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Over the past quarter century, social scientists have taken a renewed interest in neighborhood ecology. After the classic era of ecological studies—most associated with the early twentieth-century “Chicago school” of sociology—neighborhood-level studies entered a period of doldrums, during which scholars questioned the utility of “neighborhood effects” as a concept and turned to more individualistic research designs. Beginning with the scholarly debate over the “urban underclass” in the 1980s, the idea that neighborhood context has a measurable effect on individual behavior has made a comeback. Robert Sampson has proposed the term ecometrics to describe the empirical investigation of neighborhood effects.

This paper undertakes several tasks:

First, we construct multi-dimensional models of social wellbeing for Philadelphia at two points in time (2010-12 and 2018-20) to estimate changes in social wellbeing across the city. We then take an “ecometric” approach to examine two contemporary phenomena—involuntary residential movement (household eviction) and the concentration of cultural assets within neighborhoods—to examine how they might influence individual dimensions of social wellbeing and patterns of social wellbeing across the city.

In estimating changes in social wellbeing in Philadelphia at two points in time, we discovered that between 2010 and 2020 many sections of Philadelphia experienced improved levels of social wellbeing. Overall, a neighborhood’s eviction rate around 2010 was negatively associated while its concentration of cultural assets was positively associated with better social wellbeing.

More generally we observe that the complexity of the social processes of place often gets flattened in popular discourse. Twenty years ago, when private developers of new and substantially rehabilitated market-rate housing entered the Philadelphia real estate market for the first time in generations, it was hailed for its novelty.  But before long, this novelty—a pattern that has not spread to much of the city—became reified into the gentrification narrative of the city’s neighborhoods.

There certainly are data that support this gentrification narrative. The recent history of Point Breeze and Southwest Center City and to some extent the neighborhoods around Penn, Drexel, and Temple  fit nicely into it. Yet, other shifts examined in this paper—especially the improved social wellbeing of a set of stable Black neighborhoods—are also occurring and going largely unrecognized by observers of the city.

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