Contested geographies of food, ethnicity, and gentrification

Editor’s Note:

Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable, The Kresge Foundation, and Barr Foundation.

Cities@Tufts Lectures explores the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice.

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Below is the audio, video, and full transcript from a presentation on September 22, 2021, “Contested Geographies of Food, Ethnicity, and Gentrification” with Pascale Joassart-Marcelli.

By painting a new image of ethnic neighborhoods through their food, the media contributes to changing geographic imaginaries and attracts newcomers to ethnic businesses and neighborhoods alike. Is this onslaught of attention helping ethnic foodscapes and communities, or contributing to their exploitation?

While gentrification often happens through food, the phenomenon can ultimately be viewed as a housing and economic issue. Without the ownership and policy support needed to fight gentrification, ethnic communicates are often left with few options. So, the questions remain: How best do we identify the ills contributing to this exploitation and what exactly can we do to fight it?

Read more in Pascale’s new book The $16 Taco.  

Listen to “Contested Geographies of Food, Ethnicity, and Gentrification” on the Cities@Tufts Podcast (or on the app of your choice):

Watch the video:

“Contested Geographies of Food, Ethnicity, and Gentrification” Transcript

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:00:06] Gentrification happens through food and through all kinds of things that promote it, but, ultimately, it’s also about housing, right? And it’s about the ability to stay in a neighborhood. And it’s not just housing, it’s also businesses. And unless we have housing policies, unless we have support for local businesses and so on, it’s going to be very difficult to fight gentrification. We really need serious policies to fight it.

Tom Llewellyn: [00:00:33] Could Rio’s favelas offer a sustainable housing model for cities around the world? What are the impacts of over-policing Black mobility in the U.S.? Are $16 tacos leading to gentrification and the emotional, cultural, economic and physical displacement it produces? These are just a few of the questions we’ll be exploring on this season of Cities@Tufts Lectures, a weekly free event series and podcast where we explore the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice. I’m your host, Tom Llewellyn. In addition to this audio, you can watch the video and read the full transcript of this lecture and discussion on shareable.net. And while you’re there, get caught up on all of our past lectures. And now here’s Professor Julian Agyeman, who will welcome you to the Cities@Tufts Fall colloquium and introduced today’s lecturer.

Julian Agyeman: [00:01:30] Welcome to the Cities@Tufts colloquium. Along with our partners, Shareable and the Kresge Foundation. I’m Julian Agyeman, together with my research assistants Perri Sheinbaum and Caitlin McLennan, we organize cities at Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative, which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability issues. We’d like to acknowledge that Tufts University’s Medford campus is located on colonized Wampanoag and Massachusetts traditional territory.

[00:02:01] Today, we’re delighted to welcome Dr. Pascale Joassart-Marcelli. Pascale is a professor of geography and director of the Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University. And I have to say I was in San Diego recently and I had a fantastic afternoon with Fernando Bosco, a colleague of Pascal’s being given a tour around some of the places that she’s going to talk about in her talk today. Her research in focus is on urban poverty and social justice. With a particular interest in the urban geographies of food.

[00:02:32] Pascal’s work emphasizes the role of food in sustaining immigrant communities, providing economic opportunities and revitalizing low income neighborhoods. Also draws attention to the relationship between food and gentrification, which I think is a fascinating nexus. Pascal’s talk today is on the contested geographies of food, ethnicity and gentrification. Some of you will notice that I am taking the opportunity to advertise my book, which is also about immigrants and food, so please excuse the crass marketing. Pascale, a zoom-tastic welcome to Cities@Tufts colloquium as usual, microphones off and send questions through the chat function. Pascale. 

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:03:15] Thank you Julian, for the introduction and for inviting me to speak today. Today, I’m going to be talking about research that I’ve been conducting for the last 10 years or so, looking at the relationship between food, ethnicity and place, and I’ll be focusing specifically on gentrification. And as a geographer, I’ve been puzzled by the fact that affluent, primarily white, presumably culturally enlightened people increasingly venturing in unlikely places in search of unique and authentic food, which is often described as ethnic food. And I’m talking about people going out to eat in low income immigrant neighborhoods that have historically been neglected and stigmatized as poor and dangerous.

[00:04:01] It seems that in the current multicultural contexts of contemporary cities, ethnic food has become particularly appealing to foodies who use it to distinguish themselves by the adventurous, cosmopolitan and omnivorous tastes, and to urban policymakers who also rely on ethnic food to brand and market neighborhoods as vibrant and exciting place. And this realization came to me on a flight back from an academic conference where I had just presented work on Barrio Logan — an immigrant, low-income community in San Diego, and I was flipping through the airline magazine — and you can see the picture here on the screen — there was this article in United Airlines magazine encouraging people to go visit this hip and trendy neighborhood. And I just couldn’t believe it. What was going on?

[00:04:51] So this type of phenomenon is raising some interesting questions about the relationship between food and place, and more specifically, the effect of newfound interest in ethnic food on places, communities and the people associated with it. Does the popularity of ethnic food and “authentic” food signal the emergence of a more inclusive city? Does it benefit immigrants and people of color who presumably know how to prepare these dishes? Dishes like tacos, Ramon, Banh, Mi, pupusas, etc. Or does it benefit outsiders? How does the influx of whites and more affluent residents or consumers, rather, in search of ethnic food — does it change immigrant neighborhood? And in brief, does it promote gentrification? These are questions that I explore in two recent books, Food and Place, a volume that I edited with my colleague, Fernando Bosco, who I would be remiss not to mention today, since he’s been involved in a lot of the research that I’ve also done. And my new book that’s just coming out next week, I believe, The $16 Taco, and it’s based on my research in San Diego, which is what I’m really excited to present today.

[00:06:07] So I believe that the notion of food-scape is useful to think about the relationship between food and place and including food, ethnicity and gentrification. So in my book “The $16 Taco,” I document the food-scapes of immigrant neighborhoods like Barrio Logan. I explain how they’ve been transitioning from to cosmopolitan, and describe the consequences of this transformation for the people who live there. The ethnic food-scape describes a neighborhood whose food environment is shaped by its history as an ethnic enclave and has evolved to meet the need of immigrants and people of color who live there and who are viewed as “ethnic,” which typically means non-white or racialized other. And cosmopolitan in contrast describes a more eclectic environment that is designed and curated to attract foodies and outside consumers.

[00:07:08] So let’s talk a little bit more about this notion of food-scape. It consists of the physical, but also the symbolic, cultural, lived, imagined, food environments. So it includes the built environment, restaurants, shops, gardens, markets, etc., but also the bodies and the objects within these environments. The cooks, the chefs, the street carts, the cookware, the recipes, the dishes, as well as the ideologies, the feelings, the imaginaries that are associated with these places. So, things like taste, smells, but also notions of authenticity, tradition, domesticity, etc. are all part of the food-scape. So food-escapes are always in flux. They are produced by the interaction of people and places, and our relationship to food and the meanings of food are embedded within food-scapes. So, what’s interesting about focusing on food-scape is that it forces us to pay attention to the spatial structuring of everyday food practices and the sort of power relations that are underlying them, including questions of access and belonging in the food-scape.

[00:08:23] In the book, I spend a lot of time explaining how ethnic food-scapes are socially and politically produced. On the one hand, they are produced by the everyday activities of residents, the immigrants who engage in ethnic entrepreneurship, the food workers, many of whom live in these areas, even if they work in other parts of the city, the street vendors, the mothers who might cook traditional food to stay connected to their homeland while at the same time creating new homes in a new place, the residents who shop there and sometimes grow food together in community gardens — the built environment reflects the activities.

[00:09:02] On the other hand, ethnic food shapes are also shaped by forces that unfold at larger scales, including city-wide residential segregation, national labor market dynamics and global migration. Many immigrant neighborhoods are considered food deserts, even though they have a diversity of small, formal and informal food businesses, which is interesting because that’s a reality that is often written off by the notion of desert, which suggests an absence of food. But food deserts do not emerge suddenly or randomly or naturally — they are results of economic and political decisions such as zoning, racial covenants, redlining, etc. that caused certain neighborhoods to be neglected or abandoned by investors, including food retailers.

[00:09:53] So because these decisions are often based on race, I prefer to use the term food apartheid, which emphasizes how food insecurity or food deserts are racially, politically, and spatially produced. So ethnic food-scapes from this tension between these internal and external factors. Residents adapt, contest, resist these systemic forces through the everyday practices using survival strategies, self-reliance strategies to reclaim the food-scape, to meet the most immediate need, which include feeding their families and earning an income.

[00:10:33] So my research focuses on three of the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in San Diego. All are close to downtown and considered inner ring suburbs, and all have a very significant non-white and immigrant population, as you can see on this map. I’d like to give you a little bit of background on these three neighborhoods, but I also don’t want to get too carried away and give you too much information here. But as you can see from the table at the bottom of the slide, which is from the most recent census data, all three neighborhoods have much higher rates of poverty, lower income, higher proportion of non-white residents and immigrants than the county overall. 

[00:11:14] Barrio Logan was established as a Mexican and eventually Mexican-American community in the mid-1800s. During the past century, it has suffered a lot from railroad and freeway constructions that have dissected the neighborhood, expansion of industrial land use that has caused a lot of pollution. It is also known as one of the birthplaces of the Chicano movement because of protests that took place in the area in the 1970s, when the Coronado Bridge was being built and the community protested this construction and took over the space at the bottom of the bridge and painted a lot of murals that are now actually historically recognized. So it’s a very politically engaged community, but it’s also been damaged by decades of environmental injustice.

 [00:12:00] City Height was established in the early 1900 as a primarily white middle class suburb with a strong commercial district and many single-family homes. But the suburban expansion of the 1960s and the opening of several malls and shopping centers led to its rapid decline, and in the 1970ss, it also got cut off by two main freeways that led to the destruction of a lot of homes, and then zoning regulations changed and everything reason for multifamily families. And so it became a low income area. And in the 1970s, it also became a hub for refugee resettlement, starting with Vietnamese refugees. But then over the years, different waves of refugees resettled in the area, starting with Vietnamese but then Cambodians, Sudanese, Somalian, Bhutanese, Iraqi, Syrians, now, more recently, which has turned the area into one of the most diverse in Southern California. 

[00:12:58] And then southeastern San Diego, is another interesting neighborhood because it’s been the heart of the Black community in San Diego. Black families moved in the area beginning in the 1930s, when they could not rent or buy anywhere else in the city because of racist practices. Around World War Two, the neighborhood expanded east, partly because of suburban development and housing to house the growing military, so it became home to many Latinos and Filipino families during that time. But it’s always been a relatively middle to lower income area, and it’s sort of struggled with defining its sense of place. And as San Diego’s primary Black community, it’s also suffered immensely from racist policies.

[00:13:44] So now you get a little bit of a sense of the three areas that I’m going to be talking about. These areas, despite the different histories, are all considered food deserts, according to the USDA definition, which has to do with access to supermarkets. So you can see that on the map that the food desert areas sort of overlap with the three neighborhoods. And this is not an accident. Look at how closely the geographic distribution of food desert follows the pattern of redlining, which is how the Homeowner Lending Corporation designated areas as hazardous or declining in 1936 for San Diego and basically slowing down, if not stopping any sort of lending activity in these areas. And recall how these patterns here also kind of match the distribution of non-white people in the city that I showed a couple of slides ago.

[00:14:40] This designation as hazardous along with racial covenants, zoning of land use, public investments or lack thereof, racially biased media reports, neighborhood stigmatization have all contributed to a lack of investment in these communities, and this is why we can use the term food apartheid. Because these policies and these ideologies have limited access to food for residents in these areas that are mostly people of color. While people in suburban areas have historically benefited from all sorts of advantages, including transportation infrastructure, subsidized mortgages, new schools, commercial development like grocery stores, environmental protection, etc.

[00:15:24] Over time, the retail food-scape has evolved. It’s interesting to look at how food apartheid is a historical process that happens over time. So in 1925, all three neighborhoods, especially Barrio Logan and City Hyde, had a rich retail sector with many grocery stores above which owners lived. So most of it was centralized in downtown and in these inner ring suburbs. In the 1960s, however, suburbanization and white flight led to many small shops closing and being replaced by the first suburban supermarkets. And while South Eastern gained a few shops because of suburbanization, more urbanized areas lost them. So, we start seeing a shift in the retail density away from the core into suburban areas.

[00:16:11] And today, after decades of neglect, all three neighborhoods have very low retail density. For almost a decade, there were no supermarkets in either of the three communities, so the few dots that you see are mostly grocery store. Both City Heights and Barrio Logan just got a new supermarkets as a result of large tax breaks. So what these decades of neglect and divestment have produced is a landscape that’s ready to be gentrified because it is viewed as needing outside intervention and the real estate has been so devalued that it is relatively cheaper than elsewhere in the city. Under these condition, residents of Barrio Logan, City Heights, Southeastern San Diego and many similar neighborhoods around the country have had to devise strategies to feed themselves and their families. So in all three neighborhoods, ethnic entrepreneurship plays a critical role in providing business owners with jobs and incomes and residents with a source of culturally appropriate food.

I have a whole chapter in the book that deals with work in the food economy and some of the challenges that food workers face in general, including the fact that ironically, they work in the most insecure industry — food insecure industry. Ethnic entrepreneurship rarely exemplifies the American dream. Many survive by relying on unpaid labor of family members, friends, by engaging in self-exploitation, by blending personal and business finance, borrowing on credit cards or from friends, sometimes at high interest rates. In fact, many ethnic businesses are informal, hiring people under the table, operating without proper permits. Some residents have also engaged in alternative and community-based food activities, including community gardens, which are quite popular in all three areas. Yet these things that serve residents are also the very things that are beginning to attract foodies and gentrifiers because they are viewed as democratic, exotic and, perhaps more importantly, authentic.

[00:18:17] So how do we go from an ethnic food-scape to a cosmopolitan food-scape? The cosmopolitan food-scape is produced. There seems to be a newfound interest in neighborhoods like City Heights, Barrio Logan, Southeastern San Diego, as well as similar immigrant neighborhoods and historically neglected communities of color in many cities across the United States, that includes in the Boston area, for example, I’m sure you’re familiar with Jamaica Plains and East Somerville, Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the Mission District in San Francisco, Williamsburg and Brooklyn, Pilsen in Chicago, East Austin, etc. There’s a long list, and all of these neighborhoods are characterized by a thriving food scene, which is probably becoming more cosmopolitan than ethnic.

[00:19:03] But people don’t just go there because of changing individual tastes. They pull to these neighborhoods by what I call the urban food machine. So this idea is inspired by Harvey Molotch notion of ‘urban gross machine,” which emphasizes how powerful stakeholders with shared interest in urban growth shape cities. And similarly, I argue that developers, planners, real estate agents, the media, architects, the tourism industry, restaurateurs, public agencies and even nonprofits and grassroots organizations work together to create and commodify attractive food-scapes. In a way they form a loose coalition, even though they have slightly different interests, but they use and promote food as a path to urban revitalization and development. This is what I call gastro-development, using food projects to promote urban revitalization and development. So this model also aligns with neoliberal urban governance to the extent that it’s based on entrepreneurship, and it views the role of the government as encouraging projects such as restaurant districts, food holes, farmers markets and even urban agriculture, rather than investing directly in infrastructure, housing, jobs, social safety nets, etc.

[00:20:25] The Cosmopolitan food-scape is produced materially through the creation of new spaces, which I’ll describe in a moment, but as importantly, it’s also produced, discursive as new narratives about these places emerge, including perceptions of them as best for foodies destination. By painting a new image of ethnic neighborhoods through their food, the media contribute to changing geographic imaginaries and attracting newcomers. So that includes lifestyle and food magazines that rate restaurants and draw attention to authentic food and best places for foodies. Tourism authorities that provide tips on where to go to discover the best food and the most vibrant — that’s a very common term — food-scape. Real estate brochures and magazine that describe these communities as the next best place to live, local media that love stories about up and coming neighborhoods, even though until then they really contributed to the negative image by only reporting on crime and poverty. Professional restaurant reviews and platforms like Eater, The Infatuation, Zagat, Time Out, etc. also influence consumer perspectives and change opinion about neighborhoods, even though they continue to emphasize more traditional dining and areas like downtown and the beach community, they occasionally venture in new territory as well.

[00:21:53] So these descriptions, however, often clash with the notion of food desert and with the everyday experiences of immigrants and people of color and low income people who have lived in these neighborhoods long before they became popular. And the way they’ve had to struggle with food insecurity, limited food access and low wage work in the cultural food economy. In fact, these residents are often absent and erased from most of these narratives, whether as consumers or as producers.

[00:22:25] Social media also plays a key role in sharing information about the newly discovered, exciting and authentic places. In fact, they act like a sort of megaphone for young, white, college educated, relatively mobile and affluent people that sort of represents the gentrifiers. In my book, I dedicate a whole chapter to narratives of cosmopolitan food-scapes based on spending a lot of time looking at Yelp reviews and showing them many biases they contain. So, one of the most common theme that emerges from reviews of restaurants in these three study neighborhoods is the idea of hole in the wall hidden gem that must be discovered as if these areas are lacking in exciting food. Reviews also use negative terms like dumb, sketchy, unsafe, the outside might make you hesitate — but they often tell readers, ignore your fears and give this restaurant a chance because it’s all worth it. In fact, it seems like the scariness in some way is part of the appeal — it allows consumers to distinguish themselves by the adventurous, democratic, open-minded and enlightened taste, suggesting that taste is actually socially constructed. A lot of reviewers signal the superior knowledge by hinting at previous experience or travels, or using fancy terms that make them look like professional review.

[00:23:50] Another key term in this review is a word that pops up all the time is the notion of authenticity, but authenticity very often implies an outsider’s perspective on what is original. Such a perspective is often based on aesthetics and superficial things like decor, music service, the use of particular ingredients that match people’s imagined notions of what Mexican, Vietnamese or Ethiopian food supposedly taste like in the homeland. And in that context, new and renovated places that hit on the right symbols and adopt the right aesthetic can sometimes be perceived as more authentic than the old ethnic restaurant that seem to lack character and personality to some reviewers.

[00:24:38] So here’s a map that shows the location of highly rated ethnic restaurants on Yelp. It shows a relatively high concentration in City Heights, which is home to several of the top 50 ethnic restaurants, and it’s also the most ethnically diverse neighborhood of the three that I’m studying. And it seems like these are the kind of communities where people expect these restaurants to succeed. They are also ethnic restaurants in other parts of San Diego, of course. This map is quite different, it shows the location of “best” restaurants, according to professional guides like Zagat, Time Out, The Eater, etc. And the vast majority are still concentrated downtown and in coastal cities like La Hoya, Pacific Beach, Point Loma. But interestingly, Barrio Logan is beginning to get some attention and the very western tip of southeastern San Diego. But very few places are noted in City Heights and almost none in Southeastern. And in fact, Barrio Logan is the most gentrified area of the three. 

[00:25:46] Along these discursive changes and how people perceive and describe City Heights, Barrio Logan and southeastern San Diego, they’ve been material changes in their food-scape, and some have been created by residents who’ve invested in the area and sought to beautify their communities and make a living there. But many have also been undertaken by private investors from outside of the community. A lot of public private partnerships and non-profits as well, whose activities often reflect the visions of white investors, philanthropists and volunteer. These before and after pictures show the impact of a storefront initiative meant to help local businesses in City Heights. And so African-Caribbean markets received a storefront lift with the help of sixty five volunteers who painted the exterior and interior of the store, built benches hung new green trees over just one weekend — and the aesthetic of the store have changed dramatically as a result of that.

[00:26:50] Another example is the international marketplace known as FAIR @ 44. It was spearheaded by the City Heights Community Development Corp., CDC, on a vacant lots where food vendors and food trucks now gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell things like, pupusas, lechon, which is roasted pig, single source, cold brewed coffee, cupcakes, tamarind raspado — that’s crushed ice — and other delicacies to serve a diverse crowd that’s increasing White, so that’s based oo residents but this mostly curious visitors inhabiting those spaces.

[00:27:31] The neighborhood associations, including businesses, improvement districts or bids that rely on Special Property Tax Assessment and then community development corporations that receive public funding have been relying heavily on food, and sometimes art and music, to draw attention to these neighborhoods, emphasizing the cosmopolitan character and the “rich and vibrant culture” that ought to be discovered. What is interesting about these events and these spaces is that they seem to celebrate the heritage of the community without really including the people they claim to celebrate most of the time. In fact, the absence or erasure of people of color is noticeable in the struggles of informal street vendors. At the same time as food trucks, gatherings and street fairs are being promoted, street vendors are also being criminalized via intensification of permit enforcement. One could say that the aesthetic of street vending is being appropriated by these new projectgs by established and more successful businesses that serve a primarily white clientele.

[00:28:43] So this brings me back to my original question about the effect of cosmopolitanization of the food-scape on long-time residents. The urban geographer Alvin Wiley in 2015 described gentrification as the upper-class transformation of urban space, which results in more powerful groups coming to dominate any urban places of encounter. I like this description because it allows for multiple forms of displacement and emphasizes the city as a place of encounter, a place that is negotiated by its many users as to interact with each other.

[00:29:22] More than 30 years ago, Marcuse argued that there are multiple forms of gentrification induced displacement. He emphasized direct displacement, when people are physically pushed out through neighborhoods cleansing and housing eviction. This exclusionary displacement, when people decide to move out or stop trying to move in because of rising rents and housing costs and a limited supply of affordable housing. This also indirect pressures linked to the destruction of spaces of social reproduction and the erosion of everyday life. To this, we could also add symbolic displacement that results from the appropriation of space and the erasure or devaluation of undesirable histories, people, and culture in favor of new narratives.

[00:30:12] What I’ve observed in my research is that although direct displacement is rare, all other forms of displacement are occurring. And some businesses are able to capitalize on the popularity of ethnic food and the arrival of higher income visitors and residents in the neighborhood, especially if they benefit from an influx of outside capital and expertise. But the majority of long-term residents are struggling in this new food-scape.

[00:30:41] This map shows recent gentrification in San Diego, and while the early stages of gentrification focused on downtown and little Italy, these areas are now considered ineligible to gentrify because they already have high income and high housing costs. Since then, it’s spread east towards the three areas that I’ve been discussing. In these, many census tracks are still considered eligible to gentrify and probably will gentrify in the coming years, but there’s also a lot of tracks that have gentrified recently. And the most recently gentrified areas are those where ethnic restaurants, including newer establishments and food places, where some more cosmopolitan aesthetic are now attracting foodies and affluent consumers who may not necessarily move there. But they’re making a claim to urban space, and they’re drawing attention to it.

[00:31:38] We cannot understand displacement without paying attention to racial dynamics, including the notion of whiteness. Whiteness is not the absence of Black and Brown bodies in a space, but the sense that spaces have been created for the enjoyment of white people who are seen as the norm — your average consumers. And indeed many of the new food spaces that have been created in Barrio Logan and City Height, recently and to a lesser extent, in Southeastern San Diego, appeal to white folks. Immigrant and longtime residents whom I interviewed tell me that they don’t feel welcome. They cannot afford anything, and they don’t even recognize most of the food that is being described as authentic.

[00:32:28] Many also complain of appropriation and seem to long for the old neighborhood, even if it had a lot of problems and it was not perfect. In many ways, food gentrification is reproducing food apartheid in more insidious ways. It may no longer be a food desert, but under the disguise of diversity, cosmopolitanism and even food justice, low income people and people of color are once again getting the short end of the stick by being excluded from improvements to the neighborhood food-scape that end up a lot of time dismantling the spaces and practices on which they have relied for survival.

[00:33:09] So, how do we address this? I’ve thought a lot about this, and unfortunately, I cannot claim to have the answer to this question. But I think it lies in combining solid housing and economic policies with food sovereignty, resisting gentrification and making sure people have access to affordable housing so that they have the right to stay put in the neighborhood, making sure that work in the food economy generates decent pay, including protection for street vendors, support for ethnic entrepreneurs, a living wage for restaurant and food store employees, is important as well. Upholding food sovereignty, promoting food sovereignty which emphasizes the need for people to control the food system, including what and how food is produced and for whom is also critical.

[00:34:04] So ultimately, this has to do with power and ownership. People have to be supported in their efforts to improve the neighborhood and should be given opportunity to own the equity they have built through their hard work. I am hopeful that arrangements like community trusts will become more common and ensure that the benefits of revitalization stay within the community. Initiatives to transfer land to communities as form of reparation for the wrongs done to people of color in the name of renewal are also promising and beginning to appear in a few cities. But if all we do is encourage private investors through branding initiatives, we might end up with a very exciting food escape for some, but we will not be addressing the root causes of urban poverty and inequality and will not be able to stop displacement and gentrification. So I’ll end with this. Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.

Post-Talk Discussion

Julian Agyeman: [00:35:09] Well, thank you, Pascale for a fascinating talk. Ok, we have some great questions. I love these concepts: gastro-development, urban food machine…and on the gastro-development, Jessica Brennan, one of the UEP students, an alumna, said: thank you for naming this concept. Would you be able to give examples of what public food system planners who want to promote equitable and healthful community food systems can do to avoid gastro-development, which drives the urban growth machine?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:35:42] Mm hmm. Well, I think what I discussed at the end with food sovereignty is really the way that we can try to prevent that, and a lot of this has to do with ownership. For example, I’m working with a group in southeastern San Diego that’s trying to create what they call the Good Food District. And what has happened is that emerge out of an eviction from the community garden, where they eventually pulled resources together to buy the land from the city and make it their own. And now the land is about to be owned in a community trust, and they will be able to create this good food district, which might attract people from the outside – and one would hope that it does to some extent to generate revenue — but the important aspect of it is that the revenue that it generates will stay mostly within the community because the community owns the space.

[00:36:40] And so it’s not that improvement in the food environment are bad things, they are very important and valuable, but it’s about who owns the benefits and who has a say in how this unfolds. Because if the spaces that are created are so expensive and so cosmopolitan and fancy that people don’t recognize the food, they will not even use this space. They will not go there, they will not shop there, and they won’t feel like they belong. They won’t feel like it’s their space. So they need to be involved in the production of it, and they need to have a share in the profit or the revenue to benefit from it.

Julian Agyeman: [00:37:17] All right. Thanks, Pascal. And another question from Jessica: in your data what metrics do you use to distinguish gentrified from eligible for gentrification?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:37:28] Ok, so the way we looked at that — eligible for gentrification, we looked at neighborhoods that were in the bottom tier in terms of housing costs, rents, and there was another variable that we looked at. But so the neighborhoods that have low housing costs. And then when the change in the housing cost, when the change in the college educated population and the change in the white population was all on the positive, then we define those as gentrified. And then the other neighborhoods were in the upper tiers of income and property values, so they were already considered too affluent to gentrify. So, these are the kind of four categories that we have. And among the more affluent, we distinguish between middle class, middle income and then the upper income.

Julian Agyeman: [00:38:14] Great, thanks. A question from Johnny Shively: how are food entrepreneurs and residents of these neighborhoods responding to this cycle of food apartheid, gentrification and displacement? Are their community led visions and demands for how to transform this system?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:38:31] So, it’s interesting that there are different responses in different communities. And there is some areas where, for example, in City Heights, there’s a large philanthropic sector. And a lot of this philanthropy has to do with refugee resettlement, and they’ve promoted this entrepreneurship model. So they’ve tried to support entrepreneurs. But entrepreneurs are kind of on a treadmill trying to catch up because they’re not getting as much funding. So they’re being told like, you should be an entrepreneur. That’s the American dream. That’s the way you’re going to succeed. But they struggling. 

[00:39:04] In places like Barrio Logan. There’s actually a lot more anti-gentrification and progressive politics that are trying to fight that, and they’ve been pretty harsh and strong community responses to investors in the community. There’s a woman who a couple of years ago wanted to create a smoothie place, and she created a very offensive video to try to fundraise. The residents were livid. It was perceived as very actually racist, and they kind of rallied against that, and they prevented that space from being opened. Because Barrio Logan has a lot of vendors who sell fruit cups and fruit juices and all kinds of things that are more in kind of the Mexican tradition. But it’s not like Barrio Logan doesn’t have healthy food, and that woman claimed that she would bring healthy food to the neighborhood. So this places where people are really resisting it, and this places like Southeastern, where they’re working together with the residents to try to create something that reflects the desires of local entrepreneurs. They’re trying to support local entrepreneurs. So a lot of it has to do with the kind of social and cultural and political context of these three neighborhoods that are very similar and very close to each other, but in some ways also different.

Julian Agyeman: [00:40:20] Thanks, Pascal. Emily Wood is asking, she’s wondering what the effects of COVID had on restaurants in the areas that were considered eligible to be gentrified? Did affluent white people stay in their own neighborhoods for takeout food, for instance?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:40:35] That’s a very good question, and that’s something that I’m not 100 percent sure yet. I’m actually kind of looking at some of these. But I do believe that many of the restaurants, some of them closed and struggled, but there’s many of the restaurants that sort of reinvented themselves and to takeout places. And because interestingly, ethnic food is also known as the takeout food for many people, those places have done quite well because they’re still very close to other neighborhoods, and so people would go order takeout to be delivered or they would even drive there to pick it up. And that wasn’t too much of the stretch. I think at the beginning, people were concerned, especially because there’s a lot of negative stigma sometimes attached to ethnic food as potentially unsafe and dirty and all that — which you see in the Yelp reviews in general. But over time, people relaxed a little bit, especially in the spring and summer, and these businesses sort of reinvented themselves as takeout places quite successfully.

Julian Agyeman: [00:41:41] A question from Nicole, I feel like I understand other cultures best through enjoying and sharing food. You mentioned policies and high level solutions, but I’m curious how, as a white eater, individual consumer, how can I partake in food without advancing some of these practices of settler colonialism?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:42:00] You know, this is a big challenge because I’m — I never define myself as a foodie, but I’m pretty sure I might be one. And I do engage in this behavior. You know, I go to all these places and I love it. And I think what’s important is to be aware of what are you doing and to ask questions as well. When you go to a business, to a restaurant, talk to people, ask them where they get their food, where the recipe comes from. Try to find out also about how workers are being paid and whether they’re getting living wages in these kinds of thing. 

[00:42:38] There’s a lot of questions that can be asked, and there’s a lot of information that’s also available out there about businesses that really represent the community as opposed to the ones that are maybe a famous restaurant from downtown that decided to open a satellite taco place in the middle of Barrio Logan because they think that they can attract tourists there. And you can learn about these things. You can learn the difference between a truly authentic place and a kind of fake, authentic place in some ways and learn to support businesses — I definitely do not mean to say. Don’t patronize these restaurants anymore — that would be a disaster. But go there with a different perspective thinking about some of these issues.

Julian Agyeman: [00:43:17] Related question from the Brown House Watch Party: how can the individual eat responsibly, support food entrepreneurs without driving gentrification? Is this a thing that can be solved through individual action, or not really?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:43:31] I think it’s a little bit we can do, and I just described that in answering the previous question. But I do think that it definitely requires systemic change. And a lot of that is — I mean, gentrification happens through food and through all kinds of things that promote it. But ultimately, it’s also about housing, right? And it’s about the ability to stay in a neighborhood. And it’s not just housing, it’s also businesses. And unless we have housing policies, unless we have support for local businesses and so on, it’s going to be very difficult to fight gentrification. We really need serious policies to fight it and to support housing and better work policy. Yeah, those kinds of policies are really important.

Julian Agyeman: [00:44:16] Great, thanks, Pascale. Question from Valeria: you’ve talked a lot about the negatives of foodies discovering ethnic food-scapes. I think of food as a mode of communication that has the power to expose people to different cultures. I was wondering, has this mixing of people through food in these San Diego neighborhoods had any positive outcomes in the communities?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:44:38] That’s a great question, and it is — because my work has focused so much on the impact on gentrification, I feel like sometimes it’s a little bit of a downer and it’s very negative. And I do agree that food is a means of communication and that people actually learn about other communities and other cultures that way. And City Heights for that is a perfect example. There’s a lot of people in San Diego don’t even know that City Heights exists until they hear about a restaurant. And then they go there and they realize like, Oh my God, this community has such a strong history as a refugee resettlement place, and it’s so interesting and all these people. And so they people learn through food for sure.

[00:45:17] I think what’s important is what we learn and how we learn. Sometimes the problem with food is that sometimes we learn sort of a whitewashed version of history or a commodified package, you know, that’s very celebratory, and we don’t always learn about the struggle and the difficulties. And as I was saying in my talk, a lot of time, the people behind the food and the stories are sort of erased from the narratives that you see, even when you’re sharing food with people. Because a lot of times you’re sharing, but you’re not actually really sharing — you’re eating their food, but you’re not sharing it with them. You’re not sitting down at the table with them, they’re not talking to you about their lives and their struggles. You’re sharing it with your friends. So it’s about how it’s being shared. But for sure, it can definitely play a very positive role as well.

Julian Agyeman: [00:46:08] Thanks, Pascal. Question from Joshua Dickens, it’s a bit of a long one: Has the fragilities of ethnic food scapes been considered — specifically how these deprived communities will survive when and if there is no desire for the exotic or cultural foods? This information seems to highlight how human nature follows the wave or joins bandwagons. I see many parallels between the mass fascination and attraction to these ethnic food escapes and the recent trend to support Black business or buy Black during the initial periods of the pandemic, and that momentum has effectively subsided. Any thoughts on that?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:46:44] Yes, I think I mean, that’s definitely something that’s happening and will be happening. I think “ethnic food,” when you define it very broadly, has been popular for a long time. What’s changing is maybe to focus on more authentic and maybe more unique. People don’t just want the taco, but they also want things that are a little bit more obscure and lesser known. So, yes, I mean, think about — it’s not really considered ethnic — but think about the Irish pub, right? The Irish pub, that sort of commodified experience of what it looks like is disappearing from most U.S. cities because it’s been exaggerated. It’s absolutely not authentic. And I think that the same kind of thing could happen to all kinds of food. It can become mainstream and it can lose its appeal.

[00:47:33] And that’s the thing with gentrification is that it’s constantly evolving and it’s constantly leaving people behind, including artists and things like that. When you look at the early phases of gentrification that had to do with loved living and artists, those things that were popular in the 1990s are no longer considered trendy. Things keep changing. They keep evolving. And that’s the way gentrification works. It always works by eliminating something and replacing it with something else. So, more influx of capital, new things that will excite investors and attract visitors and potentially homebuyers. Yes, it’s an endless cycle.

Julian Agyeman: [00:48:12] The Brown House Watch Party has another question: Have you noticed that this idea of authenticity has restricted ethnic entrepreneurs from working on ideas outside of what is considered their domain?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:48:24] Sure. Yeah, that’s a very good point. In fact, what consumers like myself might be expecting is a very narrowly defined view of what ethnic food might be. And if I go somewhere and it doesn’t match that, that might be a great experience. But it might also be like, Oh, that wasn’t really authentic. And so entrepreneurs are kind of boxed into this notion of ethnic authenticity where they are expected to cook a certain way and they can’t really venture elsewhere. And in fact, when you look at the reviews, the Yelp reviews in a place like City Heights, it’s only ethnic restaurants that are highly reviewed. They never highly rate other restaurants as if you wanted Italian food, for example, or French food or Japanese, which oddly is not considered ethnic anymore, you would go elsewhere. You’d go downtown. You go to La Hoya. You would only go to City Height if you want to say Ethiopian or Vietnamese food. So that constrains these ethnic entrepreneurs to not only cook that type of food, but also to do it in a traditional/authentic way to attract customers. So that’s definitely very constraining.

[00:49:35] And there’s actually been a lot of interesting articles and op-eds written recently about we should just get rid of the term ethnic food. And so I use it because I can’t think of a better term to describe what I’m talking about, but it’s definitely something that needs to be problematized and looked at carefully. What is ethnic — it’s not necessarily a good term to be using. People have been talking about getting rid of ethnic food aisles in grocery stores. That’s another interesting thing, right? Why do we put Mexican, Chinese, whatever food in specific aisles? And if we’re truly living in a cosmopolitan, open minded-society, then all of it would be mixed.

Julian Agyeman: [00:50:14] Thank you, Pascale. So last question from Jenna van Houlton: We’ve seen individuals benefit from mobile food distribution greatly, especially during the global pandemic, have you sensed more urgency around the presence of mobile food distribution opportunities in San Diego when talking about elevating food apartheid?

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:50:32] Yes. Actually, one of the organizations I work with in southeastern San Diego just got a food truck to use as a mobile farmer’s market, and they’re putting stickers on them right now. And in a couple of weeks, we’re going to start — well, they’re going to start — using this truck to sell locally grown produce throughout the area. And so that’s something that’s happening and that’s exciting. But again, there’s always that same tension between these food trucks that are permitted, that are allowed to travel from place to place. Are they serving the needs of residents? And I think in the case that I just provided, they are because it’s run by a local nonprofit and getting the food from local growers and so on. So, it’s really for the community by the community. But they are also plenty of examples of mobile vendors who are not always for the community by the community, and many of them continue to be criminalized if they don’t have permits. So that’s a very interesting tension that exists there.

Julian Agyeman: [00:51:35] Well, we could go on Pascale. This has been a fascinating talk. I’m sure everybody has really had some great insights. And you know, when you’re talking about San Diego and partly thinking about Boston or 20 years ago when I lived in London, and these processes are not just restricted to certain places. These processes are happening. And I really like the way that you’re thinking about this, as you know, as part of a process. And it’s fascinating. So a warm UEP thank you, please to Pascale.

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:52:08] Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Julian Agyeman: [00:52:10] And next week we have Dr. Kofi Boone from North Carolina State University, who will talk about the Commons: Land, Property, Information, and Landscape Agency. Again, thanks Pascale, and we’ll see you next week.

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:52:23] Thank you. Bye-bye.

Tom Llewellyn: [00:52:28] We hope you enjoyed this week’s lecture. Join us live for another event tomorrow or listen to the recording right here on the podcast next week. Cities@Tufts Lectures is produced by Tufts University and Shareable with support from the Kresge Foundation and the Barr Foundation. Lectures are moderated by Professor Julian Agyeman and organized in partnership with research assistants Perry Sheinbaum and Caitlin McLennan. “Light Without Dark” by Cultivate Beats is our theme Song. Robert Raymond is our Audio Editor. Zanetta Jones manages communications and editorial. The series is produced and hosted by me, Tom Llewellyn. Please hit Subscribe, leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts, and share it with others so this knowledge can reach people outside of our collective bubbles. That’s it for this week’s show. Here’s a final thought:

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli: [00:53:15] We cannot understand displacement without paying attention to racial dynamics, including the notion of whiteness. Whiteness is not the absence of Black and Brown bodies in a space, but the sense that spaces have been created for the enjoyment of white people.

The post Contested geographies of food, ethnicity, and gentrification appeared first on Shareable.

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