All This Has Been Written Before, Literature As Oracle

We have already been revealed, both our leaders and ourselves, by writers of the past.

A window on the future?
A window on the future?
Valentina Coccia


BOGOTÁ — Great writers are not just observers, narrators or interpreters of social happenings: They are also prophets who survey history. They send us auguries from above.

The rise of Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen's ascendance in French opinion polls, Brexit and Colombia's No vote to the peace deal with the FARC guerillas have drawn readers to apocalyptic works of fiction like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Reading such works can give us a deeper understanding of what is happening around us, and what we are leaving behind. I'm going to cite three texts that have held up a mirror to the world and have illustrated how our lifestyles are making us forget our human nature.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote an article in 1950 in the paper La Nación entitled "The Wall and the Books' (La muralla y los libros) about Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ting. He wrote, "I read some days ago that the man who ordered that almost infinite wall of China was its first great emperor, Shih Huang Ting, who also ordered that all books preceding him be burned. I was both inexplicably satisfied and worried that one person should be the source of two vast operations, one of putting up 560 leagues of stones against the barbarians, and the other, a rigorous abolition of history or the past."

That text reminds me of our own times, when walls that had come down are being rebuilt stone by stone to ensure we stay ignorant about other people's humanity and to make us deaf to their voices and languages. Like that Chinese emperor, history today condemns us to forget ourselves, our pasts and what we did to arrive here. Burning books symbolizes the destruction of all knowledge and the histories of peoples; it robs us of our legitimate curiosity and the right to mold our reality.

Borges in 1976 — Photo: Wikipedia

The world today is sending us back, blinded, to situations and tragedies that must not occur again. The French playwright Eugène Ionesco foresaw our present fate in the mid-20th century, when automation was already underway as part of the grand strategy of productivity. He told a conference in 1961 that "the modern, universal man is the busy man. He has no time and is a prisoner to necessity. He cannot contemplate the absence of utility. He also fails to understand that useful things are themselves a useless, depressing weight."

Such individuals have not only forgotten an innate curiosity inherent in human impulse toward knowledge and beauty. They have also placed themselves at the eternal service of whoever commands them, sacrificing their lives to mass production, and paying homage to an empty life filled with wealth and belongings.

Lifting himself above his primitive needs, he made himself human.

Borges and Ionesco both painted accurate portraits of our current time. One depicted the historical forces that would move us, with an emperor that may remind us of Trump or Le Pen. The other revealed to us ourselves — the people who work everyday and submit to the reckless rhythm of productivity, without curiosity or a moment to pause and admire a setting sun.

Besides bequeathing us their predictions, the souls behind those masterful writings invite us to recall everything we have forgotten: our taste for beauty, our pulsating minds, the yearning for knowledge itself.

Japanese writer Kakuzo Okakura observed in The Book of Tea (1906) that men transcended their animal impulses with the first bouquet of flowers they offered a girl. "Lifting himself above his natural and primitive needs, he made himself human. And when man sensed there was use in the useless, he entered the realm of art."

With these words Okakura reminds us of our identity, and fills us with nostalgia. He helps us see how the present — that overwhelming tide that brings all and takes all — has cast the treasures of our humanity on a distant shore that's waiting to be found.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

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.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

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.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

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?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

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.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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