Intellectual history

The Politics of Food Trends: On Gentrification, Tastes, and Neighborhoods

By Charlie Kleinfeld

By Charlie Kleinfeld

One of my favorite Twitter accounts to mindlessly browse is @RegionalUSFood: an expansive archive of idiosyncratic US American dishes that locals are often a bit too proud of. An interesting post from that account depicts a dish that is supposedly a Midwestern delicacy—cinnamon rolls and chili together on the same plate. While most of the replies contained either abject horror or horrified intrigue, the one reply that stuck with me the most described the dish simply as “gentrified chicken and waffles.”

Although this tweet is absurd on its face (I see few similarities between the two dishes beyond the combination of a sweet pastry with a savory meal), it points to a particular trend in American gastronomical discourse of linking the foods that we eat with broader processes of gentrification. This linking often leads to confusion over what it is we mean when we refer to things as being “gentrified.” Presumably, the replier in question saw this dish as an attempt to adapt a dish commonly associated with Black southern Americans to the tastes of white northerners (a process referred to as ”whitewashing”), and believed this to be a result of gentrification: a view that appears to be common in public discourses on food and gentrification.

However, while whitewashing is a very real phenomenon, it is not synonymous with gentrification. In this essay, I want to reconceptualize gentrification as a meaning-making process: one that constructs new ways of understanding the spaces in which we live and the products we consume, in addition to changing the literal spaces and products themselves.

At the most basic level, gentrification can be defined in solely financial terms—as a neighborhood moving from low-income to high-income, and the resulting displacement being predominately due to economic factors (such as rents becoming unaffordable). While there is some use in this definition, we can also look at the cultural economy of gentrification, defining it as a process that fundamentally changes the geography of a space, how its inhabitants understand it, and how it is consumed.

The conflicts of gentrification reach far beyond simple material realities of urban displacement. They originate through a deep ideological network of spatial racialization—that is, competing definitions of space (what a space should be for) rooted in pre-existing racial categorizations. While at one point, wealthy residents may have considered the value of a neighborhood through its appearance of luxury, they now appear to desire a form of authenticity that is often defined solely on their terms. Even in the rare cases when local neighborhoods are protected from the worst effects of physical supplantation, their community use and image, alongside the uses and value of the goods traded within them, are often radically altered by the incoming residents.

White suburbanites—those at the forefront of gentrification—tend to desire a neighborhood with an authentic character where these new tastes can be “authentically consumed.” Consequently, they construct for themselves something they might call an authentic identity. The very idea of authenticity, however, is a highly contested concept. It is socially constructed by multiple, often competing, camps. A social preservationist campaign to keep a neighborhood authentic is not an apolitical desire for maintenance but rather a specific platform based on one’s own construction.

Using the work of George Lipsitz, whose writings have become essential when discussing gentrification, the contestation between a white and Black spatial imaginary in the United States is perhaps one of the core ideological aspects of gentrification. For Lipsitz, the white spatial imaginary is defined by an approach to space that centers around so-called exchange value, that which “establishes contract law (…) as supreme authority.” Spaces are good insofar as they can generate value for the owner, and land ownership is final. This spatial imaginary is highly individualized: occupants of a space are treated either as owners or subjects and must pay for only that which they personally use. In contrast, the Black spatial imaginary is defined by the maximization of use value, where the value of a space isn’t defined by how much it can return on the market, but rather by how a community can utilize it. This spatial imaginary considers the needs of the community and defines ownership less strictly. A space is seen to belong to all who occupy and use it rather than by a single individual defined in a contract. In this lens, gentrification can be conceptualized as a violent imposition of the white spatial imaginary onto a space.

Lipsitz’s work on spatial imaginary allows us to look at contemporary food trends in American cities in two distinct ways. The first approach understands food trends as a result of gentrification and sees them as by-products of changing market forces that come about when an influx of new residents brings their supposedly fixed and predetermined tastes into a neighborhood. But we can also view these emerging trends as components of the cultural processes of gentrification itself—a process that shapes the tastes of those at its frontier; tastes which are, crucially, malleable, and socially manufactured. While the former view assumes that those moving into gentrifying neighborhoods whitewash the cuisines of the cultures they encounter, the latter approach suggests we can build an understanding of how the ideological backbone of gentrification as a process leads gentrifiers to crave authenticity in food. In the latter case, the concept of gentrification is antithetical to the whitewashing hypothesis.

This is not to say that gentrifiers warmly embrace multiculturalism through their gastronomical choices and should be celebrated for their tastes. Rather, their desire for authenticity is an important yet often neglected feature of gentrification. The authenticity they seek is a false authenticity that works to exacerbate the conditions which lead to displacement and racial injustice in contemporary American cities. Depicting the tastes of gentrifiers as mere whitewashings helps to obfuscate these conflicts. By analyzing how processes of gentrification have shaped American tastes over the twenty-first century, I want to clarify the terms of this conflict and reconceptualize our understanding of foods being “gentrified.”

In the twentieth century, research on changing consumption habits amongst gentrifiers appeared to portray an image of luxury and decadence. One 1982 paper described the evolution in the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn as “bagels to brioche” (462). This portrayal seems to fit in with Bourdieu’s framework of distinction: the idea that cultural tastes manifest themselves as a strict binary of highbrow and lowbrow. The haute bourgeoisie—and the upwardly mobile upper-middle-class emulating them—had one taste, the working class had another: brioche for one, bagels for the other. Significantly, these tastes mirrored white, European (specifically, in this case, French) consumption habits. Highbrow tastes were not only for the wealthy but also for white people. Conversely, lowbrow tastes were for those excluded from whiteness as a construct, such as those making up new waves of immigration from East Asia or Eastern Europe. Hence the significance of the imagery of bagels: a food brought over by Eastern European Jewish immigrants fleeing from persecution in the Russian Empire.

By the 1990s, an apparent transformation occurred. Richard Peterson and Roger Kern, two sociologists from Vanderbilt University, recognized an increasing trend of what they dub “omnivorousness:” a tendency for those occupying spaces high up on the socioeconomic hierarchy to diversify their tastes, representing a “qualitative shift in the basis for marking elite status—from snobbish exclusion to omnivorous appropriation” (900). This study focused largely on musical tastes, finding that wealthy white people were increasingly likely to listen to genres traditionally associated with the working classes and people of color, such as “bluegrass, gospel, rock, and blues” (901). Later, Warde et al. found that this omnivorousness extended not only to cultural consumption but also to culinary consumption. Wealthier groups began exploring a greater variety of different cuisines, including those traditionally seen as “low-brow” (113).

By deconstructing omnivorousness, we can see how this development can be damaging to minority communities. This growing diversity of tastes is entirely on the terms of the gentrifiers and not the gentrified. Omnivorousness does not represent a wide-ranging equal acceptance of many different cuisines, but rather only those that can use their cuisines to participate in the preferred aesthetic of the gentrifier.

Bethany Bryson asserts that there is social and cultural capital gained through exposure to many different types of genres, particularly those traditionally deemed lowbrow, claiming that “tolerance itself may separate high-status culture from other group cultures” (897). Highbrow culture has shifted to become more cosmopolitan, but this shift is only to distinguish itself from “non-high-status (group-based) culture.” Ironically, this broadening of taste is itself an instrument of exclusion, a way for someone to prove themselves more tolerant than—to distinguish themselves from—the groups whose very taste they are embracing. Instead of a departure from Bourdieu’s theory of distinction, omnivorousness is merely its latest development.

The very consumption of authenticity is marked by the construction of an identity of distinction, which is further evidenced by the transitory nature of authenticity itself. Utilizing Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura, we can argue that this form of contemporary capitalist reproduction emerging from gentrification has complicated our relationship to authenticity. Furthermore, we can also posit that the supremacy of exchange value that the white spatial imaginary advances complicates this relationship further. Sharon Zukin notes how spaces often “fabricate an aura of authenticity” (736) to appeal to white gentrifiers. The participation in the augmentation of exchange-value, and the need to get a return on investment on property, incentivizes business owners to appeal to incoming gentrifiers, representing a deep entrenchment of the white spatial imaginary.

Cities use their apparent authenticity—marked by the presence of so-called “ethnic” retail spaces—as a marketing tool to attract new investors and potential residents, fueling further gentrification. While the aesthetics may have changed, the basic tenets of the white spatial imaginary, like the prioritization of exchange value and the establishment of “contract law and deed restrictions as supreme authorities,” (13) remain ever-present. The existing community is only valuable to the gentrifiers insofar as they portray an aesthetic of authenticity. Furthermore, Boston University Professor Japonica Brown-Saracino, whose work focuses on the sociology of urban culture, warns of the dangers of constructing a new authenticity on the terms of the gentrifiers, highlighting the fact that what is preserved in the path to an authentic experience is often selected based on a variety of factors and biases, writing how:

They [the gentrifiers] are also largely unconscious of the fact that old-timer [Brown-Saracino’s term for the previous residents of a gentrifying neighbourhood] is not a fixed category and that they engage in the constriction of old-timers by emphasising specific groups and certain of their traits (147).

Brown-Saracino’s observation is closely related to the socially constructed nature of authenticity explored earlier. Preservationist gentrifiers wish to create “a form of community that none has experienced because it never existed” (153). This process is readily visible in gastronomy. Cuisines aren’t static categories; they are constantly evolving alongside the rest of society as various sociohistorical processes play out and as cultures interact with each other. Vietnamese cuisine, as we understand it today, is heavily influenced by French cuisine due to their historical colonial entanglements; likewise, many Korean dishes were created out of necessity following a prolonged period of poverty and strife following the war. The idea of a singular, authentic cuisine from a region implies a type of stasis that simply does not exist in the real world, making this desire a futile one to begin with.

As authenticity can only be consumed from the outside, by a white gentrifier, the desire for it takes on a revanchist edge; we can draw from this idea of “taking back” inner cities, allowing certain minority groups to stay, but only for the purpose of white consumption. Those within ethnic communities are unlikely to call an international supermarket authentic; this notion acts merely as a “space of representation” for white gentrifiers to act out their desires, as opposed to an honest space of community building and solidarity. Suburban whites in the United States, having abandoned the cities in the mid-twentieth century, left these apparent resources for the accumulation of cultural capital unconsumed. Therefore, gentrification can represent a re-opening of the frontier, the exact type of imagery conjured by the revanchist city.

While there is nothing inherently wrong in omnivorousness, it is, like many other contemporary cultural practices, clouded and invariably shaped by broader societal structures: capitalism, white supremacy, and the lasting impacts of colonialism to name a few. These structures must be kept in mind when discussing gentrification in contemporary American cities. Gentrification is multifaceted and complicated, and it is certainly not cinnamon rolls and chili.

Charlie Kleinfeld is a graduate student finishing his master’s degree in American Studies at Leipzig University. He is currently writing his thesis on the uses of food in post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. His primary research interests include American labour, urban, and political history; political philosophy (with a particular focus on nationalism and ecology); as well as broader intellectual and cultural histories and critical theory. He can be contacted via email.

Edited by Maria Wiegel

Featured Image: Chinatown, Manhattan, looking towards the World Trade Center, October 1995. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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