September 18, 2015, BY Paula Cogan Myers

The south Philadelphia neighborhood of Gray's Ferry has a history of changing demographics, dropping income levels, racial turbulence and mass incarceration, which is why most people can't imagine academic research taking place there. Professor Vanessa Massaro, geography, previously completed ethnographic research in Gray's Ferry, and this summer returned to begin a new project — collecting survey data to better understand how the intersection of gentrification, policing and incarceration affects the economy of the minority residents there.

"Policy makers and activists across the nation are deeply concerned with keeping poor, African American residents in their homes as wealthy residents move back to urban centers," Massaro said. "This research project found that the costs of gentrification go beyond rising property values and taxes and that prisoners have neighborhood-based support networks. It is clear, based on our survey, that households are experiencing increased costs associated with policing and incarceration."

Massaro and three students, Ty Chung '17, economics and geography, Kate Feske-Kirby '17, anthropology and geography, and Julia Lasko '17, geography, spent two weeks in Philadelphia during the summer collecting the survey data and trying to understand methodological best-practices.  

Chung, who received an Emerging Scholars Grant through the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy, developed survey questions to address changes in levels of policing in a gentrifying area. Massaro focused on questions around the cost of incarceration. When they arrived in Philadelphia, each student was paired with a neighborhood community partner. The group trained together with Massaro on how they would administer the surveys, and the questions were reshaped by the insight the resident partners provided as community insiders.  

From there, Massaro generated randomly chosen address sheets and the pairs visited each address on their list. If no one answered, they would leave an information card, which many of the residents said they appreciated when they returned to try again. Many also responded positively to the presence of the familiar community partner.  

Chung admits that at first, he was nervous to conduct this type of research. "I had never been to Philadelphia before or visited random homes to inquire about the direct and indirect costs of policing," he said. "However, my nervousness quickly went away once I met everyone and started administering the surveys. Many people were receptive and willing to respond because they were spending money as a result of policing, not just on incarcerated family members, but on tickets and citations as well. Seeing how emotional people got about how much of an impact policing and gentrification had on their lives made me want to continue."  

Though the sample size was small, their success was great. They had an 85 percent contact rate (percent that opened the door and said yes or no) and a 60 percent completion rate, an outcome that confirmed for Massaro that a much larger-scale project is feasible. Currently, data like this is not easy to access at the neighborhood or household level because it's difficult to get people to answer questions about legality or finances and ensure that both student researchers and community residents feel comfortable about the process. Massaro said that identifying community partners was key. "Seeing how well matching students and residents worked was exciting and inspiring."  

Professor Vanessa Massaro, geography

The survey included questions about incarcerated family members, as well as information about household expenses for things like legal fees, traffic citations, court costs, probation and parole. While many people said they didn't have anyone in their household who was in prison, as they continued to talk, they realized that they spent some of their income each month on associated costs.  

"It's very common in this neighborhood for people to give money to a family member of someone who's incarcerated for his commissary books, so he can purchase items he needs," Massaro said. "They're doing that very casually and don't count it as part of their expenses. But if they think about how many times they do that per month, it can add up to more than $100, which is significant, especially in a community where the average yearly salary is $11,000." The students said they learned how this contributes to pricing long-time residents out of gentrifying neighborhoods as property values rise and taxes increase.  

Lasko said that the experience broadened her understanding of how people and cultures construct environments and social norms. "While I was outside of my comfort zone in Gray's Ferry, it was an extremely educational experience," she said. "I grew in my passion for human geography and developed skills in working with human subjects, which will benefit my career." 

Chung agreed. "This project made me want to continue studying cities and how a city's infrastructure can better serve its residents," he said, "especially in areas experiencing gentrification."  

The team has been doing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data analysis, which shows the rate of increases in property values and tax assessments in Gray's Ferry, as well as in policing and arrests. They are constructing a layered data map that includes how household expenses are highly segregated at a block level, which will show spatial variation based on race and class, as they collected data on both predominantly African American and predominantly white blocks.  

"There has been so much policy focus on helping people absorb the shock of increased property taxes to help them stay in the neighborhood, and I think that's a really partial view," Massaro said. "We're trying to create a policy incentive to think differently about how you survey a neighborhood, so there can be a better measure of the costs associated with living there, and so people in the academy are more likely to pursue this type of research. I think we learned a lot about how to do that in an effective way."