eyes on the U.S.
August 17, 2011
BROOKLYN – Welcome to Brownsville in Brooklyn, one of the poorest districts in the Big Apple. It's also one of the city's most violent neighborhoods: this is the place where, almost traditionally, the first murder of the New Year is committed, every Jan. 1 at around 2 a.m. Dozens of murders follow, while nearly everywhere else in New York City, crime rates are dropping.
Brownsville is also home to Crossroads, one of New York City's three juvenile detention centers. For Beth Navon, the "white lady" who works with the facility's detainees through a yoga and meditation program called the Lineage Project, the location makes sense. Many of the 200 teenagers permanently incarcerated in Crossroads hail from the area, as do a lot of the guards keeping watch over them.
Technically speaking, Crossroads isn't a prison, since it doesn't house convicts. The detainees are instead youths awaiting trial. But it certainly looks like a prison: windowless walls, barbed wire, watchtowers, highly secure doors and security checks that are so strict that visitors would never be able to smuggle in even a pen or a notebook.
Like other detention facilities in the state, it also has a reputation for violence. The state of New York has come under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of abuse and the death of one teenage inmate. Critics say the state's penal system routinely tramples on detainees fundamental human rights. Which is where Beth Navon comes in. The Lineage Project, she acknowledges, was chosen over many others to try to humanize a system that had clearly proven to be a failure.
Beth works with Jeremy. Together they walk through the last security gate towards the girls' block, where 20 cells surround a common room, several tables and chairs, a TV set and an old video game console. The young girls, dressed in white T-shirts and blue uniforms, are all aged between 13 and 15. Some of them look twice their age, with their arm and neck tattoos and their overly unbuttoned outfits. Others look half their age and seem to be under the control of the tattooed group. All of them are black or latino.
Jeremy is a choreographer. She is seven months pregnant and the guards have allowed her, for this one time, to bring a bottle of water to help her fight the stifling heat. Like Beth, Jeremy loves meditation and yoga. For many years, both women have been trying to reach out to the children at Crossroads. Careful not to offer unrealistic illusions, the women try nevertheless to establish links between the world of these juvenile inmates and the daily world outside the detention center.
Today's lesson will last an hour – and will end when the guards come in to clear the room. The exercises function as a rehabilitation program. It is in fact the only rehabilitation program available to the Crossroads detainees. For the girls, this funny lesson is not only an unusual way of changing their daily routines, but also an opportunity to show who is the roughest and toughest.
"What happens in your body when you're feeling angry?" Jeremy asks them. From experience, the girls know the answer well: tightening muscles, heightened breathing, sped up heart beat. "Well, let's try to feel differently," Jeremy suggests. She wants the girls to be self-aware, to forget about their hostile and stressful environment and to relax physically. The teenagers try the lotus position. They seem to be enjoying themselves, and then begin to laugh when asked to move their pelvis back and forth for a yoga exercise.
Later, when they are alone in their cells, will these young girls close their eyes and try to forget their living conditions by focusing on their inner selves?
The Lineage Project's files are full of promising stories about young people – even if difficulties still lie ahead for them right now. Meditation and yoga have proved useful and brought about spectacular changes in adult prisons. Programs have even been introduced for death row prisoners. Backers of the approach say that through mediation, prisoners can free their minds and thus in some sense transcend their physical incarceration. Yet the people running the Lineage Project are actually struggling to drop the "meditation" label. Apparently it scares off potential donors, even if Jeremy the choreographer and Beth the social worker are hardly new age guru types.
During the hour-long exercise sessions, the young girls have learned to open up their hearts as if they have known Beth and Jeremy their whole lives. The lessons offer a real contrast to the cold interactions they normally experience at Crossroads. "Here, people treat us like animals," Samantha says, sounding very upset. "No one can get out; we even need permission to go to the bathroom."
Before beginning a session in the boys' block, Beth Navon enjoys a quiet 20-minute break. "People will cross to the other side of the street on passing these teenagers when they get out of here," she reflects. Even more discouraging is the fact that many will end up back at Crossroads – sometimes just a few weeks after their release. "We'll see those same faces again," she says, "because some of them will have committed other offences."
In the common room, the boys are as tired and badly-behaved as the girls before them. But for a while, at least, the normal tensions of life at Crossroads dissipate. At the end of the lesson, guards search the boys from head to foot. All of the anger and pent-up violence returns. The inmates seem ready to explode.
But the lesson has triggered something for Sergio, the most rebellious boy in the group. Focusing on meditation and internal energy, he is reminded of a Mexican god with universal strength and the power to launch fireballs. Without realizing it, Sergio is referring to Tezcatlipoca, the most terrifying of the Aztec gods. God of the night sky, Tezcatlipoca tempted men in order to lead them to their own destruction. But he could also absolve them of any wrong-doing and sometimes help them change their own fates.
Read the original article in French
Photo – Lineage Project
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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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