Member of the Week: Mario Hernandez

Mario Hernandez

Assistant Professor, Social and Historical Department

Mills College


Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

My research focuses on relationship between race and gentrification. My current book project, Bushwick’s Bohemia: Art and Revitalization in Gentrifying Brooklyn, will be published by Routledge Press in the spring of 2022. The book traces the development of the Bushwick art scene and its effect on the neighborhood’s revitalization. Once notorious for civil unrest after the Blackout of 1977 led to widespread looting and fires, today Bushwick is a center of artistic production and cultural consumption. Situated at the intersections of art, race, and community resilience, Bushwick’s Bohemia analyzes the politics of urban revitalization, to show how an area of severe disinvestment and neglect has come to be one the trendiest neighborhoods and most competitive real estate markets in the city. The book contributes to the literature of gentrification by situating Bushwick’s current revitalization within a longer trajectory of a political and economic transition towards a neoliberal approach to urban renewal and growth.

I was drawn to Bushwick when I first moved to New York for grad school, initially for the underground music and cultural scene. Bushwick’s nightlife had a counter-cultural atmosphere to it that made it different from other parts of New York City and that drew me to it. It was also a cheap place to drink since it was mostly college students and artists at the time. But the more time I spent there, the more I took in the rhythm of the neighborhood. I noticed how similar Bushwick felt to the Mission District in San Francisco, where my parents had initially immigrated from El Salvador. Like Bushwick, the Mission serves a central for hub for a variety of immigrant groups from across Latin America. And like Bushwick, it has seen a similar cultural stigma become an allure as more and more middle and upper class white residents have moved into the neighborhood. All of this happened around the same time and I was struck by how a similar set of issues have shaped both neighborhoods, which clearly map onto larger trends in urban political economy, cultural dispositions, and spatial migration patterns. So apart from my general interest in issues of race and class inequality as a person of color in the United States, I suppose this approach personalizes it in a way.

What are you currently teaching, and how does it relate to your scholarship?

I am teaching Introduction to Sociology, a Senior Seminar course, and a neighborhood survey course called The Sociology of Oakland. Mills College is located in East Oakland, and while my current research focuses on Brooklyn in New York City, I am starting to think about future projects focused on the Bay Area. The Oakland course has primarily focused on race relations in Oakland since the end of WWII, and this course has been a way to orient me to the scholarship on the city’s history and reconcile it with the broader literature in race and urban studies. Apart from that work, teaching Introduction to Sociology always reminds me to revisit foundational sociology scholars like Marx and Foucault. If not in practice, then in sentiment. Finally, because the Senior Seminar course is about talking students through their independent thesis projects, most of the themes we cover are ones that I am constantly reminding myself of as I am working on my own book project.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Well I am very excited about my forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban History titled “We Are Without God Now,” which will be published this month (June). The article focuses on the factors that led up to the devastating looting and fires in Bushwick during the citywide blackout of 1977. I can’t count how many times I had heard that the poverty that leads to such destruction is the product of a complicated set of unfortunate circumstances and unintended consequences beyond anyone’s control. Such factors often point to a vague set of “objective market forces” or a “natural cycle of cities.” Instead, I show the very deliberate policy decisions and planning values that led to that destruction. In a similar vein, I have been really excited to read Keeanga Yamatta-Taylor’s Race for Profit and thought she did such a wonderful job with it. I really appreciate the way she writes in a kind of narrative approach that makes the work a compelling read, albeit with difficult subject matter. I also really enjoyed reading Brandi Thompson-Summer’s Black In Place for its analytical framework in exploring the profitability of Blackness at the expense of actual Black people in DC. It is a framing that applies to so many gentrifying neighborhoods. I have enjoyed following both of them on Twitter and seeing everything they are up to with regard to speaking engagements and current research. They have inspired me to think more about what life can look like after the book is complete.

What kinds of advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers? 

Know your literature. That is obviously key to help you frame your thinking. But don’t lose yourself in the process. Be bold and don’t reproduce what has already been done. I guess it’s true of any art form. There is always room for innovation.

Listen to Alec Dawson, co-editor of the Member of the Week series, interview Mario Hernandez. Their discussion of the similarities and differences between the art scenes in Bushwick and Oakland launches them into a broader conversation about gentrification in New York City and the Bay Area.

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