Telling a tale of two cities

Senior Lauren Harpold received a Summer Undergraduate Research Award and was named a Pulitzer Reporting Fellow for her research on land use and gentrification in St. Louis and Amsterdam.

Lauren Harpold

For as long as she’s been at WashU, Lauren Harpold has been thinking about housing. The senior anthropology major grew up in Houston, Texas, and lived through one of the area’s worst natural disasters.

“My interest in housing goes back to the experience of my family being displaced because of flooding from Hurricane Harvey,” Harpold said. “There is a trauma associated with being forcibly displaced, whether that’s by someone at your door evicting you or by a natural disaster.”

Going into her first year at WashU, she knew she wanted to explore urban studies and sociology. In the summer of 2022, Harpold received a Summer Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) from the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), which provided her financial support to pursue faculty-mentored research. With guidance from Professor Bret Gustafson, Harpold began researching vacancies in north St. Louis and the community reclamation of properties that had fallen into the hands of St. Louis City's land bank. She was reminded of this work during her study abroad in Prague the following fall when, on a trip to Berlin, she met a real estate activist named Terra who described similar occurrences of land seizures in Amsterdam. 

“We were talking about two very different cities connected by similar themes,” Harpold said. “At the end of our conversation, she said if I was ever in Amsterdam she would show me around, so I held her to it.” 

View of a canal opposite the Anne Frank House in Jordaan, Amsterdam, a heavily gentrified neighborhood. (Photo by Lauren Harpold)

Fast forward to last summer when Harpold received a second SURA and a prestigious Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellowship that allowed her to travel to and report on gentrification in Amsterdam and St. Louis.

Harpold spent 10 days in Amsterdam talking to social housing residents, professors, and activists to gather a variety of perspectives. She also reconnected with Terra, who showed Harpold how her organization, Verdedig Noord, “takes up space” — a phrase used to describe their mission of preserving community spaces and repurchasing vacant properties for use by the community. Harpold witnessed both racial and economic segregation in Amsterdam —which she compared to conditions in north St. Louis — leading her to conclude that gentrification is a universal challenge that divides communities. She compiled her field notes into a series of blog posts for the Pulitzer Center’s website. 

Harpold would like to thank the Office of Undergraduate Research and especially Program Manager Angela Fink for encouraging her to apply for the Pulitzer Fellowship. “It has meant more than I could've imagined to be a Pulitzer Fellow,” she said. “Everyone at the Pulitzer Center has been so supportive and excited and interested in my writing and research, which goes such a long way for a young writer.”

For her recent summer research, Harpold was mentored by Zachary Manditch-Prottas, lecturer in African and African American studies and American culture studies. “He helped me decide on angles for my research and set realistic goals for the summer. I was able to talk through my ideas with him.” Manditch-Prottas’s guidance was very helpful, Harpold said, and she encouraged other students to take advantage of opportunities to be mentored by a professor. “Go with someone you can trust to care enough and keep you on task,” she said.

Harpold said she isn’t sure what the future will hold for her after graduation, and she’s OK with that uncertainty. “So much of what I’ve done so far is based on who I’ve met and where I am, so I feel like that will lead me to where I need to be,” she said. “Meeting Terra in 2022 sparked the whole idea for this project. That’s why I think it’s important to focus on where I am now.”


Header photo: Downtown St. Louis comes into view from the window of a Midwest Amtrak car as it crosses the Mississippi River, heading west. Photo by Lauren Harpold.