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Study: How Yelp Reviews Are Influenced by Race and Gentrification

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The study looked at two Brooklyn neighborhoods: one historically white and one historically black.


Yelpers don't tend to generate many great headlines for themselves. Many chefs vocally despise the online review platform, which has gained enough negative notoriety to be skewered on South Park. Now a study from City University of New York researchers adds another dubious distinction to the cult of Yelp: Reviewers, at least those in Brooklyn, seem to have some troubling differences in their perceptions of white and black neighborhoods.

The study looks at Yelp reviews for restaurants in two Brooklyn neighborhoods that are facing gentrification: the historically white/Polish Greenpoint and the historically black Bedford-Stuyvesant. While both are changing, a sample of 1,056 reviews that explicitly mention one of the two neighborhoods shows Yelpers are much more sentimental about Greenpoint, which is three percent black, compared to Bed-Stuy, which is 59 percent black.

As CityLab notes, Yelpers express a desire to preserve older restaurants in Greenpoint and generally aren't enthusiastic about changes in the neighborhood. Reviews typically include phrases such as "a pleasant and ethnically sound (predominantly of Polish descent) neighborhood," "‘authentic' Polish cuisine," and "it's like walking into a legitimate European bakery." Reviews for eateries in Bed-Stuy tell a different story. It's described as "dangerous," "gritty," "sketchy," "hood," and "ghetto." Newer, trendier restaurants are described as "the kind of place[s] Bed-Stuy needs," while older restaurants that serve soul food and Caribbean fare aren't nearly as revered. It's clear that the sampled reviewers want white Greenpoint to hold on to its roots and black Bed-Stuy to change.

One thing Yelpers in both neighborhoods can agree on: their distaste for hipsters.

The majority of reviewers in both neighborhoods, for instance, saw "hipsters" as an alarming signal of gentrification. One Bed-Stuy reviewer referred to a restaurant as "a bastion of hipsters in a sea of poverty,'' while another reviewer forecasted that a Greenpoint restaurant would become "another douche-bag hipster lounge.''

Given the general disdain for Yelpers, it may be easy to write the results of this study off, but the CUNY researchers suggest that Yelp reviews in general can have a much bigger influence than many might think: "Intentionally or not, Yelp restaurant reviewers may encourage, confirm, or even accelerate processes of gentrification by signaling that a locality is good for people who share their tastes," the study concludes — thereby influencing who visits or even moves into a particular neighborhood.

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