The Smoking Generation: Where 1946 Babies Are Today

What has become of the generation of people born in 1946? Le Temps’ Joëlle Kuntz ponders the past seven decades and the findings of a watershed study of her age group.

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Joëlle Kuntz


GENEVA â€" Seventy years ago, tobacco was considered a kind of medicine. The fragility of our beliefs is enough to take your breath away. I feel a terrifying awe every time I glance at the advertisement for Villiger cigars stuck on my fridge. In it is a working-class man in his thirties, neat and tidy, with a cigar dangling from his lips. His blonde little girl, sitting on his lap, is lighting it for him, and the match glows at the center of this scene.

In March 1946, English scientists enrolled 14,000 babies born in Britain during the same week in an interdisciplinary study about generational cohorts. It's the most extensive such study ever undertaken, and it continues to this day, with a separate focus on children born in 1958, 1970, 1991 and 2000. The individuals in the 1946 group, who have answered regular questionnaires throughout their lives, are celebrating seven decades this year. This group intrigues me, because its members benefited from the best in terms of peace and social, medical and cultural progress.

What happened to the little girl?

The little girl sitting on the lap of the working-class Swiss man may have attended university. She was allowed to vote, she knew about the birth control pill, she was free to get married or stay single, she was also able to divorce without great expense, to travel cheaply and, after gaining some weight in the 1980s, she was able to replace a weak hip thanks to government health care coverage. She had a job and a salary, and her pension allows her to contemplate the next 20 years with reasonable confidence. Her only regret is a substantial one: Her children and grandchildren aren't nearly as well off as she has been.

Happy 70! â€" Photo: Gurini

The British study clearly shows that social mobility has declined. For people born in 1970, their adult standard of living was more correlated with their parents' income than was the case for people born in 1958 and 1946.

Did she smoke, this little girl dressed all in blue, posted on my fridge? In 1970, when she was 25, 40% of pregnant English women smoked, and nobody appeared to worry about it. Except for the rather curious doctor who added a new survey question for the mothers of babies who were to be born in Great Britain during the chosen week that year: Do you smoke? Two years later, in 1972, an analysis of their responses crossed with a study of newborn mortality brought proof â€" the first on such a large scale â€" of the harmfulness of tobacco: 1,500 children had died from it, before birth or just after.

Researchers who were focused on studying the lifestyles of each generation asked all sorts of questions about the habits of babies' mothers, too: How much milk did they drink every day? What were their husbands doing while they were in labor? What did they spend on their baby's clothes and on their own? But Helen Pearson, who discusses these studies in the book The Life Project, the Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives, notes that no one ever asked mothers about sex!

What's left of a generation

Of those from the 1946 group studied, 13% have died. Wealthier men have the same mortality rate as poorer men and women, while wealthier women's mortality rate is half what it is for everyone else. Scientists have yet to explain why this is.

Women now make up the majority of living members of the 1946 group, and researchers are looking into the ways in which the men and women in this group are declining. About 85% of them have at least one of the 15 conditions that ultimately cause death for many people: hypertension, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, respiratory problems, cancer, etc. According to the study, the people who suffer from these ailments are often not aware of them.

I'm vaping as I look at the little girl with the blue ribbon in her hair. The cigar she's lighting with such enthusiasm doesn't produce any smoke. Villiger sells tobacco, matches and family happiness, but apparently smoke is not for sale.

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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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