Categorizing Neighborhoods: The Invention of ‘Sensitive Areas’ in France and ‘Historic Districts’ in the United States


This essay offers a reflexive return to two research projects to demonstrate the value of Bourdieu’s emphasis on the symbolic for the analysis of contemporary urban transformation. Bourdieu’s insistence that we track the social genesis and diffusion of spatial categories of thought and action directs us to the empirical study of the struggles between agents and organizations that promote and/or oppose these categories, as well as the political, economic and other interests animating the agents. A retracing of the parallel invention of the ‘at-risk neighborhood’ (quartier sensible) coined for and targeted by French urban policy since the late 1980s and the emergence of ‘historic’ or ‘diverse’ neighborhoods touted by gentrifying residents, cultural organizations and real estate agents in the United States since the 1960s challenges misleading oppositions between materiality and representations that often underpin and cramp urban research.