Sharon Cornelissen

Sharon Cornelissen is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology at Princeton University, her M.A. in Sociology at the New School for Social Research, and a B.A. in Liberal Arts at University College Utrecht in the Netherlands.

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She is an ethnographer who studies life after urban decline, the racial inequalities of homeownership, and new regional displacements in American cities. She is particularly interested in how urban change reshapes racial inequalities in housing and neighborhoods.

Her research and teaching interests include urban sociology, race & ethnicity, culture, sociological theory, social inequality, public policy, and ethnographic and qualitative research methods.

She is writing the book Cutting the Tall Grass: Hardship and Privilege in the Depopulated City, under contract at University of Chicago Press. This book draws on three years of ethnographic fieldwork while she lived and became a homeowner in Brightmoor, Detroit, one of America’s most depopulated urban neighborhoods. Wildflowers flourished here amidst hundreds of empty houses. Residents saw wild deer as often as they heard gunshots. And in 2006, a new phenomenon began: white middle-class newcomers had started to move into this majority Black neighborhood. The book shows how decades of neighborhood decline shaped racialized dispossessions and opportunities, hardship and privilege, trauma and coping, as this disinvested place on Detroit’s edge faced early gentrification. It describes how and why longtime Detroiters lost homes, what the privilege to buy a $500 house looked like, and how what she calls the “legacies and traumas of neighborhood decline” lingered on street corners, in vacated homes, and in fields of tall grass.

This research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, and Princeton University’s Program in American Studies. It also received a Princeton Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Honorific Fellowship and the Horowitz Foundation John L. Stanley Award for the best project in History and Ethics. You can find work from this ethnography published in Urban Affairs Review and Sociological Forum. Based on earlier ethnographic research with dumpster divers in New York City (people who eat from the trash as a lifestyle choice), Sharon also published an article in Theory and Society.

As a Postdoctoral Fellow, she has been conducting a new ethnography on how the urban housing crisis is reshaping racial and regional inequalities, by focusing on Brockton, Massachusetts, a city south of Boston. She calls Brockton a “city of the displaced,” as it has become the home of many priced-out African-Americans and Black immigrants, who used to rent in Boston. Her research in Brockton will help elucidate regional cascades of displacement far beyond gentrifying downtowns, new racial inequalities in lending and homebuying in tight markets, and the challenges and strengths of the Cape Verdean diaspora.

She has studied Brockton since September 2019 and moved to Brockton in July 2022. She received a Research Partnership grant from the United States’ Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as well a Stone Research Grant from the Harvard Kennedy School, to support this research. Her research on Brockton has been featured or cited in The Boston Globe (here and here), The Chronicle of Higher Ed, the Harvard Gazette, and The Enterprise. Recent research is also summarized in a Joint Center for Housing Studies blog here.

Sharon is originally from Dongen, a town in the south of the Netherlands.

You can contact her at sharon_cornelissen [at] harvard.edu

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