MILAN - Amazon was born in a car: Jeff Bezos wrote the first draft of his business plan for the company on a long drive between New York and Seattle.
It was symbolic for the company, which arrived on the scene in 1995, selling books over the Internet. Today, Amazon is the biggest store in the world, virtual or otherwise. Bezos, 48, whose personal fortune is currently estimated at more than $23 billion, is not one to flinch at a challenge, like that of recovering the remains of the Apollo 11 space mission from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean... or of launching a tablet to end the monopoly of the iPad. The first will begin a few months from now; the second is already under way.
The Kindle Fire is the only tablet that has managed to win a sizable share of a market dominated by Apple. In Italy, a revised and improved version will arrive on October 25. "In 2011, two dozen tablets were introduced to the market, but none were successful," Bezos reflects.
Dressed in a white shirt and jeans, he is being interviewed at Amazon's Milan office. "And why is that? Because they were just gadgets."
LA STAMPA: And the Kindle Fire? What is that?
JEFF BEZOS: It is now Amazon's best-selling product. But we rely on services, too. It is not enough for us just to sell one more device with superfast Wi-Fi, a high-quality interface, and a powerful processor. The Kindle Fire is also the door to our online store.
This is a different approach from that of Amazon's competitors.
We don't make any money from the tablet, nor with the eBook reader, like the new Paperwhite, which will be available in November, including in Italy. We can offer this kind of technology at a low price because our profits come from purchases in our store: books, music, film, games, magazines, but also other consumer goods.
So the technical specifications are not a priority for you?
It's not that important for the customers to have the latest model. Someone who buys a book with a five-year-old Kindle still makes money for us. We have a new eBook reader that is better than all the others, but we are not making anyone change to it, while people who sell hardware need constant new purchases.
(At this point, Bezos looks ironically at my iPhone 5, which is recording the interview.) But over time, digital content has become more and more important, and today, the very concept of possession is arguable. What is the use of owning an mp3 file on a computer if you can listen to it streaming live whenever you want?
Here I will make a distinction. For films, it makes more sense to rent or stream, even if downloads are good for when you are offline. But downloading a one-megabyte e-book is not a problem. For music, Amazon has a hybrid solution. Files are saved to the cloud, and when you want them, you can stream them on almost any device, or download them again, naturally without having to pay again.
But in the future, will we be forced to see films on seven-inch tablets?
We have discovered how to make the Kindle Fire work with Microsoft X-boxes, Playstations, and smart TV. All you need is an ordinary cable to attach it to the television set.
What if you own an iPad?
We are working on interoperability. If you buy a book or a song from our store, you can enjoy it on any device. We have specific apps for iPads, iPhones and Androids, but also for Blackberry and computers, either Macs or Windows. This is unique. Think about the iTunes e-book: you can read it only on an iPad. It's a completely different approach from ours. We have a much broader ecosystem.
This may not always be enough to guarantee truly low prices. Why on earth do digital books cost so much?
With our Kindle Direct Publishing program, anyone who writes can publish books directly, and usually they are cheaper than books from publishers. I am convinced that in the long run, this model will profoundly change the old publishing system. On the other hand, the publishing houses still have to learn about the eBook business. That will take some time. For us, that means better sales opportunities, because with the tablet and smartphone, both our digital and physical stores are easier to access.
What are the decisions are you most proud of?
I am proud when I choose the more courageous path for Amazon, even if it is more difficult and less profitable, as long as it is the most innovative. For example, until eight years ago, our only expertise was selling things online. So when we got into hardware and services with the Kindle, we had to start from scratch. Like children learning to walk, we stumbled, we made mistakes, but we continued to follow our instincts. It has been an experience that has made us grow.
Facebook cites the hacker culture; Apple places itself at the crossroads between art and technology. What about Amazon?
We have three basic rules. First, an obsession with the customer experience, and with the competition; then, a continual quest for innovation; and finally, patience. We are looking at the long term. We know how to wait for results.
Some see in you a new Steve Jobs. What do you think of that?
First of all, that is a great compliment, which I sincerely appreciate. But that is not how I see myself. At Amazon we have our own approach. We are following our own path.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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