The Effects of Gentrification on Food Availability

By Guest Contributor Erika Nicole Kendall, cross-posted from A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss

It’s hard to navigate New York City with someone who lived his whole life there, without them mentioning “gentrification” at least once.

Lucky me, I didn’t get it once. I got it at least once… a day.

While my time in Cleveland as a kid was spent in areas that could’ve seriously benefit from the privilege that the gentry (those who do the gentrifying) brings with it, my home in Indiana? Let’s just say that it’s highly unlikely that it’d ever need more money to come in. Needless to say, my experiences with gentrification are pretty non-existent.

But what is gentrification? It is, in a nutshell, when money (or perceived money, which is more important than the actual money, to me) moves in. I used to assume that it was about race, much like this guy:

“I used to think it was about race — when white people moved into a black neighborhood,” said lawyer Charles Wilson, 35, who lost to Marion Barry in the 2008 Ward 8 D.C. Council race. “Then, I looked up the word. It’s when a middle-class person moves into a poor neighborhood. And I realized: I am a gentrifier. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t like that word. It makes so many people uncomfortable.”

“Actually, I thought it was if you see a white guy in Anacostia, listening to an iPod, jogging or walking a dog!” joked Sariane Leigh, 33, who writes a blog called Anacostia Yogi, putting her hand on her hip and waving a sweet-potato fry for emphasis.

The friends fold into laughter. They agree not to use the G-word, at least for one night.

Gentrification is always a delicate topic, especially in a city where it usually has meant well-to-do whites buying up affordable houses in predominantly black neighborhoods. The trend is reflected in recent census figures that show that the District is no longer a majority-black city and by ever-whiter neighborhoods such as Shaw and H Street Northeast.

But black gentrification is increasingly redefining the G-word and changing the economics of places like Anacostia. [source]

Why am I bringing this up? After leaving Bar Sepia one night, we passed by one of the mister’s old standard bodegas (basically, a convenient store), but he did a double take… and eventually, a full stop.

“Wow, man,” was all I heard. “Gentrification is real.”

The bodega wasn’t simply a “bodega” anymore. It was, apparently, an organic produce store… with respectable prices. Hell, I can’t even get that.

Like race, money comes with its own assumptions. When money moves into a community, the police presence increases. Why? Because no one wants to bring their money into an environment where it’s bound to be stolen, and everyone knows that. When money moves into an area, businesses are quick to follow (specially if the promise of increased security is looming)… businesses providing services and products that the entrepreneurs believe would be profitable there. I mean, that’s basic capitalism. You go where the money can be found.

This has a strange effect on the availability – and quality – of food in an area. If increased presence of money means increased produce… then increased produce – by nature of trying to one-up their competitors – means increased presence of organics, which means increased presence of local produce… which eventually means decreased price. Competitors are constantly trying to one-up each other, and they do that by decreasing the price of the necessities while offering special and unique products at a premium.

This is a strange situation. Gentrification, that which has been cast off as such a dirty word (and has people, like the above, ashamed to no longer be poverty-status poor?), is actually making food cheaper. I mean, damn – never in my life have I seen an organic red pepper go for $0.99.

But is it always just the money, or was originally right? Is it who (rather, what race) is bringing the money? And furthermore, can the race element be overlooked if other “hipster/urban yuppie-ish” businesses are thriving in the area? (Let’s not play coy, here – as much as I love my yoga, seeing three yoga studios on the same block is the epitome of overkill.) A couple of weeks ago, I received the following comment from Dee, a Chicago reader:

I live in Chicago, which is a very segregated city. I do know that there are some great produce markets with good-quality, cheap produce in many of the predominantly Latin@ communities. I know that the food deserts in the city are all in predominantly African American communities — and that at least in Chicago, food access is correlated to race but not income (food deserts in poor, working class, and middle class communities.) (If you are really curious about food deserts in Chicago, there are good study reports herehttp://www.marigallagher.com/projects/ — I am a teacher and therefore I’m particular about language and citing my sources.)

…which takes you to this .pdf file, dated June 2011, that provides this not-so-awesome statistic for Chicago:

About 70% of the total Food Desert Population is African American. The remaining 30% is roughly an equal split of whites and Latinos.

There’s also a map in that .pdf and, if you know anything about Chicago and its “South Side,” well… let’s just say it’s easy to guess where those food deserts lie.

Now, I’m aware I went from New York City to Chicago in a matter of a few paragraphs, but it all – at least to me – ties into this:

It reminds me of the “bike to work” movement. That is also portrayed as white, but in my city more than half of the people on bike are not white. I was once talking to a white activist who was photographing “bike commuters” and had only pictures of white people with the occasional “black professional” I asked her why she didn’t photograph the delivery people, construction workers etc. … ie. the black and Hispanic and Asian people… and she mumbled something about trying to “improve the image of biking” then admitted that she didn’t really see them as part of the “green movement” since they “probably have no choice” –

I was so mad I wanted to quit working on the project she and I were collaborating on.

So, in the same way when people in a poor neighborhood grow food in their yards … it’s just being poor– but when white people do it they are saving the earth or something.

And YES black people on bikes and with gardens DO have an awareness of the environment. Surprisingly so! These values are in our communities and they are good values. My Grandmother was an organic gardener before it was “cool” –My mother believed in composting all waste and recycling whatever could be reused– it was a religious thing. God hates waste. [source]

Again, the focus on “choice,” something that – as we see often here on BGG2WL – not everyone is afforded. There’s also that class/race-defaulting thing going on here, too – if “poor people” (who are, assumedly, of color – and don’t we all assume poor people are people of color?) are just being poor by growing their own food (’cause, y’know, they can’t afford to pay all that money to eat garbage) and “white people” are assigned the noble position of “saving the Earth” by growing their own food… what are poor white people doing when they grow their own food? I mean, they’re poor, yes… but they’re not default poor, which is Black or “Brown.”

And, to me, this also very much ties into the original reason I began writing about food deserts in the first place, and that was a posting on The Root that proclaimed that Blacks have some form of hereditary slave palate that prevents them from even wanting fresh produce and quality meat, should they choose to eat it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a ridiculous theory, but being ridiculous has never stopped a ton of people from believing it, before. It’s only a bigger deal here because that stereotype is affecting whether or not areas that need the healthier produce actually get them.

The article I quoted above speaks of Anacostia, a DC area said to be rife with “crime and violence, now offers yoga studios and chai lattes.” On that link you’ll find a map of businesses, libraries and hospitals in the Anacostia area, with one little organic grocery claiming to be “the first organic grocery store east of the river.” I can’t help but compare that to the area of Brooklyn I called home for a week or so, and the multiple organic spots we had access to within walking distance.

So, what do I get from all this? While gentrification plays a huge part in where businesses go, the money will have a hard time overshadowing the race if it is assumed that, simply because of your race, you won’t have an interest in what’s being offered. I don’t really know how to combat that.

While gentrification absolutely has its pitfalls – “Not everyone, of course, could stay. As neighborhoods gentrify, buildings are sold, landlords raise rents, and some people are forced out. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to wait for the dual bugaboos to arrive before you get a decent grocery store or adequate police patrols.” [source] – and its shortcomings, I’m inclined to presume that one of its most peculiar shortcomings is that even the Black members of The Gentry will struggle with overcoming the stereotypes of being “default poor.”

Photo credits: Nostrand Park; BikePortland.org

  • http://www.therealslimjackson.com Slim Jackson

    Very interesting and well-written article. I actually learned something about gentrification. In my mind, it’s always been associated with race. I live in Harlem and I wrote a blog a few months ago about the struggle to find quality foods in my area. It was then that a reader made me aware of food deserts and the issues they pose. Glad to see an article like this on the site!

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  • Anonymous

    This article hints at my main objection with only labeling gentrification as it is often practiced today a class issue. While there may be  folks of color in upwardly mobile lifestyles benefiting from gentryfying neighborhoods, they are not the ones driving the gentrification. Perceptions of white wealth vs black poverty are.

    At the end of the day, since the poor and working class are often pushed out of their housing, gentrification (and the new availability of healthy food that comes with it) doesn’t really benefit them. The locations of the upwardly mobile and working class/poor  just appear to be switching (from suburb to city and vice/versa) while the amenities remain the same for both parties no matter the location.

  • allburningup

    Just to be clear, are you saying that poor white Americans don’t see themselves as poor, but poor Americans of color do?

    • Erika

      The short answer to your question is “no.”

      The long answer? Honestly, considering the way the average American spends – Black or otherwise – I think lots of people think they have much more than they actually do.

      However, considering how whites are the majority in this country, and – by my own raw assumptions – those who ARE poor aren’t inclined to see themselves as such, it’s a bigger problem because it doesn’t change the stereotype of poor only equaling Black.

  • livin

    There’s one thing I’ve thought about that I haven’t really heard being explored. Even if a business person isn’t hampered by misconceptions about what a minority community might want to buy to eat, there is a good chance that they may not feel safe having a business in a low income area, especially if has a higher crime rate.  It could very well be seen as a huge risk.

    I know if I was putting my life savings into a business and had a choice between opening a small grocery store in a middle class neighborhood with a low crime rate and opening one in a lower income neighborhood that has a higher crime rate, I’m going to go for the safer bet.  I don’t think this is just a “white thing” either.   If someone  thinks they’re going to be in danger while taking their deposit to the bank or that shoplifting is going to drain their profits, I suspect that they would explore other areas, whether they are a minority or not.  Most people can’t afford to work for free, even if they really want to help out their own community.

    Of course the reality is that the perception of danger and theft may or may not be true.  It may simply be based on racial stereotypes, not actual income or crime statistics.  (Then again, it could be true. I know that some low income minority areas do constantly struggle with these issues.)  But the sudden insurgence of stores following an increase in income and police presence makes a lot of sense if you think about it in those terms. I’m sure business owners feel much more comfortable investing their hard earned money into a neighborhood that appears to be “on the way up”.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not really sure where the author stands on this because it’s not really addressed . . . but just because the physical geography stays the same, and maybe even some of the businesses stay the same, the people who live in the area don’t stay the same. In other words, the socioeconomic situation may “improve” for whomever is living there, but the people living there are not necessarily the same as the ones who were there before gentrification. So, they aren’t necessarily benefiting at all from gentrification. This is definitely the case in DC, where I live. It was widely publicized  after the census completed that the percentage of Blacks in the district has gone down — this has a lot to do with gentrification and Black communities being pushed out. One question to ask is where are people going and are they taking the problems with them? Are these communities really benefiting from gentrification? Or are other people just reshaping old geographies into newer, higher class (often but not always whiter) images?

  • Anonymous

    I’m not really sure where the author stands on this because it’s not really addressed . . . but just because the physical geography stays the same, and maybe even some of the businesses stay the same, the people who live in the area don’t stay the same. In other words, the socioeconomic situation may “improve” for whomever is living there, but the people living there are not necessarily the same as the ones who were there before gentrification. So, they aren’t necessarily benefiting at all from gentrification. This is definitely the case in DC, where I live. It was widely publicized  after the census completed that the percentage of Blacks in the district has gone down — this has a lot to do with gentrification and Black communities being pushed out. One question to ask is where are people going and are they taking the problems with them? Are these communities really benefiting from gentrification? Or are other people just reshaping old geographies into newer, higher class (often but not always whiter) images?

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  • Sanoe

    “… and don’t we all assume poor people are people of color?”

    This is an interesting question as it both acknowledges poor white people exist and then makes them invisible as they’re not part of the ‘we all.’ Impoverished whites are a hypothetical class but not real people who read her website. Schrödinger’s Whites?

    I’d also add to her analysis that age is also a factor. As a younger person, my efforts to grow my own veggies may be see as eco-friendly or a sign of poverty, but if someone of retirement age or older does it, it’s neither. Gardening is filed under ‘stuff old people do.’ Likewise, when my female peers knit their own gloves, it’s cute or kooky or whatever, but when a woman in her 70s does so, it’s just ‘stuff old women do.’

    “And, to me, this also very much ties into the original reason I began
    writing about food deserts in the first place, and that was a posting on
    The Root that proclaimed that Blacks have some form of hereditary slave
    palate that prevents them from even wanting fresh produce and quality meat, should they choose to eat it.”

    I’ve heard this nonsensical line of reasoning once before and it made no sense to me. Whenever someone tries to explain social phenomenon using evolution or breeding, my red flags go up.

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    There is no real acknowledgment of middle-class or upwardly mobile African Americans in this country. Which means that business doesn’t consider that we might have an interest in the same things that many White middle-class people have an interest in such as organic food. Or if we do then we are outliers and not representative of any larger group.  So a neighborhood of young professional African Americans does not attract organic grocers unless there are a few White hipsters in the mix.

    It seems that we, African Americans, are always fighting these wrong perceptions of who we are and stuff like this is why we have to keep fighting.