When the price of rent rises in a neighborhood, residents come and go, but does culture stay? Gentrification is the process of rebuilding an urban neighborhood which results in the displacement of lower income residents who can no longer live in the area due to the increase in rent. Low income areas have been revamped in order to make their marketability higher. However, the effects of gentrification can be found in one of the most unlikely places, Yelp, an online business directory.  If users are in search for new Saturday brunch spots and artisanal ice cream parlors, Yelp is there to help.

When a neighborhood starts to undergo the process of gentrification, it can be seen in either a positive or negative perspective. In a neighborhood like Greenpoint, its reputation has not been consistent due to gentrification, but it is possible to distinguish whether or not users are in favor of the area’s new look through their reviews. The residents who live in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification witness this process, and can easily comment on the neighborhood’s changes. However, in neighborhoods that have not been gentrified, such as Bronx and the Upper East Side, reviews may be biased because of their respective reputations of being poor and affluent throughout the years. Reviews on Yelp may be biased, because reviews may be more favorable in neighborhoods that have better reputations. Yelp influences the public perception of neighborhoods because users have the power to comment on and rate establishments through their use of words. Through users’ reviews, Yelp not only reflects gentrification, but it also stereotypes various neighborhoods and communities. In order to reinforce this idea, I will be analyzing Yelp reviews of the highest rated dessert establishments of the same level in each of three areas – Greenpoint, a newly gentrified neighborhood, the Bronx, an area that has never been gentrified, and the Upper East Side, an area that has traditionally never had low income residents. Factors such as housing costs, ethnic makeup and household income further supplement the neighborhoods’ reputations — The Bronx as a low-income area, the Upper East Side as a high-income area, and Greenpoint as a gentrified area.  

Greenpoint

Greenpoint is a neighborhood in Brooklyn whose residents were mostly Polish immigrants until it became gentrified. In the 1880s, Polish, Russian, and Italian immigrants began to inhabit Greenpoint. Immigration continued after the end of World War II, resulting to Greenpoint’s unofficial nickname, “Little Poland.” Judith DeSena, Professor of Sociology in St. John’s University wrote a book called The Gentrification and Inequality in Brooklyn, where she states that gentrification in Greenpoint began in the 1970s, when people began to rent affordable apartments, purchased relatively inexpensive houses, or ventured into loft living, occupying industrial space in mixed-use buildings (DeSena). As the neighborhood started to gain popularity due to its proximity to Manhattan, relatively low crime rate, affordability, high degree of social capital and attractive aging housing stock, the real estate prices started to rise, making it almost impossible for residents to remain in the area (DeSena, 32). In 2000, 81 percent of the households in Greenpoint were renters, and approximately a quarter of these households were not rent regulated. Additionally, during this time, around 40 percent of households spent more than 30 percent of their income to pay for rent since the median contract rent was $629, an increase from the $140 rent in 1980. Despite inflation rates, this is still considered an increase because from the calculations of an online US inflation calculator, the purchasing power of the dollar at the time would have been $292.57. Computing the cost for 2016, the rent should be $481.07, considering inflation rates. The rise in rent from $140 to $629 is representative of gentrification because the prices dramatically surged. Greenpoint’s recorded median household income is $56,307 while the median home sale price is $552,500. Since 1950, northern Greenpoint has seen an influx of Hispanic (Census Bureau category) residents, comprised 21% of the neighborhood’s population in 1980 (DeSena). In 1980, Puerto Ricans were the largest Hispanic group in Greenpoint (63% of Hispanics) (DeSena).  In 2006, according to the official website of New York City, Greenpoint’s race/ethnicity was 2% Asian, 6% Other, 3% Black, 31% Hispanic, and 58% White. Currently, Greenpoint has a higher proportion of white residents, which is indicative of higher income residents. The white population has a history of being more privileged, as they are more wealthy, have better access to education, the job market, and health care as compared to other races.
     

Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop, which has been in business in the Greenpoint neighborhood since the 1950s, is the neighborhood’s highest rated dessert place on Yelp. In a short documentary about Peter Pan, by Keif Roberts and Peter J. Haas, owner Donna Siafakas claims that the area was predominantly occupied by Polish families in the 1970s. She mentions that a lot of people moved out, and that there was an influx of hipsters, which has been beneficial for their business. The shop is open from 4:30am to 8pm on weekdays, and 5am to 8pm on Saturday, 5:30am to 7pm on Sundays. According to the cashier I spoke to, their most popular flavors are Red Velvet and Sour Cream and their prices are based on a fixed cost of $1.10 per piece. Aside from donuts, they offer an assortment of baked goods such as muffins and bagels, as well as drinks like milkshakes and coffee. Unlike most establishments, they do not accept cards; they only accept cash, which is a more traditional method.

On Yelp, Peter Pan has 887 reviews and is rated 4.5 out of 5 stars overall. The number of reviews and stars that Peter Pan has received is astounding since it has been around for over fifty years. Yelp users see Peter Pan in a positive light, despite it being one of the older establishments in Greenpoint. Although the neighborhood is changing, Peter Pan is resisting gentrification by maintaining its 1950s character and not changing into a trendy hipster donut establishment. One Yelp user, Sara P comments,

“This place is seriously great. Besides their delicious donuts, the atmosphere is super old school and evokes the bliss of simpler times. There’s a long counter that wraps around where you can perch on a bar stool to eat your donut or sip your old fashioned egg cream. The girls behind counter are dressed in 50’s style uniforms (more for utility than nostalgia) as they chatter in Polish to each other. The prices are dirt cheap especially given area. I just love that this place managed to remain a bastion of the old days, even while establishments around BK fall prey to rising rents and trendier consumer tastes. I just felt good sitting here.”

She describes the prices as “dirt cheap” despite the area, because the each of the donuts are $1.10 a piece. The affordability of the donuts makes the place more appealing because it is open to people from all income levels. The products that they sell are reasonably priced for their quality so that everyone can buy them. While I was in line, I noticed that there was a variety of people—policemen, a mother and her son, elderly men, and teenagers. Sara P emphasizes her disapproval and resistance of gentrification when she comments on Peter Pan remaining to be a “bastion” of the old days, as well as the rising rents and trendier consumer tastes of the neighborhood. Sara P is implying that she prefers the classic, pre-gentrified Greenpoint and that Peter Pan is a classic Greenpoint establishment that has remained the same despite the gentrification of the area. The way she words her review makes it appear that she feels as if the gentrification process is a threat to preserving the neighborhood’s classic Polish culture. There is a bias in wording because of the neighborhood it is located in. The setting of the establishment is crucial because if Peter Pan were in an old, lower income neighborhood, it would be seen as dated and dirty, however, in a gentrified neighborhood like Greenpoint, it is seen as a “super old school” establishment that “evokes the bliss of simpler times.”

Peter Pan was nothing like Polka Dot, the trendy Polish restaurant located across the street, which had a hipster aesthetic to it – the white brick walls, petite potted plants, handwritten font, vintage looking chairs and tables, and a coffee pick up window. Polka Dot is not a place that appeals to everyone, because its target market is more of young hipsters. Despite the hip new restaurants being put up, more people still decide to go to Peter Pan instead of Polka Dot. Polka Dot was a sign of gentrification in the neighborhood, because it looked out of place as it was surrounded by local, family owned businesses such as nail salons, liquor stores, clothing stores, and electronic stores, as well as chain stores – Sprint, Sleepy’s, Radio Shack and Santander.

Another user, Nobel V, comments

“I definitely feel thrown back in time coming in here, as this establishment has been around for over 60 years. Peter Pan has been able to live through all those years, and it is because their doughnuts are great!”

The environment was very reminiscent of an old school establishment with its employees’ matching teal and pink uniforms, diner interior design, tiled floors and counter seats. The fact that the establishment has been around since the 1950s speaks volumes about its popularity among consumers. Nobel V’s review is another indication of the appreciation of Greenpoint’s culture in the past. By saying that he has been “thrown back in time coming here”, Nobel V is implying that the place was the same as it was before. It is a sign that the establishment has remained consistent throughout its years in business, because consumers still admire its vintage aesthetic and delicious doughnuts.

The Upper East Side

The wealthy Manhattan neighborhood, the Upper East Side, is located between 59th Street, 96th Street, Central Park and the East River. The Upper East Side possesses a few of the most expensive real estate in the United States, which is why it is considered to be one of Manhattan’s most prosperous neighborhoods. In popular culture, it has been the setting for literary works such as Gossip Girl, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Great Gatsby, and many others. Dating from the 20th century, demand for property remained steady despite the pursuit of construction by affluent families, and the renovation of single-family residences. At the same time, luxury apartment buildings started to appear in Upper East Side in order to fulfill the needs of larger numbers of people who wished to move into the area. The recorded median household income in the Upper East Side is $105,716, while the median home sale price is $989,893, denoting that the residents are wealthy, as they can afford to pay such a high amount for housing. In 2006, according to the official website of New York City, the Upper East Side’s race/ethnicity was as follows – 6% Asian, 2% Other, 3% Black, 6% Hispanic, and 83% White. The population statistics reflect the wealth of the neighborhood because historically, neighborhoods with predominantly white populations tend to be better off, as they have more privileges in wealth, health care, jobs, and education.

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When searching for dessert on the Upper East Side, Two Little Red Hens is the first to appear on Yelp, because it is the the highest rated dessert spot with the most number of reviews. It seemed to be an Upper East Side favorite because almost all of the reviews were positive. Two Little Red Hens offers an assortment of cakes and cupcakes, as well as beverages. It is open from 7:30am to 9pm on Mondays to Thursdays, 7:30am to 10pm on Fridays, 8am to 10pm on Saturdays, and 8am to 8m on Sundays. The price range is moderate – $1.75 for a mini cupcake, $3 for a large cupcake, $4 for a filled cupcake, $44 for a six-inch specialty cake, $68 for an eight-inch specialty cake. They are famous for their Brooklyn Blackout cupcake and the Peanut Butter Fudge cupcake. Also, the area was surrounded by banks such as Chase and Capital One Bank, reflecting the place’s progressiveness. Banks place branches based on the economic study of an area, if they feel that they will be receiving business from their clients they will place branches there. Since the Upper East Side is a commercialized area that is occupied by affluent residents, bank owners feel as if the residents will be consistently availing of their services. Banks will not be located in an area with low income residents, because they do not make use of ATM machines.

On Yelp, it has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars overall and 1573 reviews. Yelp user Cici B comments,

“Stepping into this bakery is like stepping into another world. Forget the concrete jungle of the city or the streets of the Upper East Side from where you just stood seconds ago, you’ve just been transported to your imaginary grandmother’s quaint, rustic kitchen enveloped in southern comfort. Said grandmother is also an avid baker with constant goods flowing out of her modest kitchen. Maybe you do have a grandmother that matches the aforementioned description, and I am jealous of you. But, I digress… Two Little Red Hens is such a breath of fresh air from the posh and sleek bakeries scattered across New York.”

Unlike most “posh and sleek bakeries scattered across New York”, Two Little Red Hens is slow-paced and reminiscent of a “grandma’s kitchen.” Decorated with various hen figurines, red plaid curtains, wooden chairs and tables, Two Little Red Hens gives off a comforting vibe that makes people feel at home. It was more of a sit down cafe, a place where people would come to eat and chat. Cici B’s comment implies that the Upper East Side is a busy area, and that Two Little Red Hens is a break from the hustle and bustle of the city life. Although it is not “posh” and “sleek” like other Upper East Side bakeries, positive words such as “quaint” and “rustic” are used to describe the cafe because it is more of a casual place. Another user, Fred M, comments

“This place is everything you would expect from an Upper East Side bakery: clean, cozy, with an air of sophistication. While the place isn’t very big,it’s not too difficult to find a table for small parties. And their nice to-go box will make sure your pastry will arrive at the destination look just as good as it did in the window. The cheesecake was absolutely amazing, just shy of pastry perfection. Highly recommended.” The place was clean and cozy, but there was no “air of sophistication.”

Fred M’s review is an instance of a biased review because he makes an assumption about the Upper East Side bakeries by saying that they are clean, cozy, and have an air of sophistication. Upper East Side bakeries do not all have to be sophisticated since they are located in that area, there can be casual bakeries like Two Little Red Hens. There was more of a casual, warm and welcoming vibe in the atmosphere because of its vintage decorations, the crowd and the friendly staff. The bakery is expected to meet these standards because it is located in the Upper East Side, a neighborhood which has always had a reputation of being high-end. He is setting the bar for all other bakeries in the area by using these words.

Arthur Avenue, The Bronx

Arthur Avenue, located in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, is known as New York City’s “Little Italy.” Generations of Italian families have occupied the area since the 1950s. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these families continue their respective family traditions by managing the family-owned businesses. German and Irish immigrants began to arrive in the 1880s. According to Lloyd Ultan, a Bronx historian, Italian immigrants began to move into the neighborhood in the 1890s. The Bronx’s recorded median household income is $38,900, while its median home sale price is $323,097, which is the lowest median household income and median home sale price as compared to the Upper East Side and Greenpoint. In 2006, according to the official website of New York City, Fordham and Bronx Park’s race/ethnicity was as follows – 5% Asian, 4% Other, 25% Black, 54% Hispanic, and 12% White. The population percentages are indications of a lower income bracket because the neighborhood is predominantly occupied by minorities, specifically the Black and Hispanic populations, which comprise half of all poor Americans that have lower education, health care insurance coverage, and a larger risk of being unemployed or low-paid workers (Gradín). Minorities are more likely to live in the poorest areas, to have more children, to live in single-mother families, work less hours, or be employed in low-paid occupations (Gradín).

My final stop was Gino’s Pastry Shop, located on Arthur Avenue. Gino’s Pastry Shop has been in business since 1960. In 1990, Gino passed down the business to his son Jerome. Gino’s Pastry Shop is closed on Mondays, but is open from 9:30am to 7pm on Tuesdays to Saturdays and 9:30am to 5pm on Sundays. They are known for their famous cannolis, which are priced at $4 for two small cannolis, and $8 for two big cannolis. They also offer plain birthday cakes for $7 per pound, and customized birthday cakes for $20-25 and $30-35, depending on the size. The area was surrounded by local businesses such as Habibi Deli Grocery, Korz Caffe, Robert’s Jewelry, Mex Products, ½ Hour Photo and Valentin Cigars. There were no chain stores in sight, meaning that the family owned businesses were prominent in the neighborhood.

On Yelp, Gino’s Pastry Shop has 4.5 stars out of 5 stars and 24 reviews. Yelp user Phil H comments

“Tiny old school bakery. The kind where the owner/master baker sits at a desk right in the back that is piled high with papers and all kinds of stuff that has accumulated over the years as he peers out from behind and holds court. Many of the locals come and go and chat with him and the friendly staff. Very homey kind of place that is a throwback to the old school bakeries of the past. The kind that my great aunts and uncles in Brooklyn took me to as a child. Wonderful homemade pastries and cakes back then, and emulated here quite well. No wonder I was a fat kid! Also, just walk in to see all the celebrity pics, WWE wrestler photos, and well known notables hanging on the wall. Many autographed, and many with the owner. The dude knows them all. Overall, good pastries! Try the cannoli!”  

He uses the words “homey” and “throwback to the old school bakeries of the past” which is an indication of Arthur Avenue’s Italian authenticity. It is a sign that Gino’s has been consistently “old school” throughout its years in business because it remains to be on the same level as the Brooklyn bakeries he visited as a child. Gino’s has been in business since 1960, and it has still managed to maintain the same “old school” appeal. Another Yelp user, Adam E, comments

“Really cute little Italian bakery just off Arthur Avenue. My grandfather grew up in this neighborhood, and it kinda felt like the folks sitting in the bakery could have been my elder relatives too. It had that charm. Service was friendly and fast, but not so fast that you feel rushed. The cannoli are a must. The filling is just the right consistency to make a mess but taste so good you don’t even care. A lot of places the filling is too thick. It’s perfect at Gino’s. They also have the usual Italian favorites- ricotta pie, those pink cookies, rainbow cookies, etc. I tried the ricotta pie and it was good but I personally like it a little sweeter. It didn’t stop me from eating the whole piece though.”

Similar to Phil H’s comment, Adam E talks about Gino’s charm because he felt a connection to the “folks sitting in the bakery.” When he mentions his grandfather and how he grew up in the neighborhood, he does not mention any changes from his grandfather’s time. The service was the friendliest service I encountered from all three establishments. I observed the “charm” he was talking about in the friendliness of the staff, the vintage decorations, and its location. It was evident that the place has not changed much, as it is not falling to the hip restaurant interior trends. Since the Bronx has never been gentrified, it is evident that the area has remained constantly authentic in its existence, as seen by the family run businesses in the neighborhood. Overall, the reviews are observant of the neighborhood’s image as the original Little Italy.

Conclusion

The words that were used in the Yelp reviews influence perceptions of each respective area. In Greenpoint, users would comment about how long Peter Pan has been in business, and how they love that it is nothing like the hip restaurants in the area, which indicates that they are not in favor of the gentrification that is happening in the neighborhood. Users felt that Two Little Red Hens was a break from the busy Upper East Side life, as it was quaint and slow-paced, but it still lived up to the Upper East Side standards. Gino’s Pastry Shop’s reviews on Yelp were implying that the area has not changed since the 60s because of words such as “charm” and “old school”, as well as the comparison to bakeries of the past. Since Yelp users can post reviews, and talk to other users, Yelp can make or break not only a restaurant, but also a neighborhood’s reputation.

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