This post is part of the Thesis Chronicles series.
From the outset, the Local blog imagined itself to be an inclusive reproduction of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill: a mirror image of the populous, varied and vibrant, that would reflect the diverse voices of the community via an open and active public sphere. On the contrary, I argued that the Local blog became a space, like the gentrified blocks of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, whose primary characteristic was its inclusion of some and exclusion of others.
On a New York City subway map, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, Brooklyn occupy the space between the Fulton and Classon stops along the lime green line of the G train. A sliver of Williamsburg abuts Clinton Hill to the northeast, and below, the intersection by the Atlantic Terminal Mall – a shiny collection of American consumer chains on a once-gritty block in southwest Fort Greene – adjoins the northernmost tip of Park Slope.
For a long time, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, sandwiched between two neighborhoods famed for their “steroidal gentrification,” were the salami and slaw to Williamsburg and Park Slope’s contrasting slices of artisanal baguette. Today, most old-time residents’ biggest fear is that their neighborhood is losing its authentic flavor.
“Bistros replace bodegas, cocktail bars morph out of old-style salons, and the neighborhood as a whole creates a different kind of sociability,” writes urban sociologist Sharon Zukin. New eateries characterize the many spatial and social alterations brought about by gentrification. Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, Brooklyn are undergoing these changes at the hands of a neo-upper-middle class that imagines itself to be as gritty and cool as the neighborhood itself.
In March of 2009, the New York Times launched a blog by and for the citizens of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill – under the supervision and curatorial authority of the Times – called the Local. The project was twofold: develop a blogging platform for hyperlocal community journalism that could be franchised and sold, and, in the meantime, invest in “retain[ing] a certain core presence and audience in New York … as the paper and the company [became] more and more national and global” (a NYT manager).
The New York Times chose Fort Greene and Clinton Hill for the same reasons that the neo-upper-middle class has been moving there in droves: it’s cool, multicultural, quirky and authentic. By appropriating the term “Local” for the blog’s name, the blog’s producers laid bare their intent to depict a particular imagining of the “local.” My thesis focused on what the Local blog could and could not capture vis-à-vis the local in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.
I spent five weeks conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the streets of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, in the offices of the New York Times, and online during July and August of 2009. The ethnographic examination of a local blog that exists both in the ether and on the ground presented new methodological challenges and necessitated a mixing of methods that I (only half-jokingly) called “ethblography.” Ethblography incorporated traditional, offline ethnographic practice with a new approach to online worlds that not only involved content analysis of the website itself but immersion into and constant upkeep of connections forged online with readers, contributors, followers and antagonists of the blog through different social media such as Twitter, Facebook and other blogs.
The medium of the Internet and technological platform of the blog are often touted as tools that might broaden the public sphere. From the outset, the Local blog imagined itself to be an inclusive reproduction of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill: a mirror image of the populous, varied and vibrant, that would reflect the diverse voices of the community via an open and active public sphere. On the contrary, I argued that the Local blog became a space, like the gentrified blocks of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, whose primary characteristic was its inclusion of some and exclusion of others.
One can view gentrification as the privatization of the public spaces of a neighborhood (Jackson, Real Black). The arrival of new residents with the means to pay increasing rents and mortgages created opportunities for new businesses and services to emerge. These establishments altered the physical landscape of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill by creating spaces that certain members of the community would not dare enter for lack of financial means or for the feeling that they were not welcome. Space became a battleground for the physical expression of gentrification. And for the neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, once celebrated for their lively and colorful public life, gentrification cleansed and colonized the public spaces, making them accessible only to those who had the social, economic and cultural capital to enter. The Local blog too became one of those spaces, in digital form.
A dichotomy emerged between the readers of the Local blog, representing the new privatized social life of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and the walkers of the street who represented the old, public social life that had once been characterized by joint occupation of space. I expressed this chasm as a distinction between the scroller and the stroller: the scroller as the typical, neo-upper-middle class reader of the Local blog and the stroller as the typical, pre-gentrification “local.”
Furthermore, the producers and scrollers of the Local exalted the blog as an expanded public sphere because of its sporadic inclusion of token “gritty” posts amidst a stream of other content that reflected a largely bourgeois consciousness. Particularly misleading were interviews with locals conducted on the street (the true strollers) who, unlike the scrollers, would not or could not even access the blog or the Internet. Comments on the site lauding the interviews overlooked the unidirectional nature of the interaction. The impression of sociability offered by the blog tricked the readers into believing that they had a real connection to the person or object represented in the text when in fact the relationship was solely symbolic.
The scrollers believed themselves to be strollers. The satisfaction of feeling connected to members of the community whom one would rarely encounter in real life was what made the Local popular yet problematic. The blog was a fantasy world for the scrollers.
The Local expressed the hopes and dreams of the particular subset of society that had the means to access it. The readers of and contributors to the Local were complicit in this project of imagination because the blog affirmed their way of life, absolved their presence in the neighborhood, and applauded a faux-inclusivity of neighbors who were in fact quite excluded from and marginal to the spaces the neo-upper-middle class’s arrival had helped to privatize. Rather than bringing the old and new sociabilities of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill together, the Local blog, I concluded, drew them apart.
This article is drawn from my senior thesis on hyperlocal media and neighborhoods at University of Pennsylvania, from where I graduated in May 2010 with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and minors in Science, Technology and Society and Theatre Arts. This is Part I of a series about the thesis that will include reflections on methodology, materials from the research process such as interviews and audio clips, follow-up analysis, and suggestions and thoughts on potential applications and further research.
The Brooklyn “Local” blog is still active after a changeover of leadership from the New York Times, which remains involved as a quiet partner, to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. The above analysis applies only to the blog during the time of my fieldwork and does not necessarily reflect the current Local. For a copy of the thesis in its entirety, or for any other correspondence, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to my thesis advisor Dr. John L. Jackson, Jr. at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the University of Pennsylvania Benjamin Franklin Scholars program.