BUENOS AIRES - The train works. And almost every time it leaves from Constitution Station in Buenos Aires, it reaches its destination, Mar del Plata, 410 Kilometers to the south. It works, which means that it functions in the most basic sense of the word: it moves.
It repeats the trip every day of the year, which is why the service is called ‘daily.’ On the way to Mar del Plata, the six hour and 20 minute train is more accurately described as ‘nightly.’ It works. The train rocks brusquely from side to side, in a disconcerting movement that imitates an earthquake simulator. Every once and a while the movement is vertical and the passengers’ rear ends are momentarily unstuck from their seats, like when are airplane hits an air pocket. The train runs along the tracks, although the sound it makes is more like a metallic groan of being dragged along.
The formation moves. And then it stops suddenly, for no particular reason. The passengers are used to the windows broken by stones, the bathrooms without water or paper, the defeated and torn seats. They travel and live with the ample evidence of years, possibly decades, of abandon and neglect.
At Buenos Aires’ Constitution Station, 180 people get on the train, filling the six wagons more than halfway, and the train lurches towards its destination on the Atlantic coast right on time, at 11:05 pm. It is a Wednesday, and most of the passengers are headed to Mar del Plata for work.
Most of the people sleep huddled up in the seats of the ‘single class,’ which cost 78 pesos ($17), with no heat and a restroom equipped with an endless toilet bowl through which one can watch the tracks go by. The single class wagons all resemble each other: hooded figures in a fetal position, or wrapped in all sorts of blankets or embracing themselves to combat the cold and dream of a more pleasant voyage, which have the added advantage of making the time pass more quickly.
The insomniacs gather between wagons to warm up, smoking different kinds of cigarettes, some legal, others not. Some drink mate or fill plastic cups with red wine - everything serves to chase the wet, cold air out of the body. Others let themselves shiver in silence. Almost nobody complains.
In the ‘Pullman class’ wagons, which cost 108 pesos ($23), it is the opposite: the heat is so overpowering that people can’t sleep. In the middle of the night, a woman comes out of a Pullman wagon, dressed in a sweat suit. She can’t stand the heat and is afraid that when she steps out into the cold when we arrive, she’ll get sick. She freshens up in the sink in the bathroom, but looks for the mirror only to find its shape drawn on the wall with the glue that at one point held it up.
Some people blame the company for the neglect. For others, like the woman in the sweat suit, it’s the passengers who “don’t take care of anything and break everything.” At least during our trip, there are no security personnel to prevent passengers from damaging things.
Ghosts of glory days past
From the train’s glory days, when it took half as long as the bus and was as shiny as in the photos on the train company’s brochure - it’s not clear if those photos exist to trick customers or as a tribute to better days - the only thing left is the restaurant car. Tonight it’s serving buns with ham and cheese or Wiener schnitzel. Almost nobody is eating.
A man with a white mustache sits down to have a beer. He’s alone, and he doesn’t talk. He drinks a sip and smokes a Marlboro. He repeats the sequence until the ashtray is filled up with five crushed cigarette butts and the can is empty. Every once in a while he glances at the clock, while the pink curtains sway with the movement, opaque with dust that has probably been accumulating since the wagon was last renovated, in 1994. A woman murmurs to her companion “This train was marvelous 30 years ago. Now they don’t even wash the curtains.”
When the train arrives at Mar del Plata, at 5:20 am, a woman named Tatiana confesses that she was afraid that the train would derail, like it did a couple of days ago. “With those little jumps I thought we would go flying off. The train is super old, but it gets there.”
Later, a mechanic from Ferrobaires, the State-owned company that runs the train service, tells me that there is essentially no maintenance on the trains or tracks. “The tracks are not in optimal conditions. But that isn’t to say that the train can’t use them. The thing is that no one is maintaining anything, and what is done is done poorly.” On the condition of anonymity, he added, “It’s a very cheap train. The people who travel with it can’t afford anything else so they get used to it.”
In the end, habit triumphs over indignation. Thursday morning’s traveling companion was a thick sense of resignation, which paradoxically, translated into dignity. “It’s ugly, but it’s what we can afford. Otherwise we would take the high-speed train or the bus, which cost twice as much,” said Mario, a clothing salesperson. The train started to slow down. And between shadows, under a maroon sky, the architecture of Mar del Plata’s train station appeared in front of us. On one side, there are modern buses, and on the other, an old white train announcing it’s arrival with a loud screech, a mechanical wail that repeats itself every day.
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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