Sharon Cornelissen

Sharon Cornelissen is a Postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. During Fall 2020, she was a visiting lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and taught the class “Race, Racism and the City.” 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.

Sharon professional picture

She is an ethnographer who studies the connections between urban decline, gentrification, and racial inequality in American cities.

Her research interests include urban and community sociology, race and ethnicity, the sociology of housing, culture, sociological theory, and qualitative and ethnographic methods.

She is writing the book Cutting the Tall Grass: Hardship and Privilege in a City after Depopulation. 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 started a new ethnographic project studying community changes and the challenges facing first-time homeowners in Brockton, Massachusetts. This city south of Boston has seen a recent influx of Black homebuyers, many of whom used to rent in gentrifying Boston neighborhoods. She received a Research Partnership grant from the United States’ Department of Housing and Urban Development to support this research.

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]