Gentrification and Cultural Homogeneity in Davis Square

Undergraduate qualitative research project in sociology. Completed 20 June 2014. Reformatted in 2018.


This study investigated the ways in which a square in an ethnically and economically diverse city in New England failed to reflect the diversity of that city, and was instead a homogeneously white and middle-class area, despite being surrounded by nearby districts that were far less homogeneous. This was a qualitative ethnographic study, making use of field observations, interviews with community leaders and a review of the sociological literature. The field observations were compiled and analysed, looking for themes that arose throughout the course of the study. I found that various themes and processes are related to the homogeneity of the square: urban gentrification (caused by the extension of the T subway system into Davis Square, and the influx of Tufts University students) and complicated spatial relationships that lead people of colour to avoid ‘white’ spaces. By understanding some of the ways in which Davis Square has become such a racially and socioeconomically homogeneous place, researchers and urban planners can find strategies to foster more community integration.


Cultural forces can lead to the isolation of different socioeconomic and cultural groups, despite them ostensibly coexisting in the same space. This study aims to investigate how a neighbourhood in a statistically diverse city fails to reflect that diversity, and is instead predominantly white and middle-­class, despite the presence of a large population of immigrants, working-­class and poor people, and people of colour within the city itself.

For this study, I observed the Davis Square neighbourhood in Somerville, MA, which is an extremely white and middle-­‑class area in a statistically diverse city (‘State and County Quick Facts’, 2010), with a higher proportion of Blacks (6.8% v. 6.6%), Latinos (10.6% v. 9.6%) and other non-­white ethnic and racial groups than the Massachusetts state average. There is also a larger number of foreign-born people in Somerville (25.5% as opposed to the state average of 14.8%), and its median household income is somewhat lower than the state average ($64,203 per annum v. $66,658), with a higher percentage of people below the poverty line (15.9% v. 11%). While Somerville does have regions that reflect its greater racial and economic diversity like Union Square and to a lesser extent, Porter Square, Davis Square is overwhelmingly white and middle-­ to upper-­middle-­class, and does not have the same cultural variability that other areas have. My goal in conducting this study is to understand some of the problems related to Davis Square’s lack of diversity and some of the factors that have contributed to it.

I myself have a complicated relationship to Davis Square and its demographics. As a Tufts student, it is very easy for me to find other students there and people with similar educational histories, but as a person of colour who does not quite fit into the socioeconomic category dominant in Davis Square, there is the occasional sensation of being an outsider, though I spend enough time there to not be one. Though this relationship was not the impetus for the study – rather, it was an interest in how macro-­level sociological phenomena can be observed within a small space – it became increasingly important as I conducted field research in the square, conducted interviews with people with a professional interest in how the square has developed over time, and read the relevant literature.

Review of the Literature

Questions about diversity – and the lack thereof – have been a problem investigated by sociologists for quite some time. The phenomenon of gentrification, or the repurposing of formerly poor and working-class spaces into ones frequented by those of relatively higher social status, is common in modern cities, especially ones undergoing ‘urban renewal’. In many American cities, gentrification and economic segregation have been a continuing consequence of the changes that urbanisation and suburbanisation have wrought on cities. Dreier, Mollenkopf and Swanstrom (2011), in ‘Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century’, emphasise the importance of place and spatial organisation in cities, even in a post-­digital era where such distinctions are ostensibly meaningless. In fact, they note that spatial relationships have intensified over the past few decades, and gentrification and municipal policies have led to ‘economic segregation, concentrated urban poverty and suburban sprawl’ (Dreier, Mollenkopf & Swanstrom, 2001). Davis Square itself is an example of how these forms of geographic inequality have arisen in Somerville; despite Somerville itself being a diverse city – its racial diversity is higher than the Massachusetts state average, especially for Latino and Asian populations – Davis Square itself is heavily White and middle‑ to upper-­middle-­class. Administrative changes led to the repurposing of the formerly working‑class Davis Square into a ‘favoured quarter’ (an area that ‘houses upper-­‐income people and businesses that pay taxes but do not demand many services and do not lessen the quality of life’) through the extension of the Red Line train, which drew higher-­income people to Davis Square who would have not otherwise used the space, and businesses capitalised on this change (Dreier, Mollenkopf & Swanstrom, 2001). ‘Favoured quarters’ reinforce social hierarchies through the ways in which people make use of public space, even if it is technically open to them: they are seen as being ‘for’ a preferred class of people, and have been a source of direct displacement of poor and working-­class people from an area that was once considered them through a process of revalorisation.

Betancur (2011), in ‘Gentrification and Community Fabric in Chicago’, discusses the effect displacement and segregation have, particularly on poorer communities of colour. Some of the results of this gentrification process in the Chicago districts discussed included the separation from valuable jobs and services for the displaced communities, in favour of community resources that reflected the cultural capital of the more affluent people who moved into those neighbourhoods after the areas had become gentrified. In Davis Square, this has resulted in the removal of labour and daytime work from the area, in favour of nightlife, restaurants and stores targeted towards young, affluent residents. Davis Square includes many restaurants (particularly ethnic or independently owned ones, as opposed to popular national chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell; the only chain restaurants there are ones associated with gentrification, like Starbucks), banks, an independent movie theatre, a cluster of consignment stores and ‘boutique’ clothing and stationery stores. There are very few offices and no government service buildings, in comparison to other areas. As a ‘favoured quarter’, Davis Square can draw income through people’s leisure activities, and residents can pay higher rents - which give more property taxes to the city government’s coffers - while using comparatively few government services. Betancur also discusses the importance of a ‘sense of place’ deriving from community supports and services within neighbourhoods that causes people to feel rooted to a particular area, and the deleterious effects gentrification has on social organisation and the maintenance of that sense of place after ‘urban renewal’ has happened to a particular region, especially displacement and the removal of vital services the poorer residents depended on before the influx of gentrifiers into the area.

Like the Chicago neighbourhoods depicted in Betancur’s article, Davis Square has undergone significant ‘urban renewal’ – or gentrification – since the extension of the Red Line T station into the area. Before this change, Davis Square was primarily a working-­class region, and there are still a few vestiges of this older heritage: the Mike’s restaurant, the Family Dollar, the Goodwill and the now-defunct McDonald’s franchise. Afterwards, Davis Square was transmogrified into an area where white, non-immigrant, middle-­class and affluent people congregated, primarily to participate in leisure activities. Lees (2000) describes gentrification as a ‘cyclical process’ that is ‘driven largely, but not completely, by investment flows’, and the construction of the Red Line stop in the square, along with the efforts of Somerville politicians and business owners, would have stimulated investment in the area - and in turn would have made the neighbourhood more desirable to potential residents and visitors, thus raising the rents and forcing previous working-class and poor residents – and services devoted to them, like the welfare and Social Security office – once they could no longer afford to live there.

Though there has been extensive research about the effects gentrification and economic segregation exert, most analyses in the literature are focused on larger cities like New York, London, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, as opposed to medium-sized or smaller cities like Somerville, a problem which Lees (2000) notes, though Lees notes this in the context of policymaking by the cities themselves, rather than analyses of gentrification generally. The changes that lead to gentrification in smaller cities may not be exactly the same as those which drive the process in larger cities; for example, Lees (2000) mentions a process called ‘financification’, in which financial services are the driving force behind urban gentrification in global cities like New York and London.

The Davis Square Red Line project itself and its effects on Somerville, incidentally, are examined in the Project for Public Spaces’ (1997) case study, though this study is uncritically favourable of the project, neglecting to mention the detrimental effects that ‘urban renewal’ has had on working-class people and communities of colour.

Though Somerville is seen as being part of the Greater Boston area, the city itself has its own particular set of social problems, including gentrification, which may take a different shape from the kinds of social problems that occur in Boston proper. As a smaller city, ‘financification’ and other issues specific to larger cities will not be what draws ‘gentrifiers’ into the city; rather, an analysis of gentrification in Somerville should examine the specific social changes that lead to the influx of middle-class or affluent people into traditionally working-class spaces. Though processes like gentrification in ‘satellite’ or secondary cities may not be as publicly visible as they are in larger cities like New York, Rio or Chicago, that does not mean the analysis is without merit.

Additionally, many studies of gentrification analyse it from a conflict perspective, focusing on the adversarial relationship between the ‘gentrifiers’ (white, middle-class newcomers) and the people they displace (working-class or poor, often people of colour), rather from a symbolic-interactionist perspective that draws inferences about macro-level phenomena through the individual interactions observed through ethnographic research. Though there is nothing qualitatively wrong with the conflict approach, the emergence of gentrification arises from various complex processes that occur in tandem; it cannot always be generalised as calculated ‘class warfare’ as it might be characterised in some conflict- theoretical literature, or as ‘revanchist cities’, as Lees (2000) describes this theoretical standpoint.


Field research

Over the course of six weeks (22 September to 5 November 2013), I conducted an observational study of various parts of Davis Square: the central square itself, as well as various shops and restaurants. The majority of the observations were held in September andOctober. At the beginning, I visited sites for either one hour twice a week, or for two hours once a week, though as the study continued, the visits tended to be for longer periods of time, but over a more diffuse time period, like two-hour visits every two weeks. These observations were assembled into a set of coded field notes, providing the date, time and location of each of the sites I observed, along with pertinent sociological themes I noticed within these observations. I visited each site for one- and two-hour periods, paying particular attention to the way people used the space, and patterns present within the environment itself, like the way different stores were arranged.

Because Davis Square is a public site, I did not experience any restrictions on gaining entrée to the site and was able, therefore, to start my observations immediately.

To provide a site of contrast to my observations in Davis Square, I visited Central Square in Cambridge over a period of two weeks, observing behaviour and the general arrangement of shops and restaurants. Like the Davis Square observations, I compiled the Central Square observations into a set of coded field notes, though they are shorter than the Davis Square ones because Central Square was used as a means for comparison, not as the primary observation site. I also made some cursory observations of Union Square in Somerville for similar purposes, and did a final observation of Davis Square’s T station on 19 June 2014.


After I concluded my direct observations of Davis and Central Squares, I conducted interviews with three people associated with the community: Stephen Mackey, CEO of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, Jeff Mansfield, associate pastor of the First Church of Somerville and Lisa Davidson, Director of Programs at the Somerville Homeless Coalition. All three people belonged to organisations tied to the Davis Square Neighbourhood Association (Mansfield and Davidson), or had some relationship to the business community in Davis Square (Mackey). Each interview was recorded on an iPod Touch using the Sound Recorder application. I held the interviews with Mackey and Mansfield at the Diesel Café, and the one with Davidson at her office. After they were completed, the interviews were transcribed with the assistance of a transcriptionist, though I started work on the transcriptions for Lisa Davidson and Stephen Mackey (roughly half the transcriptions for both interviewees) by listening to the audio files in iTunes, and copying down what speakers said, repeating the MP3 files as necessary to catch difficult-to-hear words.

Themes and Coding

I examined the field notes and interview transcriptions for recurring themes. These were ‘grounded codes’ - that is, the themes and codes arose from the data themselves; I did not try to impose a particular interpretation on them. While analysing the data, I found three common themes throughout the field notes and interview transcripts: a continual process of gentrification that pushes lower-income people and their concerns out of the district, replacing them with businesses and social nexuses that are geared towards middle- to upper-middle-class people, racial uniformity or cultural homogeneity, and the effects the student population exerts on the composition of Davis Square. Many of these themes were mentioned explicitly by respondents in the interviews, especially economic gentrification. I used a colour-coding system to mark the themes in the field notes and the interview transcripts; notes related to racial and cultural homogeneity are purple, ones about gentrification are yellow-orange and ones related to the student population in particular are blue.

Findings and results

Though Somerville is a diverse city statistically, various factors seem to be related to the overwhelming white, middle-class nature of Davis Square: socioeconomic gentrification and racial uniformity or cultural homogeneity, expressed through the revalorisation of Davis Square as a trendy, modern place for young professionals’ and students’ leisure, the fraught spatial relationship people of colour have with predominantly white spaces, and the influx of Tufts students into a formerly working-class area.

In my meeting with Mackey, he suggested that one of the reasons why Davis Square manifests less diversity than other regions of the city - East Somerville in particular - is that economic changes over the past decade have changed the nature of the neighbourhood, and the decline of a daily working population has led the area to become a primarily leisure-centric region, with a focus on on restaurants and nightlife as opposed to offices and factories. Davis Square is a popular social destination amongst students at Tufts University, a campus associated with its white, middle- to upper-middle-class student population and similar social homogeneity to the square itself. Similarly, Davidson noticed these changes as well, as a lifelong resident of the Somerville area. She also noted that people tend to stay within their own specific neighbourhoods, and a post-gentrification Davis Square may not draw other communities into the area, despite the presence of mass transit. Even though the physical accessibility may exist, people’s relationship to a particular space is complicated, and a strong sense of place that ties them to their usual area may prevent them from venturing out further. to Mansfield had similar remarks; he said that though his church had tried to attract more diverse groups of people to its congregation, his church remained primarily white, despite the presence of two nearby Haitian churches. According to him, the Haitians who attended churches near Davis Square would go to church only to return to their own districts, without spending much time in Davis Square itself.

In the course of this study, I have identified three ways in which Davis Square fails to reflect the diversity of Somerville: economic gentrification driven by administrative changes like the introduction of the Red Line, the influx of upper-middle-class students to a previously working-class area and lack of racial integration. These findings come from a combination of my own direct observations of Davis Square and its constituent businesses, and from the three interviews I conducted, two of which were with long-term residents of Somerville who have seen the city change throughout their lifetimes.

Economic gentrification

Though Davis Square is associated with middle-class establishments now, this was not always the case; before the 1980s, the square was a site of urban decay and commercial decline. During my interview with Lisa Davidson, a lifetime resident of Somerville, she mentioned that there were a number of government offices in Davis Square near the current location of the Somerville Homeless Coalition, including the Social Security office, the former Department of Retardation building (the former name for services serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities) and the Department of Mental Health. None of these government offices are there any longer, an indication of the ‘favoured quarter’ in which residents are able to bring in income without relying on government services.

Davidson told me that when she was growing up, she was told not to visit Davis Square, under the impression that it was a ‘dangerous’ place to be. This is a far cry from the current condition of Davis Square, which is seen as a hip place for young people to hang out, rather than a crime-ridden emblem of decline.

One change that led to the gentrification of Davis Square was the extension of the Red Line underground train to the square in 1980, which prompted a push for the ‘revitalisation’ of the area to coincide with the arrival of the station. The Somerville Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) created an urban-design and business- planning study that engaged consultants and analysts to assess the community’s needs and desires (‘Role of Transit’, 1997). Some changes that occurred after OPCD’s interventions during the 1980s and 1990s include modifications to the local streets with the help of federal funding, the construction of the Davis Square plaza, renovation of storefronts and business areas, the arrival of community events like ArtBeat, the renovation of the Somerville Theatre and the arrival of more private business into the revitalised square. The transformation of Davis Square from a decrepit, crime-ridden district into a community developed to be friendlier towards residents and local business alike has led to the increasing valorisation of the square, which has further led to gentrification, which has pushed lower-income residents out of the square as it continues to be ‘revitalised’ through the efforts of local government and private business. Davis Square has become one of Betancur’s ‘favoured quarters’, where administrative decisions have led to the transformation of a working-class area in decline to a more economically desirable area tailored to the new middle-class residents and visitors of the square.

Signs of continuing gentrification continued to occur even as I was conducting my field research over the course of two months. After I started my observations in Davis Square, the McDonald’s franchise had closed down, even as more businesses entered the area. The McDonald’s had been an outlier in a neighbourhood dominated by independent local restaurants and ‘fast casual’ chains, and seemed rather incongruous in comparison to the other businesses surrounding it. It was part of a cluster of businesses on Elm Street that seemed different from the other stores and restaurants occupying it: a pawn shop, a Family Dollar branch and a pizza restaurant. The other businesses there seemed more typical for a predominantly white and middle-class area populated by students: the Diesel Café, Pinkberry Yogurt, Boston Burger Company and bars like The Burren and the Joshua Tree, as well as the slightly more distant Dave’s Fresh Pasta.

Racial and cultural homogeneity

Though Somerville is somewhat more racially diverse than the state average, this is not reflected in Davis Square. Davis Square is overwhelmingly white and non-immigrant American, and the businesses there reflect that demographic. There are no ethnic stores and no signs written in languages other than English, not even the commonest foreign languages encountered in Somerville, Portuguese, Haitian Creole and Spanish. Though Davis Square does have some ‘ethnic’ restaurants like the Burmese and Indian ones, the majority of the clientele seems to be white, and there are not clusters of specific ethnic groups near these restaurants. The way in which Davis Square is used seems to imply that it is an implicitly ‘white’ space, even without the force of legal segregation in place. The spatial relationship non-white Somervillians have with Davis Square may be adverse, or at the very least, distant, because of ingrained reactions to racism that cause people of colour to avoid spaces that are dominated by white people. For example, you may see larger numbers of Blacks and Latinos waiting for the bus outside the T station, but very few within the neighbourhood itself. This was in fact the case during my observation on 19 June 2014, when I saw several Hispanic and Black people waiting for buses and trains at the station, but a group of mostly white people sitting in the plaza area across the street. Despite the plaza being right next to the station, the diversity of people passing through the station is not reflected in the plaza. People of colour seem to be a transient population in Davis Square, rather than an integrated part of the community. They may use Davis Square as a transfer point to visit a different part of the Boston area, but they don’t actually use the square for leisure.

Within the primary area of Davis Square itself, the few Blacks and Latinos I saw outside – with the exception of some Hispanic restaurant employees – the T station seemed to be concentrated in ‘lower-end’ stores and restaurants, like the Dollar General or the erstwhile McDonald’s franchise. I rarely saw Black or Latino people inside other stores or restaurants who were not at work. There were very few Black and Latino people walking around the square, simply browsing in stores or eating in restaurants; the average passersby were nearly always white, or occasionally East Asian.

One can contrast the presence of East Asians, and to a lesser extent South Asians, who could be seen spending time in the plaza or visiting local businesses, with the absence of Blacks and Latinos. Though East Asians were still a distinct minority compared to whites, their behaviour within public spaces suggested that they were more integrated in the community than were Blacks and Latinos. This may be because out of all the non-white populations in the country at large, Asian immigrants are more likely to be middle- or high-income than Black Americans, Haitian immigrants or Latinos.

Even the Somerville Homeless Coalition, whose offices are in Davis Square, primarily serves a white, non-immigrant population, despite efforts by the organisation to serve other clients by providing services in Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole. The Coalition has staff members that speak these languages - as of January 2014, Haitian Creole and African Portuguese – and offers written pamphlets in various languages, but this has not changed the composition of the people who use their services, with the exception of the rapid- response and prevention programmes. Housing assistance, however, is primarily used by white clients. This difference in how different populations use the services of the Somerville Homeless Coalition may be connected to how Davis Square in particular seems to be a ‘white space’, as opposed to a culturally integrated space. It may be that people of different communities may not feel comfortable approaching an organisation that is situated in such a white area, which is both detrimental to potential clients and the Coalition itself, because of the efforts it has made in trying to attract clients of various ethnicities, races and nationalities. The fact that people of colour do not seek services through the Somerville Homeless Coalition, despite outreach efforts, might be connected to the idea that they may not perceive Davis Square, and services coming from that area, as being ‘for them’, but rather for white people, and may seek assistance through programmes within their local communities as opposed to making use of a space in such a ‘white’ area as Davis Square. Their roots are in communities that reflect their culture and values, and despite the existence of a service that is ostensibly for all people in Somerville who are too poor to access housing, the square is disconnected from the identities, symbols and people that give them a sense of place and belonging.

Similarly, Jeff Mansfield of the First Church of Somerville has discussed his congregation’s efforts to attract more people of colour into the fold, but despite a recent increase in more diverse participants, the church remains overwhelmingly white. The majority of non-white congregation members tend to visit his church for a specific purpose: they are multiracial and are more integrated with white communities than are non-mixed people of colour, or they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and seek a religious community that will accept their sexuality or gender identity without the condemnation associated with more conservative Christian congregations.

Though there are two Haitian churches – one Baptist and one Assemblies of God – within short walking distance of Davis Square, it appears these churches are their own separate entities apart from the community at large. Though Mansfield’s church has collaborated with the pastor at the Baptist church in the past, the congregations of First Church Somerville and the Église Baptiste have not mixed. During my interview with Mansfield, he also noted that many of the people visiting the Haitian churches seemed to be coming in from elsewhere; they were not local residents of Davis Square or the nearby Powderhouse Square visiting the church. This dovetails with my own observations; though there are those two Haitian churches, the Haitians themselves seem to go to church during the weekends and go back to their own areas, rather than staying around the square to visit. Perhaps the Haitian churches are an extension of the community the parishioners belong to – a small enclave in a distinctly different district – while the surrounding area is not.

Again, this indicates that there may be a prevailing notion that this area of Somerville is strictly a white space, rather than a space that can be used by people of all different ethnic groups, despite the existence of small enclaves – like the Haitian churches – that are occupied by people of colour. Even in a city in a presumably liberal, progressive region, the forces of spatial segregation are still at work, driving wedges between people and reinforcing sociocultural hierarchies. Haitians, Brazilians, Dominicans and other immigrant communities may also feel more rooted in spaces that are more connected to their groups, obviating the need for them to visit Davis Square, which harks back to Betancur’s discussion of how sense of place is vital to communities composed of immigrants or people of colour. Pre-existing spatial relationships may make it difficult for people to find community in an area that is not composed of people whose experiences match theirs closely.

Student population

Students of Tufts University – which is very close to Davis Square – have also exerted some influence over the development of Davis Square. Tufts is an institution that has a large number of students who come from medium- or high-status backgrounds, and the socioeconomic status of Tufts students may have been another catalyst for the continuing gentrification of the Davis Square area. The Tufts student shuttle, the ‘Joey’, includes Davis Square amongst its stops, which makes the square an easily accessible place for students to socialise and explore.

Stephen Mackey, the CEO of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, suggested that one of the problems preventing Davis Square from being a more socioeconomically diverse area was the lack of work activity during the day, in comparison to other places. Though Mackey may not have said it outright as Davidson had in the later interview, there is an implication that the lack of a steady working population might be a result of the large student population in Davis Square.

Davidson, too, remarked that the student population may have had some influence over the way gentrification has altered Davis Square. When students start making use of a space, the businesses change to support their needs, which can be significantly different from the ones of a community that is driven by the needs of a daytime labour force. There will be more focus on entertainment, reasonably trendy shopping areas and eating, rather than more practical concerns. For example, Davis Square lacks a full-service supermarket, which may be a consequence of the large student population, but it has a large number of restaurants at varied price points, three thrift or consignment stores, places to buy quick snacks and a handful of convenience stores like CVS and the Tedeschi’s franchise. There is also a reasonable selection of bars like The Burren and Joshua Tree, which are also frequented by students. The influx of students also increases rents as well, as more and more people start to live within Davis Square and its surrounding area.

Comparison and Contrast: other local squares

Other districts in the Somerville and Cambridge area can serve as a counterpoint to Davis Square’s gentrification and lack of diversity. When observing Central Square, a major thoroughfare in neighbouring Cambridge, I noticed immediately that there was a striking difference between the way both areas were composed both racially and economically. Central Square was far more diverse than Davis Square, with large numbers of Black people in particular. A discount shoe store had signage in both English and Spanish (at Christmastime, there was a ‘Christmas Sale’ or Venta Navideña), an indicator that there may be a larger Latino market in the area, in comparison to Davis Square, in which non-English- language material was nearly non-existent. There was an Indian market there, while ethnic markets were absent in Davis Square. Some time after my initial observations, a large Korean-American supermarket and food court called H-Mart opened up in April of 2014, which sells a variety of East Asian products and serves Japanese food like ramen, sushi and Japanese-style curry in its food court.

Though my observations of these other districts were not as comprehensive as those of my primary site or Central Square, I did look at other districts as a further means of comparison to Davis Square. Union Square boasted an Asian market specialising in Korean and Japanese items, stores with signs written in Portuguese, a Greek-American Social Club, a Haitian church with a sign written entirely in French and a nearby church with a sign written completely in Portuguese. The sheer number of businesses catering to different cultural groups and the presence of storefronts with non-English-language signage indicates that Union Square may have a larger number of recent immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. There were also indicators of a slightly lower socioeconomic bracket in Union Square, like a large sign advertising the Massachusetts State Lottery, a business dedicated to sending money (with a Spanish sign, Envíos de dinero) and a cheque- cashing office that also claimed to buy gold and sell lottery tickets. This is in sharp contrast to Davis Square, whose only ‘low-income’ businesses were the pawn shop and Family Dollar, and was almost entirely devoid of non-English-language material.

Improving Davis Square

During the interviews, some of the participants offered suggestions regarding how Davis Square’s overwhelming white and middle-class community could be made more reflective of Somerville’s ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. For example, Mansfield and the other leaders at the First Church of Somerville have been trying to attract a more diverse group of people to their congregation. Though the church remains largely white, there have been some encouraging developments that suggest that they might start having a higher level of diversity in their congregation; they have been holding ‘sacred conversations’ about race, and there have been some people of colour, primarily from the LGBT community, visiting the church to find a congregation that is open to their sexuality and gender identity without the judgement they might experience from a congregation that is predominantly composed of their ethnic group. When I spoke to Davidson, she thought that creating more businesses in Davis Square targeted towards different ethnic groups might draw them there; right now there is ‘no reason for them to come’ to the square, simply because of its lack of diversity and overwhelming whiteness, both culturally and demographically. She also suggested that the language barrier that recent immigrants encounter might also be a factor in the homogeneity of Davis Square; if there are no Spanish-, Haitian Creole- or Portuguese-speaking staff or informational material and people have limited English proficiency, they might have a difficult time communicating with store staff. Essentially, both Davidson and Mansfield have suggested changing the commercial or social environment of Davis Square to change the spatial relationship that people of colour and working-class people have with the square to make it more hospital to them, rather than the ‘favoured quarter’ that draws in white, middle-class people and very few others, apart from the occasional East Asian visitors to the square.


In conducting this study, my goal was to understand how a district in a diverse city could manifest such racial and socioeconomic homogeneity, especially when there were several nearby areas, like Union Square and Central Square, that were much more culturally integrated. Through the study, I found that the socioeconomic and ethnic uniformity of Davis Square was manifested through economic gentrification, racial homogeneity and a student population that contributed to both the gentrification and the homogeneity. I do not think the creation of a homogeneous space was a deliberate act by any urban-planning organisation or government authority; rather, it is an unintended process of a series of events that caused various authorities and interested actors to revive a declining area without necessarily being aware of the effects uncontrolled gentrification has on marginalised communities.

Similarly to Lees (2000), I examined the process of gentrification and the economic processes that can cause it to occur in cities, though Lees’ analysis is centred on larger cities with large-scale financial services, while mine focuses on a smaller city and the rise of smaller businesses and national chains that appeal to the middle- and upper-middle-class, rather than the unambiguously rich and upper-class people Lees discusses in her study.

Like Betancur (2011), Dreier, Mollenkopf and Swanstrom (2001), I considered the importance of the idea of ‘sense of place’ amongst people of colour and immigrant communities, though my analysis was focused on the white and gentrified neighbourhood that such people avoided, rather than the communities in which these marginalised people live. Much of the literature regarding spatial relationships amongst subaltern communities seems to be focused on the communities where they themselves live, as opposed to the areas they are less connected to, and some analyses of gentrification and urban renewal uncritically praise the process without considering how these changes affect marginalised groups of people. This alternative approach allows for different perspectives regarding how racial homogeneity is reified within the confines of gentrified neighbourhoods with a focus on the way the gentrified neighbourhood itself is structured, without proffering uncritical paeans to the effects urban renewal has had.

Though this study did illuminate many aspects of the ways in which gentrification and other forms of social inequality play a role in how Davis Square is an overwhelmingly white and middle-class space, there were limitations to my research. My schedule during the course of the study limited the amount of time I could visit the site; with more time, I would have been able to develop a more comprehensive view of how people used Davis Square. The study could have benefited from a clearer focus during the observation period; at the outset, I was unsure what to look for when observing people at the Davis Square site, with the themes of gentrification and racial homogeneity emerging rather later after multiple visits to the site.

In order to counter these limitations, there are many ways in which the study could have been improved or extended. For example, the observation period could be extended to a longer period of time to see if the patterns of behaviour observed during the initial six-week period continued to hold over six months, or a year. This would be even more effective in recognising whether the patterns observed in the square were actual common occurrences, as opposed to mere flukes. Another way of extending the study would be to hold more interviews, perhaps with more long-term residents of nearby areas – or Somerville generally – who could draw comparisons between Davis Square as it is now, and Davis Square as it was before gentrification really started to take hold in the area.


Betancur, J. (2011). ‘Gentrification and Community Fabric in Chicago’. Urban Studies 2011, 48, pp. 383-406.

Dreier, P., Mollenkopf, J. and Swanstrom, T. (2001). ‘Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century’. In The Urban Sociology Reader, Second Edition. J. Lin & C. Mele, editors. London: Routledge, 2013, pp. 149-156.

Lees, L. (2000). ‘A reappraisal of gentrification: towards a “geography of gentrification”.’ Progress in Human Geography, 24,3, pp. 389-408.

Project for Public Spaces (1997). The Role of Transit in Creating Livable Metropolitan Communities. New York: National Academy Press, pp. 39-42.

US Census Bureau (2010). ‘State & County Quick Facts’. Retrieved from http://, 1 June 2014.