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Yelp Reviews Colored by Racism, Could Impact Gentrification: Study

Do racial biases reflected in Yelp restaurant reviews impact communities’ economies and ultimately play a role in gentrification?

That’s the contention of a new study of more than 7,000 consumer-contributed Yelp reviews of restaurants in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Greenpoint.

The study, titled “The Omnivore’s Neighborhood? Online Restaurant Reviews, Race, and Gentrification” and published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, found that reviewers tended to celebrate the “cozy, European” vibe of eateries in Greenpoint, an historically Polish enclave, while dismissing the environment in the predominantly black “Bed-Stuy” community as a “gritty” and “dangerous.”

Photo: A smartphone user reads a Yelp review.
A smartphone user searches Yelp for restaurants in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mev McMahon / for NBC News

Authors Sharon Zukin, Scarlett Lindeman and Laurie Hurson focused on reviews that specifically mentioned the restaurants’ locations. This included 720 reviews of “trendy” and “traditional” restaurants in Bed-Stuy and 336 of the same type in Greenpoint.

The authors found that while reviewers cast both neighborhoods as “up and coming” and were generally positive in describing the ethnic restaurants there, they often decried the loss of Greenpoint’s “pleasant, authentic” Polish heritage while extolling the changes occurring in Bed-Stuy.

“We are happy to witness a changing neighborhood,” wrote one reviewer cited TheAtlantic.com, which first reported on the study. Other reviewers used terms like “sketchy,” “hood” and “ghetto” to describe the neighborhood.

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The study authors concluded that these “neo-imperialist” views could lead to “discursive redlining” of predominantly black districts and ultimately reshape the image and economy of each neighborhood.

One Brooklyn resident who commented on the Grub Street food blog said such views are commonplace among diners who venture into the borough.

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"This is the case in general across Brooklyn,” the poster said. “Typically, gentrifiers want to keep the ethnic aesthetic without the ethnic people that created it. We're too 'sketchy' and 'ghetto.'"

But Nick Solares, senior editor at EaterNY, said the biases exhibited in the Yelp reviews demonstrate a short-coming of crowdsourced feedback.

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“I think this information shows the problem with Yelp in a broader sense,” he said. “It’s very reductive, and there’s an imposition of personal bias in Yelp reviews that you just wouldn’t get in a professional review. Technically speaking, a restaurant review should not be critiquing the neighborhood or the architecture of the building. I don’t think we can look at these sensationalist reviews as legitimate sociological reactions.”

Representatives of Yelp did not immediately respond to a phone call and email from NBC News seeking comment on the study.