Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks, and farmers’ markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas, and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places—think inner-city areas populated by immigrants—they’re often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
Stoking an Appetite for Gentrification
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city’s low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens, and farmers’ markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent, and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled “The $16 Taco,” about how food—including what’s seen as “ethnic,” “authentic,” or “alternative”—often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes, and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase “access to healthy and culturally-appropriate food” and serve as “a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs,” including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors—who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales, and ice cream to residents who can’t easily access supermarkets—now face heightened harassment. They’ve become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn’t just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying like Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, New York’s Queens borough, and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because “ethnic,” “authentic,” and “exotic” foods are seen as cultural assets, they’ve become magnets for development.
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents—people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed “the creative class.” The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It’s uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers’ markets and street fairs don’t require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to “get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building.” Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest, and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
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