In/Visible Borders: Urban Neighborhoods and Representations of Belonging

I just came across this paper written during my first year of graduate school and thought it deserved to be out in the world. It’s a little rough around the edges but continues to feel relevant to San Francisco politics.

The landscapes of urban locations are constantly shifting.  Within San Francisco, a city that is spatially small and therefore relatively condensed, these changes are easy to observe.  In walking through San Francisco, people find themselves quickly crossing the boundaries of one neighborhood into the next.  These boundaries, although physically invisible, are present through the visible shift in an economic class, racial or cultural identities, tourist destinations or business districts.  These parts of San Francisco or any major metropolis are an obvious aspect of city living, yet the arrangement of urban neighborhoods and representations thereof offer a rich and provocative site for investigation and analysis. It is through the representations of these urban neighborhoods and their residents that it becomes visible how particular neighborhoods are imagined and therefore understood by the public. This interrogation allows us to further understand the effect that these representations have on the physical landscape of urban neighborhoods.  In this paper I will examine the representations of two urban landscapes, San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point and post-Katrina New Orleans.  I will consider how under-valued spaces and marginalized communities are represented in mainstream media outlets.  I will question who benefits from these representations and how they benefit.  I will do so through an analysis of the formation of neighborhoods and spaces of belonging.

Map of Hunter's Point, San Francisco

Neighborhoods are defined through physical space and geographical location.  Yet, the boundaries that serve to demarcate neighborhoods are imaginary and mark more than just spatial organization, they define who belongs and who doesn’t belong within certain spaces.  Thus, creating sociological borders that produce meanings and significations beyond physical spatiality. According to Fran Tonkiss in her book Space, the City and Social Theory, the making of borders creates “zones of inclusion” and  “draws lines of social division and exclusion.”[1] These lines of division are often understood in terms of social and cultural diversity, creating a spatial separation of ethnic and racial identities.  The borders that exist between neighborhoods serve both to separate and connect various communities and landscapes.  By recognizing the neighborhood in which one belongs one also recognizes the spaces in which one does not belong.  Further, the imaginary boundaries of neighborhoods facilitates an ability to recognize those who do not belong within one’s own neighborhood.  This recognition occurs through both the separation and connection inherent within this process.  In acknowledging the separation between neighborhoods, one also acknowledges the potential of their connection.  The separation is therefore always “shadowed by the idea…the danger of their connection.”[2]

For Sara Ahmed the danger of this connection is embodied through the notion of the stranger.  In her book Strange Encounters, Embodied Others in Postcoloniality, Ahmed argues that strangers are not “simply those who are not known,” but are “already recognized as not belonging.”[3] This recognition occurs through the reading and marking of bodies as “other” and as “strange.”  Ahmed states that strangers often take the form of “wandering homeless people, aggressive beggars, muggers, anonymous black youths, and drug addicts.”[4] These already recognized strangers are seen to pose a threat to neighborhoods. Ahmed turns to the rhetoric of the Neighborhood Watch Association to illustrate the threat of strangers and the formation of neighborhoods.   The Neighborhood Watch Association define neighborhoods as “pure and organic spaces” in which citizens work together to prevent crime, build safe communities and improve their quality of life.  The motto of the Neighborhood Watch Association, “Crime cannot survive in a community that cares,” creates a relationship between safety and a caring community.[5] Within this rhetoric, a safe, caring community is the responsibility of its residents.  The already recognized stranger is seen to pose a threat to the purified space of a community, its residents and property, strengthening the imagined lines separating the purified space from that which the stranger inhabits.  Furthermore, in equating communities that care with crime prevention and property protection, under-valued spaces that experience a high rate of crime are understood as failed neighborhoods due to the residents’ “failure to care”.[6]

Ahmed discusses representations of belonging and the idea of "failed neighborhoods."

When urban landscapes are represented through the media, the ideologies of the purified space of neighborhoods and the threat of the stranger is communicated, offering distorted representations of complex issues facing various communities.  In his article “The White of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media” Stuart Hall states that the media is an apparatus through which racist ideologies are translated.  The “white eye” of the media is off screen, yet constantly framing the narrative through its dominant position.[7] This framing occurs by representing marginalized communities solely through the lens of violent crimes perpetrated by the “already recognized stranger.”  Marginalized communities are then constructed as failures and therefore strengthen the separation between neighborhoods.  However, in the case of Bayview-Hunter’s Point, the communities thought to exist within the neighborhood are reimagined and the lines of inclusion are redrawn.  This shift in representation marks the impending threat of gentrification and occurs for the benefit of those outside these communities.  Through this process the residents of marginalized communities are often displaced and the sociological boundaries of certain spaces are redefined.

San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point district lies on the southeastern side of the city.  A predominately African American community, Bayview-Hunter’s Point is home to the once operative Naval Shipyard which employed thousands of residents during World War II and throughout the 1960s until its close in 1974.  The community has since suffered from serious health problems due to the toxic residue remaining in the site, as well as high rates of unemployment and inadequate housing; issues that have been largely ignored be the local and federal government.  Bayview-Hunter’s Point comes into focus by the local media through a limited portrayal as a dangerous neighborhood.  The San Francisco Chronicle describes Bayview-Hunter’s Point countless times over the past year through articles with headlines reading:  “Pair Suspected of Shooting One, Wounding Another in Bayview” (11/3/07), “Teen Girl Slain by Gunman in Bayview” (3/17/07), and “Man killed in Bayview Shooting” (2/20/07).  The fine print of these articles cite gang violence, drug deals and theft of property as motivations for these crimes and in specifically highlighting the location of these crimes, the depiction of Bayview-Hunter’s Point as a dangerous neighborhood is further communicated.

Fox Television's K-Ville, a cop drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans

In a similarly negative representation, the Fox television network’s series K-Ville, a cop drama set and filmed in present day New Orleans, offers a monolithic and violent version of the city, two years after Hurricane Katrina. In an episode entitled “Bedfellows” aired on October 1, 2007 K-Ville depicts the residents who have remained in New Orleans as violent and dangerous.  The main characters, New Orleans Police Officers, Marlin Boulet and Trevor Cobb, come under attack of an Eastover resident who open fires on them with a machine gun from the second story window of his home.  After the gunfire ceases,  Boulet and Cobb learn that the resident mistook them for the “Latino gangbangers” who have been terrorizing the neighborhood by “riding around in their low riders…taking random shots at the houses and trying to scare folks out of their home.”  When asked to describe these “gangbangers,” the neighbors in Eastover state that they are “Spanish speaking” and  “have tattoos on their necks.”[8] (Image 1)

Additionally, in the pilot episode, aired on September 17, 2007, Boulet equates residents’ dislocation from New Orleans with a failure to care about the city.  In a scene depicting the Upper Ninth Ward, Boulet notices a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn of his neighbor’s house.[9] Upon learning that his neighbors were selling their home and moving to Jackson, Mississippi, Boulet becomes angry, stating that “now is not the time to be bailing on the Upper Ninth.”  He reaches for the “For Sale” sign and throws it into the street.[10]

Fox Television's K-Ville set in post-Katrina New Orleans

Through the mainstream media both Bayview-Hunter’s Point and New Orleans are constructed as “failed communities” due to violence and crime.  Furthermore, the residents of Bayview-Hunter’s Point and post-Katrina New Orleans are depicted as strangers, through their representation as criminals and gang members. In K-Ville, Boulet constructs the dislocation from New Orleans as an active choice, placing the responsibility of the condition of the Upper Ninth Ward solely on its residents. By remarking that residents are “bailing” on the Upper Ninth, the neighborhood is understood as “failed” due to its residents’ failure to care.  Additionally, the San Francisco Chronicle articles and K-Ville rely upon what Hall calls “inferential racism,” in which the representations of race are naturalized and “inscribed [with] a set of unquestioned assumptions” (Hall’s emphasis).[11] The portrayal of African American residents of Bayview-Hunter’s Point as criminals and Latino residents of New Orleans as “gang-bangers” is grounded upon racist notions that remain uninterrogated and instead, appear as natural or self-evident.

While it is important to acknowledge that crime is present within both Bayview-Hunter’s Point and post-Katrina, New Orleans, it is necessary to do so within a broad context of social factors.  The dominant media coverage of Bayview-Hunter’s Point and K-Ville denies the multiplicity of experiences of its residents and instead, offers a perspective that is reductive and violent. These representations “typif[y] urban areas in terms of their worst features, overlooking the finer grain of interaction and organization which underlies them.”[12] As Tonkiss states, “the fact of living in an unsafe or ‘disorganized’ neighborhood [can be read] as a symptom of individual pathology.”[13] By solely focusing on the crime in a particular neighborhood or the violent acts of “dangerous strangers,” one fails to acknowledge circumstances which produce this behavior, such as the lack of local and federal governments assistance to the disenfranchised communities of Bayview-Hunter’s Point and many residents of New Orleans.  Both communities face unemployment, poor or no public housing, as well as serious health problems due to environmental toxicity, among other issues.[14] The violence occurring within these communities must be located within the context of an already disenfranchised community, lacking adequate and necessary social services and basic assistance.

As “failed neighborhoods” occupied by strangers whom “purified” communities defend themselves against, a revitalization or purification of this space can be imagined.  Recently Bayview-Hunter’s Point has been re-presented to the general public of San Francisco through the lens of not just a revitalization, but a recent discovery.  In June 2007, after the completion of the Third Street lightrail or the T-Line, a train connecting central San Francisco to its southeastern districts, MUNI (San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency) launched a publicity campaign entitled “Discover Neighborhood Treasures.”  The campaign consisted of poster advertisements displayed on and in buses and underground train stations citywide and highlighted various locations and institutions found along the route of the T-Line.  The most widely circulated poster was specific to Bayview.  In full, the poster reads as follows,

“Discover Neighborhood Treasures, Bayview.  Walter Turner, Bayview-Hunter’s     Point YMCA.  1601 Lane Street at Revere Avenue.  A community leader of             Bayview-Hunter’s Point.  Provides children and adults with recreational and             educational services.  Third Street.  Connecting people.  Connecting           Communities.”

"Discover Bayview" poster created by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

The poster was shortened to fit on buses and bus stations, reading only “Discover Neighborhood Treasures, Bayview.  Bayview-Hunter’s Point YMCA. 1601 Lane Street at Revere Avenue.”  Both versions of the poster depict Turner, an African American male standing on the YMCA basketball court, with arms stretched as wide as his smile.  These posters mark the shift from representations of Bayview-Hunter’s Point as a “failed community” to that of a welcoming community.  By relying upon colonial and tourist rhetoric, the “Discover Neighborhood Treasures” campaign hails residents of San Francisco and the larger Bay Area to “discover” Bayview-Hunter’s Point, presenting it as an undiscovered land, available for the staking of territory and the creation of new experiences.

Who will potentially “discover” this neighborhood?  Through their placement within the broader San Francisco area, the posters hailed those outside of the community to “discover” Bayview-Hunter’s Point, to imagine themselves there.  In the essay “Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race, ‘Postcoloniality’ and the Politics of Location,” Ruth Frankenberg and Lata Mani interrogate the concept of postcoloniality, arguing that colonial discourse is alive and well within the white imaginary.[15] Manifesting itself within Britian, India and the United States, this present day discourse interpellates “white, Western ‘postcolonial’ subjects” through classic colonialism originally found within “colonial fiction, museum exhibits, travel accounts, and even ‘discoveries.’”[16] The use of the term “discover” constructs Bayview-Hunter’s Point as a new addition to San Francisco; as though prior to the completion of the Third Street lightrail, its existence as a neighborhood was unknown.  Moreover, middle to upper class, white subjects are interpellated, as in traditional colonial discourse, and called upon to “discover” or unearth this hidden treasure.

The use of the term "discover" is present in tourist and colonial discourse.

Similarly, the visuality of this campaign depends upon the tourist presentation of marketable spaces.  Within tourism a physical space is altered and represented as the site of an authentic experience.[17] Along with the YMCA, the “Discover Bayview” poster series depicts other Bayview community institutions, such as the All Hallows Church, the Bayview-Hunter’s Point Mural located at the Joseph Lee Recreation Center, and the Anna E. Walden Branch Library.  These spaces are portrayed as inviting and often feature the smiling face of an African American resident, assuring a pleasant experience for visitors.  Created for a middle to upper class subjects the experience of urban difference is aestheticized as a “feature of tourism at home.”[18] The transformation of  the representations of Bayview-Hunter’s Point residents from strangers to that of amiable, unthreatening people, aestheticizes the difference that once created fear and separated neighborhoods. This racial difference, with the backdrop of marketable locations, is constructed as an appealing feature, a selling point.  The “white eye” of the media is off screen, not visible within the posters, yet it remains hauntingly present within the frame.

"Discover Bayview" poster created by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

Within the “Discover Bayview” posters, the demarcated space of the neighborhood is recognized, yet another community is imagined within this space.  How is this imagined community realized?  How does it benefit from these representations?  Tonkiss states that changes in the social and physical fabric of cities are predetermined by changes in representations, and in the case of Bayview-Hunter’s Point, the poster campaign signals the initiation of gentrification and new development.[19] Urban gentrification can be described as the market renewal of low-rent areas by middle class or higher income populations.[20] Within the early stages of gentrification middle class people are attracted to under valued spaces or inner cities due to the affordable housing and social and cultural diversity.  However, where the early gentrifiers go, capital is sure to follow, setting the stage for property development and high income housing as the standard.  This often results in the “displacement of low income people by middle and high income households in historically urban communities of color.”[21]

In an interview with Bayview resident and editor of The Bayview, a Local and National Black Newspaper, Mary Ratcliff responsed to MUNI’s advertisement campaign, stating that the posters signify a “speeding up of gentrification” and notes that even prior to the completion of the Third Street lightrail, the local infrastructure of Bayview-Hunter’s Point was adversely effected.  Ratcliff noted that during the five year construction of the Third Street lightrail countless businesses closed.  Including five retail businesses in Ratcliff’s store-front building located at the intersection of Palou Avenue and Third Street.  The businesses suffered financially from the lack of patronage due to the disruptive construction.  The streets were torn up for prolonged periods of time, “inundating [the neighborhood] with toxic dust,” so much that people got out of the habit of going to Third Street.[22] With the construction now completed, local, black business owners are struggling to recover from the lack of patronage and from the decision by San Francisco officials not to allocate federal money to reimburse merchants for their financial loss during the construction.[23] Simultaneously, there is a current debate over the Lennar Corporation’s plan to build 16,000 condominiums in Hunter’s Point, the price of which are unknown, but can be assumed to  be unaffordable by the standards of the poor community of Bayview-Hunter’s Point.  In considering this, one is forced to ask the question of who will truly benefit from this redevelopment.[24] In respect to the Third Street commericial corridor, Ratcliff poses a similar question, “what can we imagine other than they [the city] don’t want black businesses to survive?”[25] Those who will benefit from the redevelopment of Bayview-Hunter’s Point are not the community members currently living within this neighborhood.

Construction for the T-Line along 3rd Street.

Unlike Bayview-Hunter’s Point, a shift at the level of representations is not necessary in the process of gentrification and redevelopment in New Orleans.  In many ways, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina emptied the city of many of its poor residents, by leveling neighborhoods and displacing people, thus creating a situation in which development is imminent. Many New Orleans residents are currently engaged in a struggle against the demolition and redevelopment of the public housing projects they once called home prior to Hurricane Katrina.  The four major public housing sites targeted for redevelopment, BW Cooper, CJ Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard, were hardly affected by the storm due to their well built, solid, brick buildings.  Yet, the majority of residents have not been allowed to return, due to the fact that “they have no property interest in the building.”[26] For example, the C.J. Peete housing complex has been taken over by weeds and is partially surrounded by a barb-wire fence, yet it suffered no flood damage during the storm and therefore is still able to house 2,100 people.[27] The demolitions of these public housing projects are scheduled for December 15, 2007.  City officials have contracted with development firms, proposing to turn the sites into mixed-income housing, or in the case of St. Bernard, the Atlanta-based Columbia Residential firm has publicized a plan to convert the development into a golf course.[28] Simultaneously, FEMA has called for a closure of trailer parks across Louisiana erected for residents who lost their homes in the Hurricane.[29] The combination of these two actions will displace nearly 3,000 households, potentially forcing people outside the city’s limits.

Sign protesting demolition of public housing on CJ Pete Apartments in New Orleans

The development projects of both locations will benefit wealthy populations, currently existing outside the boundaries of Bayview-Hunter’s Point and the housing projects of New Orleans.  The physical space of these neighborhoods is acknowledged and another community is imagined to exist within it.  Through this process the sociological boundaries of these urban neighborhoods are redefined.  The “lines of social division and exclusion” within urban spaces are redrawn to exclude those living within the gentrified neighborhoods and thus causing a dislocation of minority subjects.  Through this redefinition of social boundaries, the residents of Bayview-Hunter’s Point and New Orleans would become strangers to the physical spaces of their own neighborhoods.  The newly imagined community, having been realized through processes of gentrification and redevelopment, would recognize the minority residents of Bayview-Hunter’s Point and New Orleans as not belonging within the newly defined boundaries.  This recognition will reinforce both the physical and sociological boundaries between the gentrified neighborhood and the space that the dislocated residents inhabit.

This shift in the urban locations of Bayview-Hunter’s Point and many neighborhoods in post-Katrina, New Orleans calls for a reclamation of the representations of these communities.  Within both Bayview-Hunter’s Point and New Orleans are representations that offer an alternative to those produced by mass media.  As previously mentioned, The Bayview is a newspaper operating from San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point and addresses issues of the Black community locally, nationally and worldwide.  The articles encompass a wide range of topics including the environmental and redevelopment crisises of the neighborhood.  The material of The Bayview cuts across the limited and racist perspective of the mainstream media and gives agency to residents of Bayview-Hunter’s Point.  Similarly, Stardust and Empty Wagons: Stories from the Katrina Diaspora, a play based on the testimonies of fourteen Hurricane Katrina survivors, works to dismantle the narrow and inaccurate representations of New Orleans residents perpetuated by Fox television’s K-VilleStardust and Empty Wagons illustrates a variety of experiences during and after the storm, offering honest and complex narratives. Through both The Bayview and Stardust and Empty Wagons the detrimental effects of misrepresentation and gentrification begin to be reversed, offering autonomous and multifaceted representations rather than reductive representations that exploit these already vulnerable communities.  Similarly, there are actions being taken within both locations against the redevelopment and impending threat of gentrification.  While those battles may be lengthy and difficult, restoring the representations of these communities and therefore the neighborhoods in which they reside to genuine and autonomous representations is one step towards changing the ways in which minority subjects and undervalued spaces are imagined and understood.

[1] Tonkiss, Fran.  Space, the City and Social Theory. Polity Press, 2005. 58.

[2] Tonkiss. 31.

[3] Ahmed, Sara.  22.

[4] Ahmed  22.

[5] Ahmed, Sara.  27.

[6] Ahmed, 27.

[7] Hall, Stuart, “The Whites of their Eyes, Racist Ideologies and the Media.” In Gender, Race and Class in the Media: A Text Reader, edited by Gail Dines, Jean M. Humez, Jean McMahon, 89-93.  Sage Publications Inc., 2003.  92.

[8] “Bedfellows.”  K-Ville. Jonathan Lisco.  Fox Television Network.  City.  October 1, 2007.

[9] Boulet’s Upper Ninth Ward home was actually filmed in mid-City, New Orleans.  Artistic director of K-Ville, Alton Howard explained this decision stating that some scenes called for a front yard and “you don’t get that in the Upper Ninth.” National Public Radio Interview.

[10] Pilot Episode.  K-Ville. Jonathan Lisco.  Fox Television Network.  City.  September 17, 2007

[11] Hall, Stuart. 91

[12] Tonkiss, Fran. 50.

[13] Tonkiss, 50.

[14] In an inspection of the public housing facility, “Hunters View” by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in March, 2007 it received a score of 26 out of 100, considered “shockingly low.”  For more information, see The San Francisco Chronicle article “Fixing mess at Hunters View won’t be quick, easy or cheap.”  9/17/2007.  The housing crisis in New Orleans will addressed in this paper on pages 10-11.

[15] Frankenberg, Ruth and Lata Mani.  “Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race, ‘Postcoloniality,’ and the Politics of Location,” in Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity, edited by Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenberg, 273-292.  Duke University Press, 1996.  282.

[16] Frankenberg, Mani, 282.

[17] Gmelch, Sharon Bohn.  Tourists and Tourism. Long Grove, Illinois:  Waveland Press, Inc.  2004.  8

[18] Tonkiss, Fran.  91.

[19] Tonkiss, Fran. 88

[20] Tonkiss, Fran. 81.

[21] Solnit, Rebecca and Susan Schwartzenberg,  Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism.  Verso, 2000.  16.

[22] Ratcliff, Mary.  11/29/07

[23] Ratcliff explained this as being part of the contract the San Francisco city government made during the construction of the lightrail.

[24] The Lennar Corporation has been chosen by local government of San Francisco as the master developer of Bayview-Hunter’s Point and is currently being investigated for irresponsibly managing the environmental toxins during construction of Hunter’s Point.  For more information see the article “Question of Intent” in The Guardian. Vol. 42. No. 9.  11/28/07.

[25] Ratcliff, Mary.  11/29/07

[26] Stated by attorney, Leslie Farby, defending the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the article “Judge won’t hold up public housing razing,” written by Gwen Filosa.  New Orleans Times-Picayune. 11/15/07.

[27] Dix, Carl.  “System’s Plan for Public Housing in New Orleans.”  New Orleans Independent Media. November 25, 2007. (Accessed 11/29/07).

[28] Steinberg, Michael and Evan Casper-Futterman.  “Everyone has a right to come home.”  The Bayview.  November 21, 2007.  (Accessed 11/28/07).

[29] Bohrer, Becky.  “FEMA to close post-Katrina trailer parks.”  Associated Press. November 29, 2007. (Accessed 11/29/07).


One thought on “In/Visible Borders: Urban Neighborhoods and Representations of Belonging

  1. L to the...

    Very dope paper. You really were able to break down the psychological attributes of the gentrification process. Rode through HP today, felt compelled to write about it, hope you don’t mind me hyperlinking this in my blog!


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