PUNTA PIRULIL - You probably couldn’t live any further west than Don Orlando does.
He lives in Punta Pirulil on the western edge of the green island of Chiloé, off the coast of Chile. In his book In Patagonia, British writer Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989) described Chiloé as an island of “black storms and black soil.”
Until recently, the storms were one of the reasons it was so difficult to get out to Don Orlando’s place -- to his pale yellow wooden house, with its vegetable patch, geese and chickens, and blackberry bushes.
Now there’s a road that runs through the mountains which, not only makes it easier for him to go shopping or to the doctor in nearby Cucao, but also attracts more visitors.
A rocking chair is beside the window that looks out to the ocean and Don Orlando says his favorite thing to do is look out to see the marine life -- whales, black and white Commerson’s dolphins, Humboldt penguins, Patagonian sea lions, fur seals and Magellanic Flightless Steamer ducks (yes, that’s really what they’re called!).
On the other side of the body of water, some 8,600 kilometers away, lies New Zealand. Somewhere out there the west stops and the Far East begins.
Orlando gives us a tour of his home, where animal skins decorate the walls. Some of his favorite topics of conversation are things that would make an animal conservationist speechless. He kills Darwin foxes and Chilean wildcats -- a kind of bonsai leopard -- before they even can think about sinking their teeth into his flock of sheep. Another collection he’s particularly proud of are fossils he has found in the estuary of the copper-colored river that runs beneath his window.
Don Orlando says that the “Springboard to Heaven” is not far from here and suggests that we go and see it. As we leave his house, we cross a wooden bridge that has seen better days, past the pans that his sons use to wash pieces of gold out of the sand, climbing up through the damp, misty forest where flowering plants and wind-bent trees are abundant. It’s here that the last Huilliche live -- Chiloé’s natives -- who survived the appropriation of their land by Spanish colonists and Chilean settlers.
In Huilliche mythology, the end of the earth is where the ferryman Tempilcahue waits for the souls seeking to get into heaven. To aid the dead to get to Tempilcahue, an artist named Chumono built a wooden ramp -- the aforementioned “Springboard” -- on Don Orlando’s property that fast-tracks souls into the nothingness beyond the Pacific. This Springboard is beloved by esoteric folks who come here to meditate. Some weep, others say that they can feel their soul wafting across the water. Either way, the springboard brings a nice little bit of extra income for Don Orlando.
People also come to animal-watch here -- there are plenty of species unique to Chiloé, like the Rufous-legged owl, the pudú (the smallest deer in the world), mountain monkeys, and the Chilean shrew opossum.
Charles Darwin visited the island in 1834, and wrote that it was just one big forest with a visually pleasing variety of green tones, where winters were dreadful and summers only marginally better. He noted that whilst the natives had enough to eat, they were desperately poor because they had no way of earning any money.
photo: Sylvia Pef
The Chiloeans remained loyal to Spain for eight years after Chilean independence was granted in 1826, so the young country punished the island with complete isolation. Even up until the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) opponents of the regime were sent here in exile, as writer Isabel Allende described in her 2012 novel Maya’s Notebook.
Even so, as often happens, a place once considered inadequate, became celebrated. The island has astonishing vegetation, concrete is almost non-existant, and the wooden architecture, including many churches, are on UNESCO world cultural heritage lists and this makes Chiloé attractive to visitors. In 2012 the New York Times put the island on its list of 45 places to visit quickly before they become overrun with tourists.
Current Chilean President Sebastian Piñera -- who owns property on the island -- feels differently about the isolation of the archipelago, and now the government is on track to develop Chiloé, and fast. Soon it will be linked to the mainland by the construction of the first commercial airport. Of course, this has been highly criticized by the residents here, who fled Santiago’s neoliberal society to settle here, where they’ve opened up small hotels, come to take care of the penguin colonies, rent kayaks, and offer their services as guides. People like Fernando Claude and his wife, who rent out holiday huts, rely on sun and wind energy as much as possible.
Claude recommends kayaking at the crack of dawn, when the reflections in the water take on aspects of characters in the island’s myths. It’s said that the Brujos -- the warlocks who are the real rulers of the island -- meet regularly in a cave near the east coast village of Quicavi.
In Ancud, we asked the owner of a snack place for directions to Quicavi but he said, “no way”. Outsiders are kept away from this cave area by powerful invisible energies against which not even the most powerful SUV stands a chance, much less our small rental car. So, we decided to swap magic and myth for a plate of crabs caught straight from the sea. You’d be hard pressed to find another place on the planet with crabs as fresh and tender as they are here, at the end of the world.
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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