Over the last year or so, multiple videos of people calling the police on black men and women engaging in mundane activities—babysitting, eating lunch, going for a swim—have gone viral. The (usually white) callers are often swiftly meme-ified: "Golf Cart Gail," "Apartment Patty," and "BBQ Becky" have become familiar characters in the Internet’s ever-expanding pageant of outrage.
But the popularity of this mini-genre raises other questions: Is there empirical data that sheds lights on whether such racially charged calls to authorities have, in fact, increased over the years? And, if so, where exactly is this happening?
A new episode of the Science vs. podcast by Gimlet Media delivers some answers. The podcast looks at the science behind commonly held notions and explain away myths; its latest episode tackles the g-word: gentrification. Among the questions the team asks is whether it's true that whiter, more well-off newcomers to a neighborhood call the authorities on older, less well-off residents of color.
One of the show's producers, Meryl Horn, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California–San Francisco, ran the numbers on over 600,000 311 calls over six years. Using 311 data available on the city's open data portal, she and her team mapped the per capita noise complaints in 41 census tracts in New York City—things like banging, loud music, and loud talking. Then, using the methodology employed by New York University's Furman Center, the team identified the neighborhoods that gentrified between 2011 and 2016. (Think: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Bushwick, and Flatbush.) After running their analysis through statistical tests, they found something significant: Per capita 311 calls increased in all neighborhoods, but they rose at a 70 percent faster rate in the gentrifying ones. Specifically, the per capita volume of 311 calls in gentrifying neighborhoods rose two times as fast compared to high-income ones (that weren't eligible to gentrify) over the six-year period; they rose 50 percent faster than low-income neighborhoods (that did not gentrify).
The Science vs. analysis isn't peer reviewed, but some previous evidence supports its conclusions. A study from 2016 found that 311 noise complaints went up in areas where boundaries between two different, homogenous communities were blurred.
"Previous research has focused on diversity as an explanation for neighborhood conflict. Our findings are much more specific, and move away from the idea that diversity has negative consequences," said author Joscha Legewie, an assistant professor of education and sociology at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, at the time. "In fact, it’s not diversity in general that has this effect on neighborhood conflict; it’s only these particular areas between homogenous communities."
Earlier in the year, BuzzFeed also conducted a 311 analysis. Its snapshot of New York census tracts showed per capita calls were higher in gentrifying tracts. They zoomed into the dynamic in one block in Harlem, finding that the rise in calls coincided with the influx of whiter, richer residents.
Of course, it's not clear from any of these analyses who is actually making these calls, and who the callers are complaining about. (Although Rory Kramer, a sociologist at Villanova University in Philadelphia who studies gentrified neighborhoods, told Science vs. host Wendy Zukerman that it is less likely that non-white, working-class folks would call 311 since they may perceive the police to be more aggressive toward them.)
But what all these analyses do is provide evidence that the erasing of deep-rooted color and class lines may cause tensions between neighbors. Perhaps newcomers call authorities because they do not know how to speak directly with existing residents. There may be language or culture barriers; they may see long-established neighborhood rituals—playing dominoes on the sidewalk, convening drum circles in the park, or playing music—not as ways the existing community members connect with each other, but as sources of nuisance.
As Legewie put it in an explanation of his research from 2016: "The 311 service requests give us a unique perspective on everyday forms of conflict, and indicate that tensions are not being resolved in a neighborly way, such as knocking on someone’s door."