me?’, urban scholars John Joe Schlichtman and Jason Patch invite colleagues to look in the mirror and ‘confess’: ‘Where do you live?’. Many urban scholars who are critical about gentrification are gentrifiers themselves. Critical urbanists describe gentrification as ‘class war’ and condemn the middle-classes who claim urban space at the expense of lower-income and marginalized groups of people. ‘Everybody knows that gentrification is bad.’ But scholars may have first-hand experience with the phenomenon about which they are so critical. In these auto-ethnographic posts I reflect on my everyday experience with class and crime, and how it relates to researching class and crime.
Since the start of my academic career (I started my PhD research in 2006) I have lived in two gentrifying neighbourhoods; in one of the two I still live now. They are urban neighbourhoods that score the ‘worst’ on typical indicators such as crime and disorder, percentage of social housing, percentage of households living in poverty, percentage of ethnic minority households and so on, and which are being ‘improved through state-led gentrification (also known as urban renewal or regeneration, in Dutch ‘herstructurering’). I put ‘worst’ between quotes, because I don’t agree that a high score on, say, percentage of low-income households means that we are thus dealing with a ‘problem neighbourhood’. But unfortunately that’s normal policy talk.
As an undergraduate studying criminology, I frequently found myself trying to rebut common-sense opinions about crime and social problems more generally. Whenever I would tell people – at a party, in the pub – that I was a student in criminology, it would result in a lively debate. (It still does, although the debates are now often more polite.) I recall one debate with a friend about whether there are any ghettos in the Netherlands. Repeating what I had learned in urban sociology classes (we read W.J. Wilson’s When Work Disappears on poor urban neighbourhoods), I argued that the level of segregation, isolation, deprivation and insecurity are not severe enough to call any Dutch neighbourhood a ‘ghetto’. I probably also argued that often our idea of ‘bad neighbourhoods’ is wrongly infused with images of American ghettos as we see them in the movies. (Later I learned that the term ‘ghetto’ is heavily contested also among American scholars and that the American situation is much more nuanced, too.)
My friend insisted that we took a tour to see a ‘ghetto’ in the city of Delft (where he lived; at the time I still lived in a suburban town near Delft where I grew up). We bicycled to a group of tall flats. We went around the back of one flat and there he pointed to the many satellite dishes attached to the balconies. (I don’t know whether there are any statistics (and whether that really matters), but in the Netherlands, satellite dishes to many people mark the presence of ethnic minority households, specifically Muslims, and ‘thus’ of deprivation and troubles.) ‘There. You still think there are no ghettos in the Netherlands?’
Unfortunately I can’t recall how I responded. I don’t think I was convinced, but I think I was a bit shocked that I didn’t know this area existed, and that it was so close to areas that I visited regularly. How near different worlds are, and yet so separated.
A year or so later, just after I had started my PhD study, I moved out of my father’s house and out of the suburban town. I had been on a waiting list for social housing for years and now was finally offered an apartment – you’ve guessed it – in the ‘ghetto’.
The neighbourhood is called Poptahof and I did not for one moment reconsider whether I should move there. Indeed, as the satellite dishes may have indicated, statistically, the neighbourhood was a ‘problem area’ (it is gentrifying now). But the apartment was nice, spacious and, not unimportant, I could pay for it. Also, it was very close to my work. Indeed, as Schlichtman and Patch describe in their own reflections on their gentrifier careers, it was mostly for economic and practical reasons that I moved to this neighbourhood.
I must admit that at the time I knew little about the neighbourhood. Either way, I did (and still do) believe that ‘problem neighbourhoods’ in the Netherlands are not that dangerous, so I didn’t feel that I was taking a risk. If anything, it were my new neighbours who made sure to warn me about the dangers of the neighbourhood.
Advice and gossip
Just after I had moved in, my next-door neighbour (a middle-aged man, unemployed, originally from Iraq, very friendly but it was quite difficult to communicate with him) advised that I had an anti-theft strip attached to the door. I followed his advice, just in case; after all, what did I know about the neighbourhood? Neighbours were also keen to share all the gossip about the former occupant, who I met several times when he came by to pick up his mail. This man (elderly, German) apparently was evicted because he didn’t pay his rent, and perhaps also because he would occasionally walk in the corridor naked and cause other kinds of troubles.
The first summer was blazing hot, so I sometimes kept the front door open so the wind would cool off the apartment. At one of these occasions, in the middle of the day, another neighbour (an elder lady, Dutch, always stopped for a chat) came by to see if I was OK. She said it probably wasn’t a good idea to keep the door open as anyone could just walk in – it may not be safe.
Looking back, my experience sheds another light on what may cause fear of crime: before I even had the chance to make up my mind about this neighbourhood, my new neighbours were shaping my thoughts and feelings. (Go to part 2 here.)