MIAMI - Throughout the history of the United States, the main divisions have traditionally been between the North and the South, an economic and political rivalry that we know also produced a civil war.
But there is also an important rivalry between the West Coast and the East Coast, a battle for cultural, academic and scientific supremacy, an ongoing contest to attract the best musicians, artists and chefs.
This rivalry now has a new feature, as the East Coast prepares to compete with the West Coast for the lucrative shipping lines coming from Asia. The reason for this? The expected expansion of the Panama Canal, a project that could end up tipping the balance of power toward one coast over the other.
The expansion, at a cost of more than $5 billion, has the directors of ports on the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast opening bottles of champagne. They have reason to expect huge profits if they manage to get large cargo ships – which previously had to port on the Pacific Coast because of the Canal’s limitations – to finally sail into their ports.
The Port of Miami, which has already managed to exploit its geographic position and call itself the bridge to the Americas, is preparing to take advantage of this new opportunity and has invested more than $2 billion in infrastructure upgrades.
“My friends, we will be ready to take advantage of the opportunities brought by increased traffic from Asia, as the first stop-over port for containers, both incoming and outgoing,” said the Port of Miami’s director, Bill Johnson, in the port’s annual report.
In a little more than two years, a wider and deeper Panama Canal will give shipping companies less expensive options for shipping to ports on the East Coast. “Full speed ahead, to the Port of Miami,” says Johnson.
For the port, preparations for the canal’s widening have been the most ambitious investment project in its history. Once they are completed, they will allow the port to receive large ships like the so-called “Post Panamax” size ships, which could not fit into the canal and had to stop in California.
Tens of thousands of new jobs
“When the Panama Canal permits better access to the routes from Asia to the East Coast of the U.S., we will all benefit. We are hoping to increase our capacity,” explained the port’s sub-director, Juan Kuryla.
But the positive consequences of the Panama Canal expansion are not limited to Miami. The whole state of Florida is expected to benefit, and estimates from different sources say the state will add more than 30,000 new jobs.
According to the Port of Miami, the expansion in the Panama Canal will allow it to double its capacity in the next seven or eight years. However, all of this will require certain reforms.
As part of the preparations to increase its capacity, the Port of Miami has already started a number of projects that include the construction of a tunnel that will connect the port with the highway, without stopping at a single stoplight. According to Kurlya, this direct access should be ready at the beginning of 2014, a year before the expansion of the canal is finished.
Another project is the deepening of the port itself, to a depth of 15.2 meters. This will allow it to be the only port south of Virginia to have that kind of depth. In addition, the Port is acquiring four “Super Post Panamax” cranes, which will make the transport of major maritime cargo possible. And they are building a special railroad to facilitate moving cargo by rail.
It seems like the West Coast has reason to worry. “If I were running a port on the West Coast, I would be on the alert, because the expansion of the canal is going to benefit the Port of Miami and other ports on this coast,” said Kuryla.
California is prepared to do battle to prevent the loss of large cargo carriers to the Gulf Coast and the East Coast. That’s why it has launched an aggressive campaign titled “Beat the Canal,” so that the whole industry will improve its competitiveness. It is preparing to take on the challenge presented by an enlarged canal and East Coast ports looking to steal business.
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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