DETROIT â€" To reach the heart of the matter in Michigan on a late-winter evening, navigate out of downtown Detroit and drive 20 miles north on Interstate 94, and continue for seven miles, the darkening way lit by the flickering yellowish glow of American commerce, until you reach yet another strip mall at the corner of Schoenherr Road. There, in a storefront headquarters stuck between Buy Buy Baby and Long Tall Sally, members of the Macomb County Republican Party emerge from the cold to watch their presidential candidates debate again on television.
In the vast suburban landscape above Detroit, Macomb County is mostly white and middle class, filled with people who fled the troubled city and shed their pasts as Democrats and union members. Many are from families that voted for FDR and roared with the multitudes in Cadillac Square when John F. Kennedy opened his fall campaign there on Labor Day in 1960. All of that is long gone. It was 36 years ago that Macomb County became synonymous with Reagan Democrats, but the rightward lean began here a decade earlier with the embrace of George Wallace, the Southern segregationist.
The territory is largely Republican, and the phenomenon of Donald Trump has turned it once again into a case study of modern politics.
Among those in attendance at the debate watch are Jason Powrozek, an earnest 17-year-old senior at Anchor Bay High School, whom the state field director has praised as the most productive volunteer in Michigan, and longtime political aide Ken Matiyow, state Sen. Jack Brandenburg's district chief of staff. Matiyow's boss was the first Michigan senator to endorse Trump, an early rider among public officials across the country starting to scramble aboard the Trump train even while others were desperately trying to blow up the tracks.
If you wonder what the Trump phenomenon says about America, Matiyow suggests spending time knocking on doors in Macomb County. The feedback at address after address is the same. All anti-immigration, all the time. "Man, does that strike a nerve," Matiyow says. "It gets an incredible response when you get to talking about illegal immigration. People don't want them to ever be legal citizens." On immigration, Matiyow says, there's "a massive outpouring of disgust."
After describing how Brandenburg has helped turn Macomb County red by pounding away on conservative issues and taking the territory back one house at a time, Matiyow concludes a riff on immigration by telling a personal story about where he lives. For the past several years, he's been renting a place at the Village Park apartments not far from the party headquarters. When he moved there, he says, "There was no one there from India. Now half the building is made up of people from India. These are young techies who have come to replace American workers. This is a real scandal." The Indians, he says, all have proper documentation but are taking jobs away from Americans.
Matiyow sits in the front row as the televised debate beams in from Houston. He's alternately animated and subdued as the debate, much like the campaign itself, devolves into playground insults.
And when it's over, Matiyow says he much prefers town hall meetings over debates. The guy next to him offers that Trump is perhaps the new Andrew Jackson. Jason, sitting 10 feet behind them, used to worry about what Trump would say during a debate and how other candidates went after him, but no more. "Mr. Trump says whatever he wants to and it doesn't hurt him," he says.
A young perspective
Jason offers a different idea about how to view Trump, a variation of the dream that anyone can become rich and powerful. When first encountered at the regional Trump headquarters a few days earlier, the candidate was soft-spoken and polite. It would be hard to imagine him shouting insults at a rival, or at a protester at a Trump rally. Jason lives in New Baltimore, on the edge of Lake St. Clair, and won't turn 18 until October, in time to vote in the general election. His mother works at home, and his father is a sales rep for Cintas, a uniform company. Earlier that afternoon, he had made the 45-minute drive along 26 Mile Road from high school, wearing black dress shoes and a suit and tie, his brown hair gelled straight in front.
His says his support for Trump is rooted more in personality than the construction of a wall. He's never been much for cartoons or sports but is into prime-time television, his favorite show The Apprentice, which he began watching when he was 12. "I have always looked up to Mr. Trump," he says. "I like how when he walks into a room, he commands the room. ... I would like to become successful and help other people become successful."
Since getting involved in January, Jason has placed more successful calls from the Trump phone bank than any other volunteer in the state. He says he kept finding people who called themselves Democrats and said they had never voted for a Republican. At Anchor Bay High, he says, he worried at first about how classmates and teachers would react but decided, "I'm going to express myself and my views." He wore a Trump T-shirt to school and spoke up in government class, where he believes his teacher James Swartz admires him "even though I know Mr. Trump is not his first choice."
Swartz later praised Jason's involvement as an example of what it means to be an American. He says he's never had a student "take such an active role" in campaigning. "Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues' comes to mind when thinking about Jason's role in political activism," Swartz says. In the play, Epstein accuses Eugene of "always standing around watching what's happening" and just scribbling in his notebook. "Jason is simply doing what Epstein is asking Eugene to do. Instead of scribbling in a notebook, which I guess would be this generation's version in the form of Facebook, Twitter or an Internet blog, he is making his contributions through his actions."
The fact that The Apprentice inspired Jason reveals something else about the Trump phenomenon. The New York real estate mogul's appeal is many layered. In the entryway near where Jason works the phones, two retired men wearing "Make America Great Again" caps sit at a card table, unofficial bouncers of a sort. Gary Hohf, 63, and Bill Manjar, 60, fit the Macomb County Reagan Democrat archetype â€" beefy guys who grew up as Democrats, once belonged to unions (United Auto Workers and ironworkers), felt "screwed," as they say, by various free-trade agreements, left the Democratic Party and are now all in for Trump. His is the first campaign they have ever felt the desire to join.
But when Jason exits the headquarters to canvas that day in Shelby Township to promote Trump ahead of the Michigan primary, at the time two weeks away, his companion is another variation of Trump supporter â€" Rick Cruz, a 62-year-old self-employed entrepreneur who shares young Jason's admiration for Trump's commercial success. In listening to Cruz, there's a connection between Trump's evangelism about money and his unexpected popularity among religious evangelicals, between mega-churches brimming with believers who want to be saved and arenas filled with people who want to be taught how to become rich. Prophets and profits, in this sense speaking the same language.
Respect for wealth
Cruz says he had read many of Trump's books, including Midas Touch and Why We Want You to Be Rich, and has taken courses Trump sponsored in real estate and wealth development. "I admire success," he says. Trump is his favorite profit evangelist, but he is also keen on investor Warren Buffett ("If I could just sit down in that fast-food restaurant where he eats every day, I would love to do that!") and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and is just starting to get into the other businessman Trump is always trumpeting, Carl Icahn. Is he rich himself? Cruz has lost his share of homes and cars over the years, he says, and has been "divorced twice, like Trump." But "I'm comfortable enough with what I've earned. I haven't had to draw unemployment this last year even though I haven't worked."
The wide, quiet streets of the Shelby Township subdivisions are mostly empty as Jason and Cruz weave their way canvassing late in the afternoon. They finally find a guy hauling things out of his garage on Sandy Creek. His name is Mike Miroslaw, and he says he's not that into politics and believes it's "a really bad crop this year, a bad crop." But if the choice is between Trump and Hillary Clinton, he's going with Trump. "I want this country to get back to where it should be," he says. "It's time to focus on the U.S., on this country again."
Focusing on the country is precisely what Fatima Salman was doing. She's an organizer with the Technical Assistance Center in Detroit, an outfit working to help the city's neighborhoods emerge from decades of decay, and is among hundreds of businesspeople and community leaders attending the winter conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber at the MotorCity Casino Hotel. The conference is about reviving the city's neighborhoods. That sort of work is what Salman believes being an American is all about. But there's more. She grew up in the suburbs, in Troy. Her mother taught Montessori. Her dad worked at Chrysler. "We always had a Chrysler in our driveway," she says. "We are very much a part of the Detroit car culture. We are so American!"
Now she's married to a doctor and lives in West Bloomfield with three children who attend public schools, and it's in that suburban setting, at a meeting of the West Bloomfield Township board a month earlier, that police escorted her to the safety of her car. She had attended the meeting in support of a resolution that the board had passed but was being challenged by a roomful of angry Tea Party conservatives. The resolution declared that West Bloomfield was a "welcoming" city for immigrants. Salman's parents came from India 42 years ago. Her husband grew up in Syria. They are American citizens and Muslims who worship at the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills. The Detroit area had the largest concentration of Muslims in a nation of immigrants. Salman has always been proud that Michigan "was so welcoming to Muslims" â€" until that night at the town hall meeting when she was surrounded by anger. Reporters were at the meeting, and the discussion was recorded.
One resident talked about the beheading of Christians. Another said Muslims wanted to change the U.S. Constitution. A third said new immigrants from Syria and other Muslim countries would "never be American" â€" that these immigrants were taking jobs and resources away from real Americans and that the United States was in danger of becoming a Third World country.
"I was shaking," Salman recalls. "It shows we have a lot of work to do. We have to work overtime to overcome all the negatives. ... Trump by himself has changed Muslim life so much. The fear of the other. Everything they were saying at that town hall was what he was saying." The incident and others like it, as chilling as they may be, had one positive effect, she says. They forced the Muslims she knows to coalesce and get active and engage the world around them and not recede into their safe zones. The incident at the township meeting also challenged her view of America, she says, but did not change it. She lived in Syria once, as an exchange student in the late 1990s, and her husband grew up there. They knew what it meant to live in a closed society with an oppressive government. The United States, she says, is "a country that celebrates the beauty of diversity, the prosperity of diversity. The whole world looks at America and says, "You guys have got it!" "
In poisoned Flint
Perhaps, but they might look north to the city of Flint and say something else. Here is another Michigan story leading to citizen discontent. Flint, where the water is so full of lead that it's poisoning its residents, where the people are victims of government disregard, where Clinton and Bernie Sanders have come to campaign to debate and denounce a slow-to-react state government run by Republicans. Flint is where the Rev. Gerald Cardwell talked about how his church, Quinn Chapel AME, the oldest in the city's African American community, had lost almost all of its younger members since General Motors left town. The average age is now 65. He worries about that, along with why his hands started cracking a few years ago because of the additives in the water, and then the poisoning came along and he has stopped cooking and showering with tap water.
His is the city where Nakeyja Cade, a single mother who works at the Forman Mills clothing warehouse, worries about what that tainted water did to her 1-year-old daughter, Zariyah, who keeps testing high for lead in her blood and started having seizures and passing out a few months after she was born. And it was where the Rev. Allen Overton, a Baptist minister who has lived there for half a century, first noticed the funny color of the water, then the irritation of his skin, then thought it was odd that there seemed to be more concern early on about the water corroding car parts than about it harming people. How does he define America during this election season? As a nation that is still divided by race and economics.
"I don't know what it means to take America back or make it great again," he says. The words seem like code to him, entirely irrelevant to his city's struggles.
The KKK connection
On the Sunday morning when Trump, during a CNN television interview, fails to disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, Jeff Crockett sits in his home and flinches. He lives on a farm in Harrison, a rustic Arkansas hamlet deep in the Ozarks. With a town square that looks like a Western movie set, and more than 40 churches from First Baptist to Brand New Church, Harrison has tried to move beyond an unsettling distinction. It's the listed address of the KKK.
The Klan's headquarters was nearly 20 miles out of the city limits, but the mailing address says Harrison, and that's enough to keep the city's racist history fresh. During riots in 1905 and 1909, whites ran out practically all the African Americans living in the city. The reputation held that Harrison was a "sundown town," a place unsafe for blacks at night. The current census said that about 0.3% of the city â€" 43 people â€" identify as African American.
"We never hear any complaints from them," says Crockett, a former mayor who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He is bald, with a hearty laugh and piercing blue eyes. As mayor, Crockett tried to reshape Harrison's reputation. When the city tried to host a convention for nonviolence, parents of black students from Little Rock were so afraid of sending their kids to Harrison that they asked if they could be accompanied by a police escort. In 2014, Crockett held a ceremony with those students in which they symbolically put "hate" in a casket and declared it buried. Some residents complained, asking why they were bringing up the subject of race.
"There's a percentage of racism here, but there's racism everywhere," Crockett says. "Diversity is harder to grasp because they've never been around it. They haven't had to drive through the projects, they don't know what Cabrini Green is."
After Barack Obama was elected, Crockett says open displays of racism were muted. "No one wanted to introduce racism." With Trump, he has concerns that his leadership might reintroduce that word he buried with the schoolchildren. "I worry a little that some people, very few people, might start beating the drum louder because of what Trump is doing."
Their slice of the country, largely ignored in politics, had suddenly been thrust into the national conversation. Republicans are eager to pick votes from rural and working-class white voters, and the top three candidates visited northwestern Arkansas in a 24-hour period. Their presence, and Trump's comments, provided neither solace nor clarity.
On the eve of Super Tuesday, Crockett headed to the Townhouse Cafe, a restaurant with exposed-brick walls and tablecloths that read "Société Générale." The old-timers like to come to this place each morning, visiting with one another from table to table. As Crockett munches on a breakfast sandwich and hash browns, Dave Fitton joins him briefly.
"So who are you voting for tomorrow?" Crockett asks.
"If there was a libertarian candidate, I'd vote for them," Fitton responds. "But there's not, so I'm not sure I'm going to vote."
Fitton believes the government has sunk beyond reproach. "Even when you send people with good intentions, they get up in Washington, D.C., and they get a lot in the club," he says. "Republican, Democrat, if you just look at what they're saying, there's not a lot of difference."
"I'm just confused right now," says Tim Lauer, 68. "I'm waiting for the shoe to drop to finally expose what these people are really thinking. I just don't trust them."
Lauer used to own the cafe with his partner, who died in 2012. They abandoned the partying lifestyle in New Orleans in the "80s to avoid the scourge of AIDS, seeking refuge in a town that was dry until 2011. The town folk rarely acknowledged that the cafe was run by a gay couple, and Lauer worked to be accepted. He held his tongue when customers complained if Lauer did "woman's work" of waiting on their tables. When he wanted to introduce the chicken fricassee as a dish, customers steered clear of it until they renamed it "stewed chicken over rice."
These regulars are independent, and proud to call themselves mountain folk. They don't believe in rocking the boat. They say what they resent most about the country today isn't the poverty or education level of their town, but that politicians don't fully understand their desire to run their own lives. They're interested in business, maybe, but not government programs. They're interested in the moral teachings of their pastor, but not this president. And they won't vote if they don't want to. Lauer understands that now, too. He says he was unsure whether he'd cast a ballot in the primary.
How do his patrons feel about Trump's push to get more votes from people in rural areas who didn't go to college? George Cady, 62, a former trucker, says he thinks the country is in dire need of some more common sense. "Our president is a socialist, and we are in debt," he says. "I personally think politicians could learn from us. I didn't go to college, but I know I have to pay my credit card bills on time. So what does that tell you?"
Texas and Michigan seem at the center of things this year in many ways. The vote may be more decisive elsewhere, but the threads of the story weave through these two states, the debate over different definitions of what it means to be an American. Texas, like Michigan, is a great divide. Here is one Texas: the richest donor base of conservative money in the era of Citizens United. Texas, where Alex Jones, America's airwave conspiratorialist, portrayed a world in which 9/11 was an inside job and the moon landings were faked. Texas, where public officials seriously questioned whether the Jade Helm military exercise was a prelude to a government takeover of the state. Texas, where officials urged gun manufacturers to move after the shootings at Sandy Hook. Texas, in the vanguard of voter-ID laws, abortion restrictions, guns in government buildings, and textbooks rewritten to eliminate history with a liberal slant. Texas, with the longest border and more than a thousand miles of Trump's imagined great wall.
A divided Texas
Then the other Texas, the land of Latinos who are rising faster than any group in the country and by large percentages want nothing to do with the wall or the idea of deporting 11 million or 12 million undocumented immigrants. San Antonio is the heart of this Tex-Mex Texas, the one that inspired the notion of demographics as destiny, an eventuality of a blue Lone Star that would change everything about American politics. The idea still seems a far distance away, if it would ever arrive.
Among the abuelas of this other Texas is Choco Meza, the top volunteer at Clinton headquarters in San Antonio. She was an immigrant herself, arriving in Texas in the early 1950s at age 3 with her parents and four siblings from Zaragoza in the Mexican province of Coahuila. Their first stop was Uvalde in the Rio Grande Valley, where her father, Alfonso R. Gonzalez, dug ditches for ranchers. Then they moved on to Eagle Pass, up along the border, where they lived in public housing, and where a second-grade teacher scolded Meza for bringing her Spanish-speaking mother to school. "If she doesn't know English, why is she here?" the teacher asked. "Because she is with me," Meza replied.
The family finally made it to San Antonio's west side, with these results from three generations: All five children went to college and three, including Meza, to graduate school. Among 13 grandchildren, three are lawyers and the others work in homeland security, cybersecurity and various businesses. Meza's son and daughter are lawyers. Asked what it means to be an American, she says: "Just look at my family. That is an American success story."
The anger and frustration that permeate this campaign have left Meza disheartened. So many obstacles that could have made Meza feel cynical about the democratic process, she says. As a woman, as an immigrant â€" "I can think of all these ways that I could have been held back, but I had to work through it, we have to work through it. Just because things don't happen right away is not reason to be belligerent to our own country. We may not be a perfect country, but we certainly are a great country."
One of Meza's oldest friends in San Antonio is Rosie Castro, whose mother, Victoria, arrived in San Antonio as an orphan from Mexico at age 6, living with her guardians, the Garcias. Castro also grew up with the Garcias. Her young mother never married, never got past third grade, worked as a housekeeper, but could read in Spanish and English, and sent Rosie, her only child, to Little Flower Catholic School and then to Our Lady of the Lake University. Rosie never married, either, but had twin boys, and as she became more involved in politics in San Antonio, she took them with her to meetings and rallies all over town.
As Rosie Castro sat in Henry's Puffy Tacos eating lunch a few days before the Texas primary, she pondered the same question asked of many dozens of people over the past month. What does mean to her to be an American? She says that when she started as an activist four decades ago, it seemed to her that America had "a lot of prejudice and no remedy. It didn't matter what the issue was, it looked like we were screwed." But she has always loved the country nonetheless. "Ever since I was a child, my thing was the American flag," she says. "I sold little American flags then. Later I had an American flag in front of my home. I just so fundamentally believe in the ideals of America. I believe that fundamentally Americans are good people. Even though we face difficulties, in a democracy there is a way to change things. You have to be engaged. You have to understand that things don't just happen. I think back to 30-some years ago when I ran for city council and didn't stand a chance, to today, when my sons could be president someday."
Her twin sons, now 41, are Joaquin and Julian Castro. They went to Stanford and Harvard and got law degrees and became politicians. One served in the Texas legislature and is now a congressman. The other, after being mayor of San Antonio, now works in President Obama's Cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development and is on the shortlist of potential running mates for Hillary Clinton. Here is one of the central tensions of the political debate this year. Although some express dismay about a lost America and the dilution of the national ideal by an influx of immigrants, there are people like Choco Meza and Rosie Castro who believe that the American ideal is alive to them and their descendants as never before.
Joaquin Castro, the congressman, came home to San Antonio that weekend to campaign for a local legislative friend and for Clinton. "People are motivated by two things," he says at one rally. "Hope or fear." And fear has been let loose this year, through the scapegoating of immigrants and talk of a wall across the Mexican border. "In the era of Donald Trump, you can't stay quiet. They are talking about us. The people of this neighborhood. And a lot of that talk started in Texas. This was ground zero."
Audrey Garcia was driving home from a cross-training class on Saturday morning when she saw Castro walking along Commerce Street, door-knocking in the Edgewood district on San Antonio's west side. She pulled over and got out of her SUV, bringing along her teenage daughter to meet the lawmaker. She said she wanted her daughter to be proud of politics and proud of her country, not angry.
The next day, in Louisville, a different side of America. Johanna Hribal had decided she needed to take a stand. Donald Trump was coming to town, and the diminutive 24-year-old middle-school foreign-language teacher with long black hair had decided to organize a protest. She'ss no lefty. She had never organized anything before. She didn't even know who would get her vote. What she did know is that she disliked what she considered to be Trump's bullying, wild boasting and arrogance, and feared it would ruin America. She had watched a John Oliver video detailing Trump's faults and read that fact checkers deemed more than three-quarters of the Trump statements they examined as false or mostly false. Maybe she could help stem the momentum.
As Hribal put out her protest call on Facebook, strangers from around the country warned her to be careful. Trump rallies could get violent, they wrote. When a local television station asked to interview her about the cause, she called her mother in Virginia. Concern, but not complete support there. "You know I actually am going to vote for him," her mother said of Trump. "I just don't really like Hillary."
The plan moved forward anyway. Hribal straightened her hair and wore a baseball cap to throw off any security guard who might have seen her on television. She wore a T-shirt with a bald eagle on it. At 1 that afternoon, she joined the line to enter Louisville's convention center, in the heart of its industrial downtown. Once inside, she waited for more protesters to find her.
"There are no seats here," Hribal said, although her protest was known as #emptytheseats. "We'll just stand and walk out."
Among those who joined her was Keith Rose, burly and bearded, who came with a handmade sign that said "Make America Great Again." The motto nauseated him. The past eight years, he said, had been the happiest in his life. Rose grew up gay in a small town in the 1990s, fearing that bullies might kill him. Now he's married to the love of his life and has watched a president, after some hesitation, fully embrace gay people. "What we're seeing is a lot of resistance to change in this country and it's sad," Rose says. "But we've come too far to let it get away."
The hall began to fill. Soon they were surrounded by men with thick beards and women in jeans, dancing and singing along to "Uptown Girl." Hribal was nervous. Then the rally started. A woman sang the national anthem. A Korean War vet saluted the flag. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told the crowd that Trump was the only person who could beat Clinton. And out came Trump to deafening applause.
Hribal was too short to see him through the tangle of arms and heads and cellphones. She was surrounded by women in American flag paraphernalia and men with caps proclaiming their veteran status. The crowd began shouting the candidate's name.
Was it time for action?
When Trump congratulated himself for introducing the debate about illegal immigration, a group of protesters on the other side of the room began to yell, although Hribal could not quite make out what they were saying. A teenager standing in front of her in a black Green Day sweatshirt turned red in the face and began to jump toward the protesters, both middle fingers in the air.
"Build that wall!" the crowd shouted. "Build that wall!" As the chant continued, a man in a purple sweater standing behind Hribal raised a hand in the air, clenching his fist. The crowd members were so riled up that they booed at Trump's utterance of the word "Mexico."
Hribal typed a message furiously into her cellphone. It was time. She hoisted a sign in the air and yelled, "EMPTY THE SEATS!"
The teenager in the black Green Day sweatshirt turned and sneered. He grabbed the sign and ripped it to shreds. Rose hoisted a new sign, with the name "Bernie" written in the colors of a rainbow. Another man tore it from his hands and stomped on it.
"Get them out of here!" Trump yelled from the stage. "Out!"
Men in the crowd lunged at Hribal, extending their arms, but Rose acted as a shield. Police officers were coming to escort the protesters out, but the path was blocked. The crowd seethed at them and called them losers. Hribal began to shake. As more officers approached to lead her and her friends out of the hall, a man in a green trucker hat leaned toward her. He whispered, "This old man will whip you."
Outside, Hribal waited near the entrance to see if any more protesters would be kicked out. One was a young black woman who said she was called vile racist and sexist names and shoved by the crowd. Video of her harassment later went viral. Ronald Fernandez, 29, came to find Hribal and wrapped her in his arms. He was her boyfriend.
"I'm so glad you're safe," he said, kissing her on the cheek.
"I'm a little shaken up!" she said. "I'm a little invigorated. Look at these people who are coming out to speak against this guy. Maybe there is hope in America."
Return to San Antonio for one final scene in the broad expanse in front of the Alamo. The afternoon is soft and warm, a becalmed sea compared with the raging whirlwind of Louisville. Smiling gaggles of 15-year-old girls pose in their flowing blue quinceañera dresses. Tourists stand erect on Segways and glide by single-file. African Americans and Anglos and Latinos come and go, men in cowboy hats, babies in strollers, people speaking Spanish and English and German. And sitting on the stone wall in the shade, a fellow named Maurice Jones. What is his definition of what it means to be an American?
Jones is from Wales, the village of Tal-y-bont. He's 63, a retired sergeant major in the British army who has seen action in Northern Ireland and the Falklands. And he's more than game for the question. He loves America as much as any native-born son, and to him the Alamo is the symbol. For many years now, he has made an annual pilgrimage from Wales to San Antonio and booked a room at the Crockett Hotel and visited the Alamo from late February until March 6, the date the mission fell to the Mexican army 180 years ago. He has been obsessed with the place since he was a boy and saw John Wayne play Davey Crockett in the 1960 movie.
Jones thought he knew America, until this year. That morning he had been asking other guests at the hotel to explain the rise of Trump and the ruckus in the Republican Party. He knows about nationalism, and in fact says he would vote for Britain to leave the European Union. And like all Europeans, he certainly knows about the difficulties Western nations face dealing with a flood of refugees and immigrants, although he believes the Britons are handling the problem more rationally than the Americans.
But "all the nastiness and name-calling on the telly from Mr. Trump" â€" that's beyond him. And so is the notion that America isn't great. "This is still basically the land of opportunity, is it not? If you work at it, you can still get on with it, can you not? It is a beautiful country. If I had it to do over again, and I were a young lad, this is where I would want to live."
This article is the last installment of Looking for America, a four-part series published on The Washington Post
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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