In One Argentine City, Explosive Growth And Oil Don't Mix

Modest working families forced to live next to oil and gas wells fear for their families' safety after a nearby explosion.

Fire in Plottier
Fire in Plottier
Gisele Sousa Dias

PLOTTIER — When the modest working families here were told years ago that they would finally be able to have a house of their own for very little money, they felt fortunate. They didn't care that the area had no asphalt or was between a clandestine rubbish dump and hundreds of gas and oil wells. They were assured that there was no risk of any kind. And they believed it.

But then, what supposedly could not happen in this Argentine city, happened. Now, in this neighborhood of dry land, the residents feel as though they effectively live in a minefield. If one gas well could explode just over a block away from the houses, as it did last week, who's to say others won't too?

Under the city of Plottier, 15 kilometers from the province’s capital Neuquén, there are 140 wells for gas and oil extraction. Some are further away, but at least 50 of them are less than 500 meters from residential areas. One sits just in front of the school across the street.

It was a Pluspetrol gas well that exploded July 29 after a crane collapsed on a pipeline. The incident caused a spark, which was followed by an explosion that made the earth tremble, creating a crushing noise similar to the sounds of airplane turbines. An elite group from the United States came and helped to control the fire and stop the gas leak.

So the question here might be the same one you'd ask yourself at the sight of people living at the base of an active volcano. Why did these families choose to live here if they knew that there were oil and gas wells — and that there would be a growing number of them over time? The short answer: They didn't.

“I signed up for a municipal plan and this place was assigned to me,” says a woman named Liliana, who lives with her husband, children and mother in a tiny makeshift home resembling a wooden box. “Nobody said that they would send us here. I pay 35 pesos ($2.77) a month and will pay them for 30 years, but the land is mine.”

Her home was the closest to the explosion. “That night, I grabbed the kids and left the city shaking,” she says. “It looked as though the glass was going to explode on top of us. Now, I don’t know what to do. It is terrible to feel that you have this under you because you don't know what you're stepping on. They came to tell me that everything is alright, but why would I believe them? I just want these wells to be far away and to be left in peace.”

Uncontrolled growth

Today, Plottier is a planning nightmare. Because there were more and more residents coming to live in the province, city officials had to find places for them. Some were given a municipal plan to have their own land for little money. They built what they could: houses or makeshift ones made of wooden boxes with sheets. Others were awarded federal housing plans. These teachers, oil workers and traders managed to be owners by paying a third of what rent would be in the capital.

But every single person, without exception, was sent here to this area. Both the smaller, makeshift houses and the two-story homes with cable were built next to the wells. The population continued to grow even as the government went on to authorize three companies to create more wells. The one that exploded was brand new as of this year.

“Why did no one complain about what might happen?” asks Norberto Calducci, one of the teachers who has been demanding the closure of the well in front of the school. “Because the oil company painted the school and promised a park and carousel for the kids. Luckily, the explosion did not happen here with the kids. That would have been a tragedy.” He was accused of being an alarmist trying to undermine the growth of a thriving city.

For now, the fire is out. Doubts are all that remain, as long as there is no law that prohibits oil companies from moving toward the houses. This sense of lingering fear is all Andrea Rodriguez feels. On Monday, when she thought her house would collapse on her family, she escaped to the car with her two kids in pajamas. “I had no idea that this could happen, and I planned our life here. Now I wonder if it will happen again, if we should go, if for the sake of having our own house, we came to the wrong place.”

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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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