Reputation as Resource and Constraint in Urban Neighborhoods

Jeffrey Nathaniel Parker

In early 2016, an application by developer Katie Ray was made available on iOS for Apple products called “Where Is Williamsburg?” (Walker 2016) The app is meant to help users find the “hippest” neighborhood in any given city, and the title of the app is a reference to the New York City neighborhood of Williamsburg, which has come to be a stand-in in the popular imagination for hipness. Navigate the app, and it will tell you to go to Wicker Park in Chicago, the Pearl District in Portland, the Mission in San Francisco, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, and, most amusingly, Bushwick (not Williamsburg) in New York City. What does this all mean? What makes Wicker Park the same as Silver Lake? How does Williamsburg itself exist, as both a physical space and as a stable cultural referent, to the point where apparently Bushwick is more Williamsburg than Williamsburg? Why is it that people are interested enough in finding a “hip” neighborhood that somebody made an app for it in the first place? Or that somebody else (notoriously) made an app to help people avoid “sketchy” neighborhoods? (Biddle 2014) The answer to all these questions is tied up in the idea of neighborhood reputation.

“Like the family, the neighborhood is largely an ascribed grouping and its members are joined in a common plight whether or not they like it,” Gerald Suttles says in The Social Construction of Communities. “The preeminent characteristics of the defended neighborhood, then, are structural rather than sentimental or associational. Perhaps the most important of these structural elements is the identity of the neighborhood itself. A neighborhood may be known as snobbish, trashy, tough, exclusive, dangerous, mixed, or any number of other things.” (1972) My dissertation work looks at these identities, or reputations, and considers how they are used as resources and experienced as constraints in three Chicago neighborhoods. In particular, I am interested in merchants at reputational custodians, figures firmly enmeshed at the intersection of culture and economics that requires them to be knowledgeable about and engage with their neighborhoods’ reputations.

An early part of this project took the form of determining the circumstances in which Wicker Park merchants embraced or repudiated gentrification. While merchants varied in a number of important ways that affected their attitudes toward gentrification, I also found that they were generally unified in their understanding of the neighborhood’s reputation for hipness, and thus addressed neighborhood issues within a common cultural context regardless of their particular interests or commitments to that reputation. My dissertation work takes this finding—that reputational context, regardless of desirability, matters for how merchants understand their neighborhood and make consequential decisions in light of them—and expands it to other neighborhood contexts with very different kinds of reputations.

The SSD research grant has proven invaluable over the last year as I worked with my committee to develop my dissertation proposal, analyze previously collected data, and began the process of new dissertation research in different neighborhoods. These early stage efforts would have been impossible without the generous support of the Social Sciences Division.



  • Biddle, Sam. 2014. “Smiling Young White People Make App for Avoiding Black Neighborhoods.” Valleywag. Accessed June 30, 2016.
  • Suttles, Gerald D. 1972. The Social Construction of Communities. Studies of Urban Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Walker, Alissa. 2016. “An App Can Help You Locate the Williamsburg of Your City, Or, Which Neighborhood to Avoid.” Gizmodo. Accessed June 30, 2016.



Jeffrey Parker is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology.