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Middle-Class Parents, Urban Schooling, and the Shift From Consumption to Production of Urban Space


  • An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Urban Affairs Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 17, 2011. This work was supported by grants from the Northeastern University Department of Sociology & Anthropology and the Northeastern University Office of the Provost. The authors thank Liza Weinstein, Michael Handel, and three anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts and Rachael Gorab for her contributions to this research. The authors are grateful for the generous participation of the Boston parents interviewed for this study.


Dominant approaches to the study of gentrification tend to attribute this process either to the production of urban space by elites or to the consumption of urban space by individual consumers. In this article, we take a preliminary step toward bridging this gap by illustrating how these groups may, in some cases, be the same actors. Drawing on in-depth interviews with middle-class parents in Boston, we explore the transitions that gentrifiers undergo as they age and have children. As young singles and childless couples, our respondents interacted with the city mainly as passive consumers. Years later, however, facing pressures to relocate in search of high-quality educational options, these parents emerged as active producers of the urban landscape through their substantial involvement in their children's public elementary schools. This school-based engagement reinforced their loyalties to their neighborhoods, dissuading them from moving to the suburbs. Since it is based on intense interactions with small local institutions, though, this strategy will likely be more difficult for parents to sustain in larger, less personal high schools. Thus, these parents may reconsider their dedication to city living as their children age. We discuss the implications of this research for urban theory and policy.