Honesty Proves To Be The Best Policy For Poland's First Openly Gay Mayor

Robert Bierdron, Poland's first MP and mayor
Robert Bierdron, Poland's first MP and mayor
Maciej Sandecki

SLUPSK — One of the first things journalists wanted to know after the recent mayoral election in Slupsk, a small city in northern Poland, is what the winner planned to do with the Pope John Paul II portrait hanging in his mayor's office. Will he remove it? Does he plan to rid the office of religious symbols?

Obviously irritated, Mayor-Elect Robert Bierdron fired back with some queries of his own. "What are you even asking me about?" Bierdron responded. "Why don't you ask me about my plans for Slupsk?"

Already known throughout the country as the first openly gay member of the Polish parliament, Bierdron is about to become Poland's first and only openly gay mayor. The mayoral race in Slupsk was by far the most hotly debated local election in all of Poland because of that.

Bierdron took the city's first-round election in mid-November. His victory caused a sensation, but was expected to be short-lived. Few thought he could repeat the feat in the second round, held at the end of the month. But when Dec. 1 rolled around, election authorities made it official: Bierdron won. The political left was ecstatic. The right, on the hand, was dismayed, saying the result marked the end of Christian civilization in Poland. 

Bierdron's meeting with outgoing Mayor Maciej Kobylinski was short and decorous. He was then welcomed with a bouquet of flowers by the secretaries, who, by the way, may be the greatest beneficiaries of the power switch at city hall.

Ushering in conciliation

Kobylinski has governed Slupsk for the past 12 years and has a reputation for being sharp-tongued and prone to conflict. His bouts of verbal abuse against staff and local politicians have received prominent coverage in the media. After the death of Pope John Paul II, whose portrait hangs in Kobylinski's office, the mayor pledged publicly never again to offend anybody. But in the years that followed, city council sessions continued to be as eventful as always.

The contrast between Kobylinski and his successor couldn't be more stark. The outgoing mayor is a large and imposing figure while Bierdron has an almost boyish look. He never stops smiling and, unlike Kobylinski, is known among journalists for his conciliatory attitude and impeccable manners.

Bierdron with LGBT militant Anna Grodzka — Photo: Anna Litvin-Semenova

Personal charm may be one of the secrets to the new mayor's success. Bierdron spent the entire two months of the campaign on the city streets talking to residents and distributing leaflets and warm tea. "I love talking to people," he says. "I am a very honest man. I never pretend to be somebody I'm not."

Bierdron says he paid a heavy political price for coming out as gay, but in the long run the same honesty that initially caused him troubles helped him attract voters, he says. He also says that homosexuality wasn't, in fact, an issue he discussed much during the campaign. "People asked about sidewalks, about the water park or the maternity ward in the local hospital," Bierdron says. "Nobody wanted to talk about my sexual orientation, nobody except the journalists."

One 60-year-old woman says, "I voted for a mayor, not a lover." Another Slupsk resident, in her 50s, explains that by voting for Bierdron she opted for somebody new, someone who doesn't belong to the old political establishment. "He brought hope for a change," she says.

Bierdron says he wants to lead by example. "I will move now to the city center and use my bike to go to work," he says. Ecology and a larger civic participation in local politics are the two main pillars of his program. He dreams about turning Slupsk into a renewable energy hub on a national scale, which he has already discussed with the Ministry of Environment.

For all his enthusiasm, Bierdron will have his work cut out for him, especially given how little support he has within Slupsk's city council. "The only thing I'm worried about is that politics will override the citizens' best interests," he says. He hopes his plans for an open dialogue will win over at least some of his critics. "With the kind of energy we have now in Slupsk, we can move mountains."

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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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