Home The Op-Eds BGG2WL In NYC: The Effects Of Gentrification On Food Availability

BGG2WL In NYC: The Effects Of Gentrification On Food Availability

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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 here http://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.”

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Curlstar August 19, 2011 - 2:53 PM

Ok, I have to comment since you mentioned my city in this article, and “the first organic grocery store east of the river”. 🙂 I reside in SE DC, not too far from Anacostia, and shop at that very store from time to time (they have the fresh peanut butter machine, which is awesome, thanks for the suggestion). While my husband and I were in the market for a house, we decided against Anacostia because at the time the dreaded G-word had not yet settled into the area. Basically, it was still a dangerous area 8 years ago, and we were concerned about our then first child. The Anacostia area now is beginning to make a positive turnaround, which began with the new organic grocery store. As a resident of SE, I can confirm that this particular quadrant as a whole is suffering with food desert syndrome, which is why we have been growing our own veggies and herbs. I have seen gardens in yards around my neighborhood, including a shared garden at a nearby apartment complex. I can certainly appreciate the desire to have your own fresh foods on hand that you don’t have to pay for, but I am confused on the stereotype of the “default poor”. Who wouldn’t want to have fresh herbs and veggies for free? 🙂

LaQueshia Jeffries August 19, 2011 - 4:46 PM

You are so right about the “implication” of money carrying more weight than actual families w/disposal income. Seems as though I need to move into an “implied” neighborhood lbvs

tdixonspeaks August 21, 2011 - 8:30 PM

Erika was in NYC! good times, hope you enjoyed the visit.

What makes gentrification laughable is when people understand a neighborhood NOT having something as a deficit, when for the people who are actually from and have lived there, pre-gentrification, that’s, to quote twitter, #everydayb.

A friend visited once and went to the grocery store, came back and was pretty upset about the lack of hummus in the refrigerated section. She ended by exclaiming “What kind of store doesn’t sell hummus? Anyway, at least you guys have a Starbucks in the area.”

Which is hilarious because growing up, my indicator of gentrification was always “a Starbucks, Duane Reade (drugstore) or a New York Sports Club.” Well, back then, I would’ve said even if a neighborhood got a new bank, that meant something (there are some interesting studies on the presence of bank branches in low-income areas). My part of Harlem has all four-on the same street, in the same building (some new-ish condos/apartments), and across from a Popeyes/Baskin Robbins and Jimbo’s (greasy spoon diner type local chain).

So I’m not sure if my neighborhood is gentrified (i always joke, when ppl ask where I live, that I live in the “ungentrified part”) and I’m not sure if i’m part of the “gentrification.” I look like my neighbors, but I doubt they see me as one of the neighborhood. Always interesting stuff.

Divinely Naptural March 17, 2012 - 4:01 PM

I travel quite a distance from the Bronx as a New Yorker who uses public transportation to find a health food / organic type store. There is ONE such store in my borough, but their prices are way too high, but being privately owned and not up to the chops of Whole Foods, Fairway, and Trader Joes, I really think this is a problem in NYC. Sure there are chains which are starting to catch on to the organic craze, but their selections are very limited as well.

Supermarkets in the “hood” usually have poor quality selections which are second hand from the stores I have previously mentioned, YET they want to charge similar prices. It is worth it for me to struggle into and out of Manhattan to get the items I need. I am harboring some resentment though that a store like Whole Foods or Trader Joes won’t come to the Bronx. People really hate on my borough though for various reasons LOL.

Gentrification is not a good thing for the poor here in the city, and you are right it is more about GREEN than BLACK or WHITE, HOWEVER it is easier to exclude Black and Brown people from gaining opportunities to better themselves, therefore by default excluding them in the gentrification processes in these neighborhoods. Many people are oblivious to what is happening around them, or feel it is too late to do anything about it. The speckle of Professional Black and Brown people who will live in these communities only serve as a claim this is not a “race” issue, but I know better when races of people are denied economic opportunity for various reasons.

Young professionals with $$$ who are looking for digs always get preferential treatment in this city and it is really a shame. These same neighborhoods which have $500,000 condos and $2,000 monthly rentals being built next to the NYCHA low income housing units are a CLEAR SIGN to me that “Urban Planning” have these neighborhoods mapped out as a haven for the upper middle class, as the poor will be pushed out unable to afford living there or kicked out as soon as they are a couple of months behind in rent.

Honestly, the cost/availability of organic produce is not high on the priority list when these other factors are considered, BUT as a budding urban professional myself, I guess I really have no say eh?

Erika Nicole Kendall March 18, 2012 - 11:22 AM

First… isn’t there a Fairway on 125th? Or is that where you’re going?

Second, this sentence is giving me grief:

“Honestly, the cost/availability of organic produce is not high on the priority list when these other factors are considered”

In all absolute seriousness, no one is expecting a single parent with two children and a financially absent co-reproducer to fret over the fact that there’s no organic [or even FRESH] produce in her area. Obviously other things are higher on the priority list. That’s why those of us who can see the value in having these things available – like you, leaving the Bronx to travel through Manhattan for what you need – need to do what we can to make sure that the people who can affect change hear that “Yes, this matters and, as a matter of national health, you need to do something about it.” Once people start highlighting the value of having fresher, more affordable produce in less-than-wealthy environments, then maybe we can help bring about change. “Help your own,” “philanthropy,” “service to your community” and whatnot.

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