In the past seven months I feel I have experienced what it’s like ‘living in a bubble.’ I borrow the term from an article on gentrifiers living in London, written by urban sociologist Tim Butler, which describes how gentrifiers, ‘despite a strong rhetoric in favour of social integration,’ in their day-to-day lives lived ‘quite apart from non-middle-class residents.’
But I’m going to use the term differently. Because in the past seven months I have not lived in a gentrifying area but in a middle- and upper-class area, one of the ‘best’ neighbourhoods of The Hague. Why? So I can write auto-ethnographic blog posts, let’s just leave it at that.
The neighbourhood is leafy, quiet (no bars within a 15 minute walk), located right next to two estates which are now public parks and a 5 minute walk away from Wassenaar, one of the Netherland’s wealthiest areas.
Although I don’t think I have ever lived in such a noisy apartment building – the ceilings must be made of papier-mâché; also, in the last years I’d become used to not having neighbours upstairs – I can’t say that I am really bothered by it (even though I can hear my neighbour’s alarm clock going off; papier-mâché, seriously). The neighbours very rarely stay up late nor make that much sound anyway. Apparently we’re all on a 9 to 5 rhythm, that helps. Compared to neighbours partying or fighting outside in the middle of the night, I’ll have alarm clocks in the morning, anytime (and I’m not a morning person).
People on the street – there are not many – are mostly white, and foreign languages are spoken but you’re more likely to hear English than Arabic (I have spotted several homes of ambassadors in my vicinity). Most notably, everyone I meet outside looks like they are well off.
I thought it would never happen to me, but I have to admit: it changed me. In previous neighbourhoods many people went shopping in sweatpants and so did I, but in my new hood I started feeling awkward popping by the local store dressed like that. Perhaps it has something to do as well with the fact that the manager recognizes me and seems eager to say hi – no anonymity in this suburban corner of the city.
What strikes me most of living here, is how homogeneous my world has become. Obviously, at work (university) people are a lot like me: educated, affluent, mostly white. Now all aspects of my life are like that. When I’m in the pub or a restaurant – pretty much the same story (somehow I find myself less often in dive bars nowadays). And whereas I used to go home after work to a very mixed context, now I go home to pretty much the same. Supermarket: likewise. Life in the bubble.
The everyday ‘other’
It’s not hard to imagine how that would affect one’s views on society and of others. Many people of course meet people from all walks of life through their job. But I doubt that the work place can effectively break through any social and symbolic boundaries, as work or client relations are often characterized by (power) inequalities.
And sure, wealthy people can see people living in poverty on television, but I beg to differ that one gets a realistic insight into how the other half lives from the media (definitely not from programs like Benefits Street). The media tend to focus on the extraordinary, while I think mutual understanding and solidarity can grow if only people see the ‘other’ doing their everyday things – shopping, caring, laughing, being bored. Television, certainly about ‘deprived neighbourhoods’, will for many who are not informally familiar with these neighbourhoods only strengthen the association between poverty and deviant behaviour, I’m afraid.
Does it matter, that some people live in a bubble? A recent study found that wealthy Americans generally believe the U.S. is more wealthy than it is:
It’s easy to imagine why they might make this mistake: If you look around you and see few poor people — on the street, in your child’s classroom, at the grocery store — you may think poverty is pretty rare.
Life in the bubble means that you don’t see how the other half lives – and even if you know, you could just ignore it, forget about it. It seems easy enough, I now realize. This study also found that Americans who overestimated the country’s wealth, were more like to perceive the economy as fair and more likely to oppose redistribution policies. Of course it’s hard to tell whether there is a causal relationship here, perhaps people who oppose redistribution are more likely to self-segregate. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that wealthy people living in a bubble affects others outside that bubble.
In previous years I have chosen not to self-segregate: to live in neighbourhoods where relatively many people living on low-incomes live (and risking being a gentrifier). Seven months in the bubble has confirmed that self-segregation does not work for me.
Photo: A midsummer afternoon’s bubble, by rachelpasch on Flickr