Omar Robert Hamilton*
June 20, 2015
CAIRO â€" I used to feel sick for days before traveling to Palestine. I would rehearse my answers, shut down my Twitter page, print off hotel reservations, eject SIM cards. I spent four years' worth of interrogations claiming to be making a film about the restoration of a church in Nazareth. This time, I would think each time, they'll Google me. This time, the Israelis controlling the border will turn me away.
For eight years, we've been bringing people to the Palestine Festival of Literature, on whose board of directors I serve. International authors, artists and publishers arrive in late spring, put on a festival in English and Arabic with their Palestinian counterparts, and leave having understood what decades of spin and lies and obfuscation have worked so hard to hide. They leave understanding how simple it is, what's happening here.
For eight years, the visiting authors' first experience of apartheid is at the border. White faces and northern names cruise through with welcomes and visas, while strange southern names and un-white faces sit and wait to answer questions about their lineage. They are led through interrogations probing for inconsistencies, nervousness, a reason to be turned away. Every year, without exception. Call it security if it makes you feel better, but I won't.
I've been doing it for eight years, and it's always the same. So much has happened in the world, but the border stays the same. When they ask what I have come to do, I use words such as "arts," "culture" and "workshop" in a variety of floral combinations. Words that sound harmless to these men with guns.
Are they, in fact, harmless?
Maybe they are Googling me. Maybe they know the whole truth. I wish, sometimes, that they would turn me away.
Denying a people
They want Palestine to disappear. To keep people away. The old will die and the young will forget. And they think it's working. There is no airport to fly to, no arrival stamp in your passport, no website with travel tips you can trust. Google Maps doesn't know the names of the streets in Ramallah or how to drive to Nablus. It will only direct you toward the settlement cities and military prisons.
In this age of nation-states and EasyJets, Israel works to fracture both the land and the idea. Palestine is the West Bank, Palestine is Area A, Palestine is not Gaza, Palestine never existed, Palestine is a confusion. You cannot understand it. You must forget it.
But it is the idea that is strongest. Palestine is every breath from the Galilee to the Naqab, Palestine is every child born in a refugee camp, Palestine is Ferguson, Baltimore, Tibet and Western Sahara. Is that a strength â€" being strongest in idea? Or is it the last breath before death?
Te Wall seen from Bethlehem's Aida refugee camp â€" Photo: Paolo Cuttitta
The idea of the Apache, Inca, Arawak were strong once, too. Are strong today.
"Just go to Israel," I could say, when people ask me how to get to Palestine. "Just go and talk to a Palestinian and you'll be in Palestine." But what would they see? If you drive north from Jerusalem to Haifa, you will see a rolling grassy hillock to your right. You wouldn't know that the Wall runs underneath it. You wouldn't know what it looks like from the other side.
Israel is a colonist's exercise in landscaping on a national, messianic scale. And so the landscape has to be translated for the visitor. This, I would tell you, is a road that only settlers can drive on. These are rooftops from which Palestinian flags are banned. This is an olive grove burned by settlers. This is a well that has been filled with cement. This is my friend who cannot come with us for dinner in Jerusalem. And these trees hide the ruins of a village taken in 1948, and there, on that hill, is an apricot farm. And there, on the other side of the Wall, is where the farmer lives.
Defined by war
Driving through the West Bank, I look up at the settlements, small cities coiled around the top of the hills, watching, waiting. Palestine is the topography of war, the exodus of people up the mountain, the valley a tank can't cross, the coastal plain to flood people down. The land is defined by war, and Israel shapes the land for the war to come. The settlements wait for the signal from their higher ground.
The watchful visitor will soon understand that every inch of the land is monitored, controlled, prepared for. Every dimension of life is mapped and manipulated. Air, water, electricity, money, food, movement, education, ideas, love â€" none are free. The occupation of both the present and the past is a complex operation.
But it is more complex to hide a simple truth: that one people are trying to wipe out another. That, in the end, is all there is to it.
When you cross Qalandia checkpoint, it all becomes clear. The first time for me was in 2008. I was stunned by its brutality, the explicitly dystopian design, the razor wire and video cameras. By the inescapability of it. There are four tight metal corridors, each leading to a revolving steel gate. The metal is close, pushes up to your shoulders. Two people cannot fit in this animal run. There's no way back, no way sideways, no way to talk, just wait your turn, wait to see what lies beyond that steel gate. There is only you in the metal corral and your own existence between the bars that strip you of pride or philosophy and leave you only as a body, a body facing forward and being herded in toward a reckoning.
In a slaughterhouse they don't let the cows see what's waiting for them. They don't want to scare them. It's bad for the meat. Not here. Here your humiliation is laid bare. You must all stand and watch each other, grow weaker through each other's weakness. The metal gate at the end stays locked. You wait together for permission to move, for the green light to buzz, to step forward into the deeper bowels of this slaughterhouse of dignity.
I cried the first time I got through. I came out into the sunlight and broke into tears.
Qalandia hasn't changed in eight years. But other things have. Gaza, BDS, Netanyahu, Obama. Years of Palestinian deaths and Israeli words and American excuses. Enough has changed to fill a book with words. And yet nothing has. One people are still trying to drive another out of existence.
*Omar Robert Hamilton is an Egyptian filmmaker and writer. He is on the board of the Palestine Festival of Literature and has worked as festival producer since 2010.
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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.
October 20, 2021
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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