“Cities are fascinating places—abuzz with creation and conflict, rife with possibilities, riddled with inequities, in constant flux yet surprisingly stuck.” So begins Evelyn Perry’s research statement on the Rhodes College website, where she is an Associate Professor of Sociology. Perry’s fascination with cities began with Milwaukee; she is a proud Brew City native, and in 2016, published an ethnographic examination of the Riverwest neighborhood titled Live and Let Live: Diversity, Conflict, and Community in an Integrated Neighborhood. Live and Let Live, a recipient of the Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Book Award, sheds light on the everyday processes of negotiating difference in a racially and economically mixed neighborhood.
Perry received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at Colorado College and holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Indiana University. Her current research project explores the strategic movement of evangelical Christian families from affluent suburbs to high-poverty urban communities. She describes herself as an optimistic troublemaker who prefers her compassion radical and her bourbon neat.
On October 19, 2018, Perry delivered the Urban Studies Fall Lecture, giving a talk titled “The Upside of Community Conflict: Milwaukee’s Riverwest Neighborhood.” That same day, she and I sat down to talk about the book, conflict, Riverwest, and the ethical obligations of ethnographers. Here’s what she had to say.
Kelly O’Brien (KO): Evie, you are trained as a sociologist, but you describe yourself more specifically as an urban ethnographer. What drew you to the urban sphere, both personally and academically?
Evelyn Perry (EP): Milwaukee made me an urban sociologist. Growing up in this city—and growing up in a family that encouraged me to pay attention to the city—drew my attention to the stark divisions, contrasts, and inequities in Milwaukee. I lived in the exclusively white suburb of Whitefish Bay while attending public schools with non-white students who were bussed to the suburbs through the city’s 220 program. So, my early questions about why things are the way they are ended up being questions about why cities are organized the way that they’re organized: “Why do some of my friends have to travel outside their communities for ‘good’ schools? Why are there ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools in the first place? What explains the differences between our neighborhoods?”
I was drawn to sociology as an undergraduate at Colorado College because it gave me the tools to start answering some of these big questions. “Oh, so this is about power! This is about interpersonal and structural racism!” Then I had the opportunity to experience life in a number of different cities around the world. Comparisons are fuel for a hungry mind. “Why do these places feel different? Does that mean that we can actually intervene? Does that mean that we can change how we do life in cities?”
KO: I’m interested as to why you chose to do an ethnography, and the limitations that ethnography imposed on your research.
EP: One of the reasons that I chose qualitative methods is because they are the best fit for the kinds of questions I’m interested in as a sociologist—questions about urban practices, process, and meaning. How do people experience and navigate a particular place? It’s hard to grasp those things in a survey. My methodological choices are also clearly related to what I like to do. I love people. I love talking with people about how they see the world. When someone is willing to spend time with me and share intimate things about their experiences and their perceptions, it is such a gift. I deeply value the interview experience, and many of the people I interview tell me that they find it meaningful as well. I never assume that those conversations are going to be mutually beneficial, but that’s always my hope. And ethnography? What an amazing way to get to know a specific spot in the universe—to live in it and do your daily life in it and work to understand the different ways that people engage with it. So, the short answer [to “why ethnography?”] is: fit with research questions and joy.
There are absolutely limitations. It’s hard for me to generalize my findings in a straightforward way. My hope is that people in places with similar kinds of neighborhood conditions can ask themselves, is this place like Riverwest? If it isn’t, why isn’t it? Ideally, it provides a useful basis for comparison. Perhaps some of these neighborhood processes are generalizable even if the whole package isn’t. That’s the limitation: it can be difficult to demonstrate how this work extends to being useful in thinking about other places. I believe that it can be useful.
KO: You spend a lot of time in your book [Live and Let Live] talking about how Riverwest is a “buffer” between “countervailing pressures of gentrification and decline” [p.27]. Is that uncommon, or are there other cities that have analogues of Riverwest? You’ve said that you looked for Riverwest in Memphis and didn’t find it. Where are the other Riverwests?
EP: I know that there are neighborhoods similar to Riverwest in other cities because people tell me about them. How else would I find the other Riverwests? I could look at maps and analyze census data, but much of the ethnographic data that I rely on is grounded in people’s everyday experiences and the culture of a place. I think that that’s what people are usually responding to when they tell me about places that feel like—or once felt like—the Riverwest I describe in Live and Let Live.
Now what about other buffer neighborhoods? My hunch is that neighborhoods that are similarly situated also experience the countervailing pressures of gentrification and decline. But there are very different ways of responding to those tensions. Responses are shaped by broader structural realities. I can imagine in cities where the market pressures are intense, buffer neighborhoods will gentrify much more quickly. The impact of the recession on a particular neighborhood or the power of a community development corporation may also affect whether or not a buffer neighborhood stays a buffer or becomes something else.
The power of boundaries—both material and symbolic—matter, too. There’s a clear natural border on one side of Riverwest: the river. There’s also a deeply ingrained artificial racial boundary—Holton Street—that endures even as Harambee changes demographically. I think these types of boundaries matter a great deal for buffer neighborhoods.
KO: Is Riverwest aspirational? Do you think that other places should aspire to be Riverwest?
EP: I love that question. I do not think that Riverwest is a utopia. There are many justice- and equity-advancing things that we would hope to see happening in race- and class-mixed neighborhoods that we don’t necessarily see in Riverwest. I don’t view integration as the solution to all of the problems associated with residential segregation, but there are some really incredible things that happen in Riverwest. We have a lot to learn from that neighborhood. For example, flexible rules and standards and a willingness to handle problems informally help make diversity work. It’s messy. It requires ongoing effort and a willingness to invest in relationships. I try to avoid romanticizing Riverwest. It’s my job to try to see clearly and recognize that the neighborhood means very different things to different people. For some people, Riverwest represents loss. It has changed into something they no longer recognize and become a place that reminds them of what they miss.
KO: You talk in the book about the community liaison officers and about the new parochialism as methods of community policing. As an ethnographer and a tenured sociologist, what’s your take on policing, effective methods of policing, and the relationship between law enforcement and community members?
EP: I think police officers in Milwaukee have really, really difficult jobs, as they do in many urban areas. I appreciate attempts to root officers in networks of community relationships—in rich networks of exchange and support. I am hopeful that we can continue to create community-level responses to local troubles that don’t engage the police. Some of the officers I talked to when I was doing my research felt that in many cases, calling the police wasn’t the best response—or at least, shouldn’t be the first response—to a range of issues. They recognized that there are valid alternative ways to work out problems. Riverwest residents handle a range of issues on their own.
Law enforcement is experiencing a long-term crisis of legitimacy, particularly around issues of race. We must create alternatives to the kinds of problematic policing that we see in Milwaukee and the related hyper-surveillance of particular communities. This doesn’t mean simply reforming policing. I think it also means empowering our communities, supporting the good neighborhood work that is already happening, and equitably distributing resources across the metro area. I also am encouraged by real efforts at community mediation and restorative justice. Such work has the potential to prompt powerful cultural changes in how we define and respond to crime.
KO: What would you say are the most important ethical concerns in doing ethnography? How do you do right by your subjects?
EP: Relentlessly return to questions of power. You think you’ve got it figured out and BOOM—there’s another layer. Seek to understand how people are constrained and/or advantaged. Pay attention to how they carve out their lives.
To the best of your ability, tell the truth about what you are up to. I think we have notions that it’s easy to do. When I moved to Riverwest, I had only a vague idea of what this project was about. It changed. It emerged from the fieldwork. So, it isn’t as if I could simply tell people what the end point was going to be. I could tell them what I was trying to learn and ask for their help.
Don’t mine people for data and leave. Honor and respect the stories and experiences that people share with you. They are gifts. I shared drafts with people in the neighborhood and asked for their feedback. That was another way to invite people into the work.
I think about what I would do differently next time. My job isn’t to make people happy, but I think it is my job to build and maintain honest and real relationships with people. I’m still figuring out how best to do that throughout the life of a research project.
KO: So, do you know what you would do differently next time?
EP: I dream of starting a project with a set of co-conspirators rather than research participants. We have models for that, like participatory action research and methodologies rooted in black feminist thought. Imagining a more collaborative process requires big shifts in how I think about the roles of data collector, analyst, and editor. It means upending the traditional power dynamics of research. Whose knowledge-making counts? We are surrounded by situated knowers and skilled theoreticians. Patricia Hill Collins and Zandria Robinson taught me that. Now let’s see what I can do with it.
KO: Sharing agency makes sense, absolutely. Last question: What surprised you? Either when you were doing your ethnography, or in transcribing or transforming the dissertation into a book? What surprises came up along the way?
EP: So many surprises. I find it entertaining to look back at my early field notes. So many of the things that grabbed my attention when I was settling into Riverwest eventually became background noise—just part of life. I guess a fancy way of saying that is that I was reflecting on my own resocialization: how this place had changed me. It was surprising, although it shouldn’t have been. I think good ethnographers are always transformed.
It’s not like you’re “going native;” that’s not what I mean. When you embed yourself in a place and in relationships, they’re going to shift how you see the world—and that happened. Another surprise? The constructive role of local conflict in a socially-mixed neighborhood. Conflict signals that no single way of being/living/doing is—or should be—winning. Conflict can shake one’s certainty about the rightness of their beliefs and prompt valuable reflection. Conflict has the radical potential to disrupt the status quo. We could use some more Riverwest-style conflict these days.