MOSCOW - There was a goat just outside the Moscow metro station, accompanied by a girl who was selling bottles of milk – the goat was obviously there as a live advertisement.
“Look, she has white eyelids,” passersby would say, looking at the alien animal. “Look at the tail!” they said – and these were all adults; women in heels, men with beer, young guys with skateboards – everyone stopped for the goat. “Come on, that’s enough,” one woman said to a man as she pulled his hand, “we’re going to the country soon, we’ll see plenty of goats and chickens there.”
Vacations in the country – that is what these goat-loving city-dwellers dream about. And there are a lot of them. According to statistics from the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion, last year on 5% of Russians spent their vacations abroad. Most Russians vacationed in the Russian countryside.
“If you don’t go abroad for summer vacations, then were do you go?” I asked in a small survey in the blogosphere. The first response: “The best place for vacations – the countryside! That’s the only place where I feel happy and relaxed.” Similar responses followed from people who spent all summer in the countryside and who visited the house their grandmother lived in.
Photo: Alexander Lyubavin
Our cities are filled with a whole generation of grown-up children of peasants, who long for homes that have long been boarded up. Perhaps that’s why they prefer the countryside to foreign travels.
Closer to God
Those who dream of the countryside are also making websites, some of which claim to be a place for people who live and work in nature to meet. But most of the registered users are people who inherited, bought or are planning to buy a home in the countryside. City-dwellers post questions about when they should plant and announcements for livestock pens for sale.
Others post thoughts about how the sound of birds singing and scents of flowers blooming is like the world opening up its secrets. “The less conveniences we have, the closer we are to God.”â€¨Of course, not everyone thinks that inconvenience is heavenly. But they are willing to come to terms with the realities of country living for the birds, flowering apple trees and the family that lives in the village. Moving to the deep country, or even just spending summer there, is a major accomplishment for many. And they don’t hesitate to encourage others to make the same transition.
Those who dream of the countryside aren’t happy to read quietly – they register for forums, discuss the advantages and drawbacks of different villages and haggle over animal pens. Sometimes people do this for years. That’s because many of them don’t really have any intention of moving anywhere – you have to remember what life is actually like in the Russian countryside: there are no jobs, no stores, and getting to the nearest hospital in the rainy season is essentially impossible.
Feeling trapped in the city
Three years ago Igor Rasteryaev, an actor who lives in St. Petersburg, was out in the country with a friend and had the friend take a video of him singing a song about the countryside. They later uploaded the cell-phone video to YouTube on a lark. It made Rasteryaev into an Internet sensation – it has now been viewed more than 15 million times. The comments on YouTube are filled with stories of people who grew up in the countryside or who spent their summers there and now feel trapped in the city. Rasteryaev has since released a number of follow-up songs that have struck a cord with those who long to spend more time in the country.
Rasteryaev explains that he has something of a “double citizenship,” both urban and rural. Although he grew up in St. Petersburg and lives there now, he spent his childhood summers in a small village with relatives and his grandmother. Now, he says, he tries to spend a couple months there every year. Rasteryaev even says his accent changes depending on where he is and who he is talking with. When asked “Why do you love the countryside?” Rasteryaev, who was born in the big city, shrugs his shoulders and says, “because it’s my hometown.”
Now there is a whole generation of people who think like he does. These young people, raised by rural grandmothers, think of the countryside, not concrete, nine-story apartment buildings, as their home. They know that home is where you step from the porch to the ground, not into the elevator. That’s why when Rasteryaev sings about tractors and why it’s better to stroll and sunbath at home then abroad, whole offices start crying.
Photo: Pavel Grabalov
That’s why he is now singing at nightclubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and these children and grandchildren of peasants raise their iPhones and iPads to take photos.
Provisional city slickers
Russia’s rural communities make up only 26% of the country’s population, although it made up more than 50% of the population until the middle of the 1960s, and every year more and more people moved to the city. Are these migrants and their children really city slickers now? According to sociologists, it takes three generations for rural migrants to really absorb city culture. According to Natalia Zubarevich, a geographer and economist, third-generation city dwellers make up less than 20% of Russia’s population. Russia is built on the habits and values of peasants, and even the capital city is often called a big village.
But it’s unlikely that there will ever be a mass exodus towards rural Russia. People are afraid of alcoholism, poverty and ruin, even though many complain that they don’t get enough air and freedom in the city. They trudge along, neither here nor there. The look at rural houses for sale on the Internet even though they will be paying off the mortgage on their 52-square-meter apartment for the next 25 years.
They cry to accordion music and grab their mobile phones for a photo when they see a goat outside a metro station. They go visit their aunt in the countryside for vacation, and then complain, “Couldn’t they provide gas to this darn place? What kind of country is this?” They boil water in the evening to give their kids a bath, and swear that they will never come back to the countryside, that it is better to go to Italy, or at least somewhere with a sewer system and regular bread deliveries. But then every year, as soon as the buds are sprouting in the countryside, they say, “Soon we are going to the countryside. Home.”
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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