For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!

Airbnb attracts increasing numbers of tourists to neighbourhoods where the traditional hotel industry is limited or absent. This popularity of ‘real urban’ experiences in ‘off-the-beaten-track’ areas has impact on the rental markets and social structures, but also on how these neighbourhoods get framed. UvA researchers looked at the framing of black-majority neighbourhoods in New York City and found a new form of ‘colonial discourse’.

Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn, New York

Urban geographers Petter Törnberg and Letizia Chiappini studied how white and black hosts market black-majority neighbourhoods in New York City on Airbnb. They found that white entrepreneurs attract guests through a form of ‘colonial discourse’: exoticizing difference, emphasizing foreignness, and presenting communities as experiences for outside groups to consume. White visitors, in turn, describe their touristic visits to these areas as 'brave' and 'adventurous' explorations of 'uncharted territories'.

Consuming ‘the real urban experience’

The city has become a marketplace where you also consume ‘places’ that symbolise certain experiences. Like ‘the real urban’, ‘off-the-beaten-track’ and ‘authentic’ experiences when staying in places like Wedding in Berlin, Hammersmith in London or Brooklyn in New York. Airbnb is an important player in this field of consuming ‘real’ experiences. It allows visitors to feel part of residential neighbourhoods - rather than being banished to areas where hotels are permitted.

Criticism of Airbnb

By casting itself as a platform for informal rental rather than as a company in competition with hotel lodging, Airbnb accommodations are often flouting both taxation and local zoning regulation. This has led to widespread criticism on Airbnb’s impact on cities. Törnberg and Chiappini add a concern about the cultural impact though the way Airbnb frames certain urban areas.

‘Airbnb is not a neutral platform’, explain Törnberg and Chiappini. Local and informal renters who are ‘hosts’ on Airbnb rebrand neighbourhoods in certain ways to make them more attractive to outside groups that are increasingly made up of a transnational middle class. ‘Airbnb has seeped into parts of the city that were previously largely protected from this form of consumption and appropriates previously stigmatized urban arenas’, the authors continue.

Airbnb listings in New York City

New York City is Airbnb’s third largest market, with more than US$650m in host revenue per year, and has a large number of listings outside the most central parts of the city, in particular in Brooklyn. Airbnb in New York has been subject to some controversy, both for functioning as a way to bypass regulation of commercial short-term rental, but also for enabling racial bias. Studies have shown that hosts are prone to reject African American guests, and that black hosts earn 12 percent less than non-black hosts for the same kinds of housing.

Törnberg and Chiappini analysed how black-majority neighbourhoods are marketed by hosts on Airbnb, and how guests communicate about their choices for these places. They analysed data on Airbnb listings in New York City, combined with census data from the 2016 American Community Survey.

How black and white hosts describe black-majority neighbourhoods

White hosts tend to use words such as ‘hipster’, ‘artist’, or ‘writer’, and emphasize cultural consumption, restaurants, and walkability. Black hosts instead tend to emphasize ‘security’, ‘surveillance’, and ‘police’, thereby countering the narrative of dangerous neighbourhood, and focus on more practical consumption, such as supermarkets or access to transportation.

A word cloud representation of the most overrepresented words when comparing white and black hosts’ descriptions of their neighborhoods.

A closer reading of the data reveals a framing of neighbourhoods as places to be explored, filled with ‘authentic’ and ‘exotic’ cultural experiences to be ‘discovered’ by the daring visitor. While white hosts emphasize local neighbourhoods as cultural experiences, black hosts often seem acutely aware that they are not only speaking to a predominately white audience, but that this audience furthermore see them as ‘black’. They also tend to see their neighbourhood from the ‘inside’ rather than through an outside perspective.

How guests describe black-majority neighbourhoods

Through reviews on Airbnb guests have the opportunity to describe their experiences and share them with future potential guests, but also with the specific host and the larger community of Airbnb users. White guests tend to frame their experiences in black-majority neighbourhoods in ways that emphasize their own adventurous spirit, often hinting that the experience requires a bit of sophistication. Furthermore, white guests at white hosts in black-majority neighbourhoods tend to emphasize that their house provided a 'safe space' to explore the area.

‘Glorious conquests no longer over gold and ivory, but over sandwiches at a local bodega’

Törnberg and Chiappini conclude that Airbnb’s marketing of black-majority neighbourhoods can be situated in a longer history of colonialism and racialized expropriation: ‘glorious conquests no longer over gold and ivory, but over sandwiches at a local bodega.’