A neighbourhood is a location and a socio-economic homogeneity. It’s a location because people don’t want to have to drive to borrow a cup of sugar. And it’s socio-economically homogenous because they like to chat when they’re borrowing a cup of sugar, not out of politeness but out of interest. That is, we want to have enough in common with our neighbours that the differences we talk about are interesting rather than just baffling.

So we move to where our peeps are. Or if it’s a new suburb, to where we expect them to be. My own neighbourhood is inner city, but the city’s too small for that to mean what it would in a larger centre. I’m surrounded by professors, teachers, professionals, bureaucrats, small (but successful) business owners, and retirees who had been one of the above. The average tradesman makes more than most of us, but they live in the next valence out, where they all have a chop saw, so they borrow the neighbour’s camper trailer instead.

As I say, the city’s too small for any neighbourhood to have been gentrified. That’s a bigger city phenomenon. Somebody with some sense buys a having-seen-better-days house for a song because he can see it has good bones. He fixes it up and invites his buddy over for a beer. He gets the same idea and buys the house next door. So now at least two of them have neighbours worth borrowing a cup of sugar from. And so it goes, until the original inhabitants, most of whom have been renting, have to look to rent shelter elsewhere.

Moving to the suburbs is like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates. You’re prepared to take what you get, but you don’t know what it’ll be. If the family moving in are Chinese or East Indian or African, you know they’re going to be at least as well-educated as you. And the first two, though not the last, can cook. But you can be reasonably confident that they won’t be African American, or in Canada that they won’t be indigenous. And you’ll be mightily pissed if they are. You’ll be pissed not because they’re different, but because they won’t be interestingly different. And your grumbling about them, as you’re sure to do, will sure to be misunderstood as racism.

You wouldn’t invite a multimillionaire to dinner either, and for the same reason, for which you’ll be accused, as I am for shopping at Walmart, of reverse snobbbery. But the truth is, I just find rich people boring, because they live in, what is to me, a boring world. And I find the same is true – pillory me if you must – of people with an intellectually impoverished group history.

Am I alone in this? In confessing it perhaps. But that’s just the kind o’ guy I am. Always willing to take the hit for my friends. And my neighbours.

Whenever a for-sale sign goes up in my neighbourhood, I want to attach a note listing range of income and the two-block radius currently lacking a good south Indian curry.  I’d like to be able to add – and I would if I lived in America – that we could also use a Republican or two. But I’m guessing the real estate agent would object. I don’t know why. Surely she of all people should know that a neighbourhood is a neighbourhood, dammit!  

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy

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2 replies

  1. Small towns are a great study of the phenomenon you describe. I grew up in a mill camp of , we’ll say 150-200 people. Residents mostly lived in trailers, many privately owned. A dozen or so families lived in company housing.

    One year a family moved to our remote village from the big city, Vancouver. They were a really nice couple who were so excited to escape the trappings of the city to raise their three little kids. They jumped in with both feet to be active members of the community, which was a well-intentioned gesture but not the wisest thing to do before letting others sniff them out. Their enthusiasm was met not only with suspicion, but also derision “Who do they think they are?” It gets worse.

    This couple sold a home in Vancouver and made a pile of money by doing so. Their extra cash made them comparatively wealthy in the mill camp and they unwittingly flaunted this wealth by purchasing a new double-wide trailer. Scandalous! The double-wide cost 100 k, give or take. Notwithstanding people in the village owned boats and trucks and campers and all kinds of toys that likely rivalled that amount, housing was very modest. So these innocent homebuyers were quickly branded snobs. The wife took the worst of the social disapprobation and found it nearly impossible to be accepted by other community wives. Actually, she was subject to malicious gossip. To her credit, I never heard her return barbs. But she did shed a lot of tears.

    Our village wasn’t hostile to everyone who moved in. Anyone who moved straight across the socio-economic board was welcome, who didn’t smell of a gentrified life. It was easier for people to fit in who were already something like us. We were an ethically mixed community, the criteria to be met was something more along the lines of social class.

    The PBS special People Like Us: Social Class in America is well worth your time to watch and certainly lends weight to Paul’s argument.

    If you can’t get your hands on a copy of the documentary, you can watch a number of segments on You Tube. There’s a segment about ‘white bread’ if you can find it. A well-intentioned entrepreneur was opening a co-op in a poor neighbourhood and replaced the residents’ usual fare of white bread with affordable “healthier choices”, artisan offerings. The residents revolted. They just wanted their white bread, dammit. The co-op owner was baffled, but he did put their white bread back on the shelf. You don’t just move in to a hood and change things figuring you know what’s better for people. You might be right, but you’ve got to build a relationship first.

    People Like Us Playlist:

    In this special, there is a particularly poignant segment entitled “Tammy’s story”. A Tammy II was made in 2013 some years after the documentary’s release because viewers were so affected by Tammy’s story. Affected or not, I’m curious about who would want to be best coffee buds with Tammy. I don’t doubt at all that people feel for her, I’m just wondering what you’ll talk about:

    Tammy’s story, episode #4:

    Tammy’s story II: 2013 Update:

    (You might also be interested in the UP series — I’ll let you read about it:


  2. Note that the scenario I described about citified people moving to a remote mill camp goes the other way, too. E.g. JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Vance’s family took the Hillbilly Highway from the Kentucky region of the Appalachians to work in the Rust Belt of Ohio. Appalachian transplants had no easy time fitting in to their new ‘hoods. I find I have a lot in common with Vance since I, too, am a geographic jumper and a class-straddler. And both our upbringings were a *bit* rough, but loving…in our own way.

    And how many are old enough to remember The Beverly Hillbillies?


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