PYONGYANG - The austere, angular façade of the Taedongmun movie theater, surmounted by large statues depicting a worker, a soldier and a peasant, gives off an air of power and authority.
The date of construction, 1955, is carved into the building, which stands close to Kim Il-sung Square, near the center of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. A hostess greets us in traditional garb - a long pink jogori coat covered with flowers embroidered in gold. She takes us through the renovated lobby, lit by a crystal chandelier. In the theater, the chairs are red velvet. The lights go off, the movie starts.
Today’s movie is "Wish," by North Korean director Jang In-hak. It is the story of a married couple - the husband is a construction worker whose dream is to have his picture taken with the leader of his country. With its interior scenes and constantly smiling workers, we get a glimpse of daily life in North Korea. To a foreigner’s eyes, it is idealized and a bit outdated, with its radio-cassette players and vintage telephones.
"Wish," filmed in 2011, was the only North Korean movie presented at the 13th Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF). The biennial event brings a touch of color to the up-and-coming image of North Korea that authorities want to show off to visitors.
Foreign festivalgoers were also treated to visits to the house where the founder of the nation, Kim Il-sung (1912-1994) was born; and to “new” attractions which have sprung up since Kim Jong-un’s ascent to power in 2011, such as the Luna People's Amusement Park.
In between these two rulers, Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) presided over a veritable golden age of North Korean cinema. In the 1960s and 1970s, 60 or so films were produced every year by the Korean Film Studio, built outside Pyongyang in a spacious region of green, rolling hills. Since the mid-1990s, the economic crisis has decreased the number of movies, and now only two or three are made each year.
The North Korean movie industry began during the Japanese colonization of Korea (1910-1945). The independence movement "used traveling cinemas and theaters to mobilize people in the countryside," explains Patrick Maurus, a professor at the French National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO).
“North Korea’s movie industry developed in step with the other Communist countries – China and especially the Soviet Union,” says Antoine Coppola, a cinema professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea. “They were using film as a tool to promote ideology and national identity."
Enlightening the masses
"Movies develop culture and serve to enlighten the popular masses," says Ri Yang-il, vice-president of the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts. As in other cultural domains, North Korean film is marked by the omnipresence of the nation's leaders. Kim Il-sung himself is said to have directed the first productions. His son Kim Jong-il was a noted cinephile, who "modified the approach to film-making by introducing elements of daily life," says Maurus. Kim Jong-il's essay, “On the art of the Cinema,” is still the ideological standard for North Korean cinema.
"Cinema depicts life and people's feelings, like it does in real life," explains "Desire" director Jang In-hak in between cigarettes. He came to the movie business during his military service. "It was then that I discovered what a director does, how he creates life." He says that one can learn “everything about cinema in General Kim Jong-il’s book."
In the interests of propaganda, Kim Jong-il allowed the development of a sort of star system. One such star is the actress Mun Jong-hae, known for her role in a multi-part movie series "The Nation and Destiny." Mun, a former schoolteacher from the country, is a bit shy. She too emphasizes the Leader's role in her career. "He noticed me and allowed me to be admitted to the "Great Cinema Academy." Sometimes in the street people call me "President of the People's Committee." That is my role in the series."
As a showplace for North Korean cinema, the film festival represents "the principles of independence, peace and friendship," says the Minister of Culture, Hong Gwang-sun. This year, the festival seems "more open, and things seem to be happening in this town," says Uwe Schmelter, the German president of the festival's jury. He has participated since 2000, and is one of the reasons for the PIFF's opening to western films, when at first it was limited to movies from formerly communist and non-aligned countries.
This year, "Comrade Kim Goes Flying," jointly produced by North Korea, Belgium and the UK, won best direction. The movie was set and filmed in Pyongyang.
"The festival gives the North Korean officials an international audience that tends to be quite indulgent, since they are guests," says one festivalgoer. At the festival, foreigners come in contact with an enthusiastic local public, but according to Coppola, these North Korean cinema buffs are carefully chosen. Attending the festival is a "privilege given for service to the nation."
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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