In France, The Freecycle Movement Is Going Retail

What if everything were free? Well, it is at Debora Fischkandl's little Paris shop, no strings attached. And hers isn't the only one. A look at the radical side of the sharing economy.

In France, The Freecycle Movement Is Going Retail
Pascale Krémer

PARIS â€" On each shelf, on each piece of tableware, on household appliances and children's toys, a label indicates the price, "0 euro." And yet â€" it never fails â€" new customers always ask the same question, as if they're incapable of processing the notion of free goods. "What about this? How much does it cost?" It’s free, Debora Fischkandl is forced to say all day long.

Her Paris shop opened at the beginning of the summer, on Daumesnil Avenue in the 12th arrondissement. Anybody can come here and take whatever they want. People don't need to show proof that they're unemployed or to give anything in exchange. "Generosity is contagious," Fischkandl says smiling. The creator of this place for giving, which has the support of local and regional administrations, clearly has a unshakeable faith in humanity.

Standing in front of the hanging rack for adult clothes, Béatrice Lanouar hesitates over a blouse, as if it was going to cost a fortune. The fifty-something seems to be playing the part of the typical customer, something she doesn't get to do very often nowadays with her state-sponsored job and her 570-euro monthly wage ($640). "I take what I like. It's a real treat!," she says. "Nobody has ever given me anything. But if I don't wear it, I don't keep it. You shouldn't abuse people's generosity."

As soon as she entered the shop, she rushed to the counter to drop off a bra she'd bought on sale for a few euros. It's too big, so she figured someone else could use it.

The first "Magasin pour rien" (shop for nothing), inspired by a similar initiative in Germany, opened in 2010 in the eastern city of Mulhouse. Paris and Rennes, in Brittany, followed suit. But it's just one of many signs that demonstrate that such initiatives are flourishing.

Pass it on

In a cafe not so long ago, there was a slate hanging on the wall that read, "three suspended coffees." It was a brand new system in France, the waiter explained. You pay double the price of your coffee, thus offering one to the next customer who can't afford it. "Homeless people don't come for that â€" it's beer they want â€" but it's more for students and pensioners struggling at the end of the month," explains Fred Machado, owner of a cafe in Bordeaux. "People don't abuse it. They only take advantage of it from time to time. And my customers love it. They get to do a good deed for just 1.50 euros."

After coffees, other shopkeepers all over France started to "suspend" baguettes, meals and even haircuts. CoffeeFunders, the online platform that lists these suspended items, reports constant development in this area. "And yet, it's difficult for people to accept something that's free," says Madeline Da Silva. "People are a lot more used to bartering."

For a year, she’s been trying to make Les Lilas, the town in the eastern suburbs of Paris where she serves on the town council, the first "suspended town." Seven shops have already agreed to participate, at least for a time.

A thirty-something mother of two, she even organized a cash-free, collaborative wedding. Everybody, from the florist and the DJ to the stylist and photographer, agreed not to take any money, but instead to have the couple work on their PR strategy, proving that, even for champagne, "It is possible to do things for free," she explains.

"We can't ignore the circular economy any longer, the expectations are too high," she says. "Everybody buys second-hand clothes nowadays. It's no longer just for the poor, or for idiots. Those who pay full price are the idiots! The same thing will happen at some point with free stuff."

For the community good

The next step for Les Lilas is a big box for donations in a public park. Picture a sort of giant telephone booth made out of recycled material, with little shelves and pegs inside where people could just drop what's cluttering their apartments. Anybody can take and bring whatever they want. The concept, invented in Berlin's trendy neighborhoods in 2011, has already spread to several French cities such as Nantes, Roubaix, Besançon, Le Havre and Lyon. And it all started with a more modest version just for books.

The snowball effect is even affecting markets, with the emergence of "free zones" or "gratiferias" (free fairs), a garage sale where everything is free. As a worker in an employment center, Nacira El Manouzi, who organized a gratiferia in her southern town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, knows that money is scarce. "But some people also want to give," she says. "They get their payment with a smile or a conversation, and their objects get a second life instead of ending up in the dump." And the planet thanks them for that.

In cities, neighbors share their seeds and plants in seed libraries, compost bins, gardening tools. Others share their couches with travelers or cook giant soups with collective leftovers … until the day when outdoor refrigerators can be used to store any unwanted items. For a generation that grew up with free Wi-Fi everywhere, online movies and Wikipedia, the "free economy" is a self-evident truth.

Still, donation boxes aren't being raided. Similarly, fruits and vegetables that people grow together in cities aren't being stolen. A sort of self-regulation has emerged. For Anne-Sophie Novel, a doctor in economics, the success of these initiatives originate in the crisis, the rise of inequality and the fact that they can be easily replicated. "There's also growing criticism against the sharing economy, which pushes towards commodification and encourages people to sell the slightest morsel of their intimacy," she says.

Social entrepreneur Nathan Stern goes further and explains that although the sharing economy implies compensation (financial or otherwise), it "carries free-of-charge essence inside its DNA." "It's the individual's trademark, the little extra detour that a BlaBlaCar driver will do for a fellow user he's become friends with, or the nice gift you sometimes get when you arrive at a house you exchanged on HomeExchange or rented via Airbnb," he says.

But the rise of the donation mentality also comes from the loss of confidence towards "vertical, government-sponsored charity," explains Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, sociologist and researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). "So it's up to us to help, to regain the upper hand. What's more, the new ways of donating avoid the gift-reciprocity described by Marcel Mauss and Pierre Bourdieu. To give is a form a domination because you get the upper hand over someone by making them indebted to you. But in this case, it's anonymous and dissociated from time, meaning we're freed from this debt."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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