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 metropolitan displacements in American cities. She is particularly interested in how contemporary urban changes are reshaping racial inequalities in housing and neighborhoods.

Her research interests include ethnography, urban sociology, the sociology of housing, race & ethnicity, culture, sociological theory, social inequality, public policy and qualitative research methods.

She is writing the book Cutting the Tall Grass: Hardship and Privilege in a City after Depopulation, 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 in and planted gardens and farms on vacant lots. What is it like to live in a poor, Black, and extremely depopulated neighborhood? And why would middle-class white newcomers move here? This book shows how decades of neighborhood decline shaped racialized dispossessions and opportunities, hardship and privilege, trauma and coping, as this devastated 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 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 metropolitan changes and the challenges facing first-time homeowners in Brockton, Massachusetts. This city on Boston’s metropolitan fringe has seen a recent influx of African-American and Black immigrant homebuyers, many of whom used to rent in gentrifying Boston neighborhoods. 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.

Sharon is a first-generation college student, and 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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