Big box vs. boutique: Studying storefronts for insights into neighborhood change

Nelson Saldaña used his 2013 PSC Alumni Graduate Student Support Fund award to conduct innovative research that is shedding light on commercial gentrification.

Nelson Saldaña thrives in cities. He grew up in the Bay Area, went to school in Los Angeles and New York City, and, when he came to Ann Arbor in 2011 to pursue his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Michigan, began learning the streets of Detroit and Chicago.

So maybe it isn’t surprising that Saldaña would want to focus his research on cities and how they change. Specifically, what happens to a community when neighborhoods gentrify?

A lot of this data is captured in the Census Bureau’s Neighborhood Change Database, which tracks racial, educational, and socioeconomic shifts. But Saldaña wanted to look more closely at commercial gentrification, the evolution and impact of businesses as neighborhoods transform.

To do this, Saldaña decided to photograph storefronts to see what they might reveal about areas undergoing rapid gentrification. In 2013, as a second-year graduate student, Saldaña applied for funding from the PSC Alumni Graduate Student Support Fund at the Institute for Social Research. “I wanted to be able to collect my own data as soon as possible,” he recalls.

Saldaña is currently working in Detroit on his dissertation project, a comparative study of different neighborhoods in the city, including both the Downtown and Midtown areas and a variety of Detroit neighborhoods.

Saldaña is currently working in Detroit on his dissertation project, a comparative study of different neighborhoods in the city, including both the Downtown and Midtown areas and a variety of Detroit neighborhoods.

Saldaña got the award, and embarked on a project more expansive and meaningful than he had predicted. That first summer, relying primarily on the Neighborhood Change Database, Saldaña chose areas to document in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. When the money held out longer than expected, he added Atlanta. (Staying with friends and family let him operate on the cheap.)

Using a basic Nikon—a method that others could replicate—Saldaña photographed multi-block commercial strips in more than 20 neighborhoods, capturing crisp images of each storefront. This summer, two years later, he returned with his camera to see what had changed.

One early observation: Neighborhoods with rising income and a shift from African-American to white generally saw an influx of high-priced coffee shops and other boutique-like stores, while big box stores moved in to blocks where educational levels rose but the neighborhood stayed majority African-American. Saldaña says redlining—the historic practice of denying access to mortgages or insurance in areas deemed risky—likely contributes to this disparity.

Saldaña is now figuring out how to code the more than 5,000 digital photos, a job he plans to undertake with the help of an undergraduate assistant. Once that’s done, he’ll apply what he’s learned to answer some important questions.

For example, is Census data adequate for capturing neighborhood change, or do they miss important cultural and social shifts? What types of businesses thrive in “rising” neighborhoods, and why are they often so alike from city to city? And who is served by these commercial revivals—the old residents, those more newly arrived, or both? “I’m really interested in how businesses either erase, pay tribute to, or re-appropriate the history of a neighborhood,” Saldaña says.

The photo project has also become a component of Saldaña’s dissertation research. For that, Saldaña is looking at how businesses in Detroit contribute to the establishment of a community, and how those spaces either inhibit or promote interracial and cross-class interactions.

When Saldaña photographed the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago in July 2013, the store pictured on the left was empty. Two years later, a high-end menswear boutique had moved into the gentrifying area.

When Saldaña photographed the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago in July 2013, the store pictured on the left was empty. Two years later, a high-end menswear boutique had moved into the gentrifying area.

The painstaking photographic process attuned Saldaña to visual cues of change that he might otherwise have missed, such as the racial groups present in different settings, he says. Contrasts and similarities among the cities gave him a richer context for understanding Detroit. And Detroit business owners, curious about Saldaña and his camera, have stopped to talk to him, in some cases becoming participants in his dissertation research.

Saldaña plans to make all his photos available on a website for the use of other researchers. And he hopes to keep returning to and documenting these same neighborhoods as they evolve.

It’s the kind of important project, he says, that never would have been possible without the Alumni Fund’s support. “Having the ability to conduct my own research at such an early stage,” Saldaña says, “has enabled me to collect vast amounts of data that will not only build my portfolio as a graduate student, but will sustain me throughout my career.”

Comments are closed.