SITTWE - If it weren’t for the flattened gaps in the standing rows of houses, Sittwe would seem like any typical Burmese city, with its decadent colonial façades.
But the isolated blocks, leveled to the ground, are the price to pay for the apparent quiet: A brutal urban war begun last June that emptied the city of the Muslim Rohingya people -- if you don’t count the 7,000 confined to a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. Another 100,000 displaced residents live in dusty camps on the outskirts of Sittwe and the rest, in this western part of Burma or Myanmar, in totally indignant conditions.
As for the local Buddhists, most think that even those remaining Rohingya should leave too.
“They are trying to invade our land and take over the population,” says U Phoe Minn, a representative from RNDP, the Nationalist Party, who in the State of Rakhine defends the Buddhists ethnicity.
These are the words repeated by monks, young troublemakers, women and old people alike: They are the original owners of this strip of land and are terrified by the population growth of the “Bengali Muslims,” as they call the 800,000 Rohingya who are a minority nationality and are systematically discriminated against, including when it comes to special licenses to get married and have children.
Building up for years, the hatred peaked last June after the murder and rape of a Buddhist Rakhine girl. Ten Muslims, totally uninvolved, were killed in retaliation. In just a few days, the violence spread to Sittwe. Thousands of houses were torched in clashes with sticks and machetes -- only the intervention of the Burmese army brought calm. But in October the violence reignited, in areas not involved in the June riots. Officially, the total death toll reached 167; according to many, the figure may be at least three times as high.
At first, people talked of the “worst inter-ethnic clashes in 70 years”; over time it was clear that the large majority of victims were Rohingya and that the Rakhine raids were too organized to be spontaneous. The definition of “ethnic cleansing” is increasingly accepted. “In the mob that destroyed my house there were police and monks, too,” recounts Aye Maung, a Muslim boy who now lives with his relatives in the ghetto of Aung Minalar.
With its entrances blocked by soldiers -- officially to protect the residents -- the neighborhood is virtually an open-air prison, just a few hundred meters from the seaside of Sittwe.
The camps of internally displaced Rohingya are getting worse, with rows of tents pitched in the sand and two rations of rice per day. Many children show signs of severe malnutrition, their swollen bellies reminiscent of the famine in Africa. Swarms of flies buzz around the latrines and health care is minimal; NGOs complain of threats by Rakhine extremists. “I have never seen such a level of intolerance,” says an organizer for Doctors Without Borders. The Buddhists have camps too, but they live in better conditions, thanks to the support from local authorities.
Scant attention from Aung Sang Suu Kyi
The lack of a shared history has fed the hatred that continues to smolder in the ashes for the last few months. For centuries, this land was a crossroads of trade and travelers with a small, but influential, Muslim presence. The Rakhine still idealize their ancient kingdom today and painfully remember the invasion of Burma in 1784. The seeds of conflict were spread 40 years later with the arrival of the British, who encouraged the immigration of Bangladeshis from the adjoining region of Chittagong.
Burmese independence gave rise to a new awareness of the Rohingya, contributing to victimization and the syndrome of encirclement that reigns among them. “They keep arriving from Bangladesh and have more and more children, with different wives,” explains a respected monk from Sittwe.
Each community only has space for their own truths, often with beliefs beyond any logic. The fires that burned down thousands of Rohingya homes? They were caused by the same Muslims who have ignited world attention but they tell you it’s the Rakhines. And on the other side, to find a Rohingya who admits to having destroyed the houses is impossible: “It’s the wind that brought the fires to our houses around them,” says Maung Aye, the boy from the ghetto.
This atmosphere is a stain on the image of the “new” Burma -- and its Buddhist majority -- just out of the military dictatorship. Former general and Prime Minister Thein Sein, who months ago proposed a mass deportation of the Rohingya, has re-launched in the role of “defender of the fatherland”. Even Nobel Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi has offered only a few ambiguous words.
One person who has urged the Burmese society to accept the Rohingya is US President Barack Obama, during his recent speech at the University of Yangon -- which did not earn him friends among Burmese.
Still, the international pressure is not holding much weight. Thein Sein, maybe to gain time, has announced that he “wants to consider” the hypothesis of the Rohingya becoming citizens. Paradoxically, it is an idea that some of the local Rakhine find favorable: At least this way the Muslim presence would be statistically diluted nationwide, keeping Buddhists with a clear majority.
Still, for the 100,000 Rohingya constrained “temporarily” in their makeshift camps, a long stay seems like a real prospect. And if the violence breaks out again, there may be no more room on that sand for more tents.
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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