WAGAH — Here at the India-Pakistan border, thousands of men, women and children have gathered to watch a stunning ritual: On either side of the border, military march back and forth, as music roars and crowds cheer.
Known either as the Wagah border ceremony, the lowering of the flags, or "Beating Retreat" ceremony, the ritual has been performed every day since 1959, as flags are lowered around sunset. "Summer, winter or in any kind of storm, whatever the weather or political conditions, the parade doesn't stop," said Sumer Singh, former Deputy Inspector General of India's Border Security Force (BSF).
The ceremony has survived despite very tense relations between the two countries, as the violent partition of 1947 and the continuing conflict in Kashmir have permanently embittered the south Asian neighbors.
Still, the atmosphere is festive with loud music and patriotic slogans filling the air. On this side of the border, people have painted the Indian tricolor on their faces. They wave small flags, and break into dance as patriotic and Bollywood songs blare over loud speakers. The crowd cheers them on. The commander on the Indian side shouts a battle cry and about a dozen armed soldiers follow him to the iron gates that separate India and Pakistan.
Wearing Khaki uniforms and red-fanned turbans, the soldiers are forceful and aggressive — swinging their arms, stomping the ground vigorously and performing high kicks that nearly bring their legs to their foreheads.
Singh says the soldiers are specially selected and groomed for the job. "They are put through a rigorous training and it takes up to two years to bring a soldier into the required rhythm where he can match the steps and be fit for the drill," he explained. "They are also asked to grow moustaches. Only the best get the chance to represent the country whether on our side or the Pakistani side."
As the border gates on both sides are thrown open, the Pakistani rangers in black uniforms and matching fanned turbans appear performing similar moves.
The crowds go berserk and chants of "Hail to Mother India" on the one side and "long live Pakistan" on the other, grow louder and louder. After the show of strength and an exchange of menacing looks, soldiers from both sides lower their respective flags.
The parade was initially intended as a gesture of goodwill between the governments. But it has turned bitter and aggressive over the years — a true reflection of the declining relationship between the two neighbors. The fierce competition, rivalry and mistrust between soldiers is visible both during the parade and afterward.
"It is a question of national honor," said Ravi Dubey one of the Indian soldiers."If we show any signs of weakness it will be seen as India's weakness and we can't afford doing this when the other side is Pakistan. We have to remain a step ahead of them in everything."
We must come out of this cycle of hatred.
Ironically though, as Sumer Singh explains, the ceremony is truly a joint venture, shared and agreed upon by the two countries.
"It is the element of aggression in the drills that attracts the audiences," he notes. "When on a zero line a soldier stomps and shows his courage it gives the audiences a thrill and it is not as if Indians are doing it or Pakistanis are doing it arbitrarily, we practice it daily jointly and if there are any changes to be made, any step to be added or removed, the decision is taken with mutual consent and it is done with a view of making it more attractive and better synchronized."
But the way the parade is used to arouse nationalistic passions and promote jingoism is causing concern among those who strive for better relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
"This site is also a reminder of what we chose not to recognize along with our independence and emergence as separate nations," said Devika Mittal coordinator of a group called Aghaz-e-Dosti, or the beginning of friendship.
The crowd watching the ceremony — Photo: Arian Zwegers
"Our separation or partition came at a heavy human cost," she explains. "Millions of people were displaced on both sides. People were killed, raped and they separated from their families. At that time there might have been no border gates but the space was the passage for the migrants and it continues to mark those memories."
Back at the border parade, after the last bit of powerful stomping, twirling of moustaches and exaggerated rolling of eyes, the soldiers shake hands and the border gates are again slammed shut.
The choreographed show of aggression comes to an end, just like a fiercely fought India-Pakistan cricket match.
With strong political will on both sides, Devika argues the same ceremony could be used to sow the seeds of lasting peace and friendship between the two neighbors. "Why can't we accept the fact that we were and are the same people? Why can't this ceremony be used for peace building?" she asked. "We cannot undo the past but we must come out of this cycle of hatred."
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.
- The Perverse Effect Of Street Art On Neighborhood Gentrification ... ›
- Taiwan To Hong Kong To L.A., Birth Of Bubble Tea Culture ... ›
- How The Pandemic Is Helping Reinvent Food Production ... ›
- What's Chic Now In Paris Dining? African-American Soul Food ... ›