Sylvie Tissot

Sylvie Tissot

Sylvie Tissot is a French sociologist, teacher of political sciences at Université de Vincennes-Saint Denis-Paris VIII and feminist activist. She is the co-founder, alongside Pierre Tevanian, of the influential and progressive Les mots sont importants website and the co-director of the film Je ne suis pas féministe, mais, a portrait of the feminist thinker Christine Delphy. She is most recently the author of Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End (2015), a study of gentrification, diversity and the rapid transformation of the American city, Boston. Lili Owen Rowlands spoke to Tissot about the Paris attacks, dog ownership and diversity as a watchword for gentrifiers.  

Interview: Lili Owen Rowlands
Portrait: film still from Je ne suis pas féministe, mais

Lili Owen Rowlands Many recent books about gentrification describe it as a structural phenomenon, as a consequence of urban regeneration and market forces. How is your approach different?
Sylvie Tissot I wanted to really focus on the people who have moved to the South End, Boston, since the 1960s and who have succeeded in appropriating its space. The enigma that I wanted to solve in the book was how people can appropriate a neighbourhood, because it’s not something automatic, which is how many radical geographers view gentrification: the result of capitalism and urban policy. I wanted to focus on the very concrete transformation of a space and how people mobilise in order to create a new elite with a new legitimacy, a new moral authority entailing from the endorsement of “diversity”. 

LOR I found the title of your book both intriguing and mystifying. Could you explain what “gentrifying diversity” means?
ST The way I look at diversity is not really in terms of how social demographics have changed. I was more interested in studying how diversity is used as a watchword in order to create a new elite that claims to be in favour of diversity, but at the same time wants to organise diversity according to its tastes and social norms. So really it’s about gentrifiers creating diversity on their own terms. 

LOR How does one become a “good neighbour”?
ST Being a good neighbour for the people I studied means to have some economic and social resources, but at the same time being ready to spend time and energy on the community. It really goes back to this idea, typical of the United States, that in order to be a legitimate upper-class or upper-middle-class person you really have to be engaged in philanthropic activities. You don’t only have socio-economic resources, but you have to “give back to the community”, as they say. It’s a mixture of self-interest and altruism, of being concerned by private property and real-estate prices, but also by how “others” – black or Hispanic or gay people – can live in the neighbourhood with you under certain conditions. 

LOR You mention the idea that diversity then becomes this commodity or banner under which middle-class people can say, “I live in a really nice and diverse neighbourhood” and this then drives up property prices because everyone wants a slice of the diversity pie. 
ST Yes, but the interesting aspect of gentrification is that it’s not only the rise in property prices, but also how a neighbourhood considered bad or dangerous is turned into an upscale and sought-after urban space. It’s all this symbolic work that, in a way, creates new values, new representations, new mobilisations leading to a new image of the neighbourhood. One way of turning a ghetto into an upscale neighbourhood is to have people see it differently, and that’s why I focused on the Historical Society of Boston. After the Second World War, the South End was considered a slum, the authorities just wanted to tear it down, but then suddenly people started being interested in all this Victorian architecture. So that was one kind of symbolic or cultural mobilisation that changed the representation of these neighbourhoods and worked to attract people coming from the suburbs by saying to them, “Look at this amazing neighbourhood, with amazing 19th-century architecture. It’s not a slum! It’s not a poor neighbourhood! It’s a diverse neighbourhood!” Of course, this doesn’t mean much. I mean, how do you even define diversity? And now the South End is even less diverse than it used to be.

LOR You make the point that many gentrification studies focus on the culinary scene – the ubiquitous mythologies of the flat white – but you go on to suggest that dog ownership plays a significant role in the control of public space. What is it about dogs?
ST Using [the sociologist Pierre] Bourdieu’s theory of distinction, I studied dogs as a new social marker. Dog ownership is a way of appropriating public space. Firstly, because you have to walk dogs and secondly, because they make you feel safe in the neighbourhood. Dog ownership is a way of inscribing very specific social norms onto public space. So I look at the way dog owners really use their dogs, not in a conscious way, to signal their socio-economic status. Like having a certain kind of dog, not those “ghetto” dogs, but rather by owning poodles or Labradors. They buy accessories for their dogs and go to dog bakeries. These social activities are used to create a new lifestyle and new way of consolidating social bonds. The dog run in the South End of Boston is an interesting place, a place where people get together, but people from the projects don’t go there because it’s such a coded space.

LOR In what way is the indivisibility of the dog from the owner important in these practices of exclusion and inclusion? Do undesirable dogs like pit bulls just metonymically represent black people?
ST It’s all about questioning the boundaries between humans and nonhumans: dog owners no longer even call themselves dog owners, but rather dog guardians. You create new symbolic boundaries so that “we humans” and “our dogs” are part of the same community, but of course some dogs are excluded from this community and these are the dogs of the “others”. You can’t explicitly say, “I don’t want black people coming to the dog run,” but you can say, “We don’t think this breed of dog should play here.” I mean, it’s important for these people to claim that they are not racist.

LOR You discuss how gender and sexuality are involved in the definition of the gentrifier’s identity. How are sexism and homophobia exoticised?
ST When I asked my interviewees about diversity, they had this idea of diversity as having all kinds of people living in the same neighbourhood: black people, Hispanic people, gay people. On a less implicit level, the way they talk of these others is also interesting because it’s a way of excluding them and including them, not on the basis of racism – although this can happen – but rather on the basis of claiming that these communities are not as tolerant as they are. Because they, the gentrifiers, are in favour of diversity; they are inclusive of gay people, black or Hispanic people or people living in halfway houses. But they also say that these “other” communities are sexist and homophobic. They don’t say it so explicitly, but they say, “Look at these people, they make sexist or homophobic comments when gay people walk past them.” So it’s really another way for gentrifiers to draw boundaries between themselves and others. It’s a way of drawing socio-economic and racial boundaries by using the language of sexuality and gender. That’s my new project, a book about comparing gay-friendliness in gentrified neighbourhoods in New York and Paris.

LOR Towards the end of the book you suggest that diversity doesn’t erase the divisions created by inequality. How might we find a better way of achieving equality?
ST It’s an issue that is not only local. We can’t achieve equality by focusing just on local dynamics. We need to look at socio-economic redistribution and anti-discrimination policies. It’s not only about having people mix and interact – even if that is, of course, important – but it tends to obscure structural issues.

LOR I watched a talk you gave to Bostonians at the Harvard Book Store and I noticed that there was quite a lot of animosity aimed at you. I even detected this strange xenophobia about the fact that the book was a translation and that because you were French, you weren’t able to portray them correctly. What did you make of this interaction? 
ST Yes, it’s interesting what you are saying about the xenophobia. At the end of the talk this man came up to me and asked me to sign his book and then said, very angrily, “Oh, you are so French!” This means, in coded terms, that I am critical. I know through friends in the South End that a lot of people are very angry. Probably because I don’t criticise, but I kind of objectify. I describe what they think of as pure altruism as something that’s a mix of values and interests, power relations and symbolic domination. For these people this analysis is unbearable because they have considered all their engagements and their lives in the South End as something that is good for the community. Some of them would say that they were expressly against gentrification and don’t consider themselves part of it. Also, the chapter on the dog run created such an outrage.

LOR You say that artists are painted as the pioneers of gentrification, but in the South End, the area called SoWa – supposedly the artists’ neighbourhood – was actually manufactured by a developer and renamed to mirror New York’s SoHo. I used to live in South Pigalle in Paris in an area that has now been baptised SoPi. Is it possible to map onto Paris this strategy of manufactured “artisticness” that is in reality underpinned by economic interests?
ST Going back to this question of creating new representations, I think this belief that artists will add to the value of the neighbourhood is a classical, typical way of gentrifying neighbourhoods. The artistic rhetoric is clear in many places, definitely in Paris, but also in New York with the Lower East Side. 

LOR How is the gentrification in Paris and Boston different?
ST I would say the difference between France and the US is how rapidly the changes happen. You go to Brooklyn in New York and then return ten months later and you find ten new coffee shops in one neighbourhood. Secondly, I would say the dynamic of segregation is different. In terms of the restaurant or café scene in the US, you have new cafés as made for gentrifiers and they are all the same kind of café for the same customers. You can really see how the old restaurants in Brooklyn are only for black or Hispanic people. I guess in Paris and I don’t want to sound too biased or idealistic – it seems to me there are more interactions. You go to a café run by Kabyle [Berber] people and you have more interaction between them and the gentrifiers. Maybe ultimately it doesn’t make a difference, but the process of gentrification seems to me less segregated in France.

LOR After the attacks in Paris many claimed that those areas targeted, around the Canal Saint-Martin, were selected because of their progressive image. Do you agree that it was “hipster” progressivism that was being targeted? Or even certain French values?
ST I don’t agree with the rhetoric about French values. I’m sick of this nationalist discourse that we hear everywhere. It’s a disaster, as we saw in the regional elections with the National Front. I think what was targeted was more the idea of mixité [social mixing]. I don’t think the attacks were against “hipsters”, but against the idea that people can live together, because one of the goals of jihadism is to create more conflict, to create more hate between people. Islamophobia is already common in France, but one of the goals of these attacks was to create more animosity and more hostility between different kinds of people, and in particular between ordinary Muslim people and the people who are or who claim to be progressive – the people who might be the least homophobic, sexist, racist in France. That is what is terrifying.

LOR You’ve written a lot about Islamophobia, gender and the racialisation of space in Parisian urban areas, the cités or quartiers sensibles [inner-city areas].
ST I think one of the ways of describing these neighbourhoods has been to point out the supposedly “stronger sexism” of the people in these areas. And as a feminist and an activist, I took a strong stance against the supposedly feminist point of view that said there was all this violence in the impoverished suburbs and there only, so we had to do something to address these issues. These feminists really focused on non-white or Muslim poor people ,as if there was more violence in these urban spaces, which is not the case. I think racism keeps changing in France. It keeps incorporating new arguments: the argument of gender violence, the argument about gender and religion and the way in which Muslims and Roma people, in particular, have become the new targets of racism. It’s now more a kind of cultural or religion-based racism.

LOR What do you think it will take in France to change its assimilationist expectations after more than a decade of riots and multiple terror attacks?
ST I think we really need to acknowledge the question of discrimination. Compared to the UK and the US, France only started implementing anti-discrimination policies at the end of the 1990s. It’s still very difficult to address discrimination because it goes back to the question of diversity. As in the US, anti-discrimination policies have been changed to the promotion of “diversity” because it is something which is seen as less aggressive, less race-oriented and less touchy. This tradition of assimilation, integration and the colour-blind approach is very problematic. Things have certainly changed in the last 15 years, but it’s a very, very long process. § 

Good Neighbours: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End, published by Verso, is out now.