I understood the meaning of the phrase to be relatively benign and mostly used facetiously. Can it be viewed as offensive in contemporary conversation?
In the present day, the phrase could be used in a joking way to express disapproval of a newcomer who sets some precedent for change in the social environment.
I would caution, however, that it originated as an expression of resignation and disapproval of racial minorities moving into previously all-white neighborhoods. Key drivers of housing integration in the U.S. include Shelley v. Kraemer, a 1948 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial covenants were unconstitutional; the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which banned discrimination in housing; and court-mandated school desegregation busing which began in the 1970s.
Many in the white majority considered integration undesirable, either because they believed the newcomers would make bad neighbors, or because they believed that white disinclination to live in integrated neighborhoods would mean a decline in property values, and or both. If one minority household moved in, others would soon follow, and the neighborhood, it was said, would go into terminal decline.
This sense of the phrase is far from forgotten. Even if you intend to refer to some other characteristic of a newcomer, it may be interpreted as singling out his or her race, a phenomenon which is the basis for the entire South Park episode “Here Comes the Neighborhood.”
It can definitely be used both ways. I'm not certain of the origin, but the ngram is steady at zero until the early 1960s.
It seems to have originated during and because of the American Civil Rights Movement and desegregation, so I believe it does have racial connotations.
I agree with everything in choster's answer but the 'originated' bit. There goes the neighbourhood surely comes from the snowclone (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowclone) "There goes X", as in
While there is nothing racist or classist intrinsic in a neighborhood "going" (maybe a flood just washed over it), the connotation of "there goes the neighborhood" is indeed racist and/or classist. Tread with care.
As choster's answer indicates, "There goes the neighborhood" is intimately associated with racial integration of neighborhoods in the United States during the 1960s, and with the demise of formal and informal deed restrictions and neighborhood covenants that prohibited the sale of homes in certain white neighborhoods to nonwhites. When—through individual defiance of the restriction or covenant or by some other means—a neighborhood ceased to be white only, the result was often white flight and a significant fall in the value of houses in the neighborhood. Hence, "There goes the neighborhood."
But "There goes the neighborhood" is in one way an extraordinary catch-phrase: Although it undoubtedly originated as a genuine expression of concern (or regret or horror) by a homeowner that a newcomer to the speaker's neighborhood was likely to lower the value of houses there, it quickly became an ironic punchline—so quickly, in fact, that the first four confirmable occurrences of the phrase in a Google Books search—all from 1967—are clearly satirical.
From AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education, Memo from COPE (1967) [snippet]:
From syndicated columnist Art Buchwald, Son of the Great Society (1967) [combined snippets]:
From a review of "Funny, You Don't Look It or (How Can You Say The Whole World Isn't Jewish When Even The Sun's Name Is Sol?)" (released in 1966), in American Record Guide, volume 33, issue 2 (1967) [combined snippets]:
From a review of Pete Seeger, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs [released August 1, 1967], in Hi Fi/Stereo Review, volume 19 (1967) [combined snippets]:
All four unique Google Books matches for "There goes the neighborhood" from 1968 are joke punchlines, too. More-recent usage of the catch-phrase seems divisible into three categories: humorous use in a joke setting, as in the 1967–1968 examples; sarcastic use as a view attributed to someone else; and catch-phrase-recognition-based use in display type (chapter titles, section subheads, and the like), where the point is the familiarity of the phrase, which may be only tangentially relevant to what's going on in the text. An instance of the first kind is Andrew Greeley, The Bishop Goes to the University: A Bishop Ryan Novel (2010):
An example of the second type occurs in Evan Hughes, Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life (2011):
An example of the third type is this chapter title and subtitle from Anna Soffee, Nerd Girl Rocks Paradise City: A True Story of Faking It in Hair Metal L.A. (2006):
Given its history, "There goes the neighborhood" has always been freighted with racial overtones. But it has also been freighted, from a very early date, with the weight of ironic and facetious usage. Neither form of baggage is benign, in my opinion. If you plan to use the catch-phrase, be aware that it has a peculiar and complicated past, and that it remains loaded today.
protected by tchrist Feb 26 at 2:50
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