GARABULLI — Two unfinished houses on the sand, facing a Mediterranean sea in shades of grey. So this is where they left from.
According to various Libyan sources, the vessel carrying more than 800 people left Libya on what became its fateful crossing between Saturday April 18 and Sunday 19 from this long stretch of weed-spotted beach in Garabulli, about 30 kilometers east of Tripoli.
Together with Zuwara, Sabratha, Zawiya, Al-Khums and Zliten, this is one of the boarding bases for boats out of Tripolitania, the area around the capital, heading towards Italy and its deadly mirages.
To reach Garabulli, you first need to cross a checkpoint and pass a pickup truck spiked with machine guns. The atmosphere is highly-charged just days after fights between local militias, growing more commonplace as Libya sinks into chaos. Past the checkpoint, you need to take bumpy roads eaten by the sand where flocks of sheep sometimes cross. Then suddenly, the desolate coast appears with these wrecked dumps that serve as night-time shelters before the great departure.
Abdoul Malik Mohamed’s trousers are stained with white paint. The young Nigerien works in Garabulli. He arrived in Libya in 2014 after having crossed the desert, guided by smugglers. "There were about 15 of us," he says. "Four-wheel drives transported us from Agadez in Niger to Sabha in Libya, and from Sabha to Tripoli. Our smugglers were Nigeriens and Libyans."
In Garabulli, Abdoul Malik Mohamed found a job working on the construction site of a seaside resort. It is a slightly surreal setting of varnished huts surrounded by high grass, owned by locals who want to turn it into a vacation haven for Tripoli’s wealthy families.
But the young Nigerien sees something else when he looks north. Pointing his finger towards the sea, he remembers the day last summer. "There were bodies everywhere on the beach, we couldn’t even count them anymore."
Sitting next to him, his brother Abdoulaye Mohamed does mention a figure. "There were 250," he says. Garabulli, the gateway to the sea of death.
The two Nigeriens are the other side of African immigration in Libya. They have no intention to attempt the perilous adventure to Europe. They’re here to make a bit of money in a country that used to be a gold mine for day laborers and which, despite the chaos, continues to offer odd jobs.
In all towns and cities around the capital region, migrant workers are everywhere. You can see them working on the roads, paving the sidewalks, washing cars, cleaning shop windows, building houses. They earn up to 600 or 700 dinars per month ($500 dollars).
For many immigrants from Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, this money is saved to pay for their crossing of the Mediterranean. But for those from Niger, a neighboring country they can return to easily, Libya is an end in itself, a simple source of revenue before they go back. "We’ll return home to Niger in six months, no doubt about that," says Abdoulaye Mohamed. "It’s too dangerous! I’ll never let my brother go to Europe."
His brother Abdoul Malik has no intention of making the crossing either. "I’ll never go, I’m afraid I’ll die," he says, remembering again what he saw last summer.
Thirty kilometers away, dusk falls on Tripoli. The city is surprisingly empty. Cars drive along the seafront road, lined with buildings of Italian-style architecture. But the small number of vehicles is troubling in a capital city that used to be clogged up in traffic. Tripoli has become an unstable and unpredictable city. Nights are chilly with gusts of machine gun fire that tear up the thick silence, a mournful ritual that ended up emptying the city of part of its population.
In a dusty back alley, Yaya Moussa sweeps between the cardboard boxes and plastic bags littering the ground. The fabric shops are closing, vans are loading up bundles of fabric. Moussa cuts a fine figure in his yellow uniform. He is also from Niger. But unlike many of his fellow countrymen, he’s not so sure he’s given up on the idea of going to Europe altogether. "If the opportunity arises, why not?," he says. His friend Al-Hussaini Gumar, dressed in an AC Milan soccer jersey, says instead that it's too dangerous.
While they wait for a European adventure or a return home, how long will the two Nigeriens stay in Tripoli? The atmosphere is growing more inhospitable by the day. Not to mention that they have stopped receiving their wages. "We haven’t been paid in five months," Moussa says.
The lack of wages is a key detail that says much about the relentless exhaustion of the resources of a country that used to benefit a lot from oil revenues. And there’s the surrounding violence they can no longer ignore. "When fights erupt in Tripoli, sometimes migrants die because of stray bullets."
So, what should they do: flee back home in the face of danger or stay to earn a bit more for their family? And there is always the beach, which stares at them with the opportunity of a better life in Europe, or an anonymous death, like so many who left before.
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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