It is not entirely clear what inspired Omar Mateen to commit the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, or what might have been done to stop it.
But it happened in a gay club, just two weeks shy of the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and on a weekend when cities across the country, including Washington, were holding gay pride festivals.
It was perpetrated during the holy month of Ramadan by an American-born man whose family originally came from Afghanistan. During the attack, he reportedly made a 911 call pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.
He did it with a handgun and an AR-15 â€" the same semiautomatic rifle that was part of the arsenals used to kill 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012; 20 first-graders and six adults later that year in Newtown, Conn.; and 14 others at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., last December.
It has always been true that the toughest issues are those that pit our values against our fears. And in this tragedy, as with so many before it, both parties are certain to seek political leverage.
Meanwhile, the countryâ€™s anxieties have been rekindled. â€œIn one sense, all of this seems so far out of control, you just wonder if thereâ€™s any way of ever getting it under control,â€ said George Pettice, an insurance agent from Charlotte, N.C. â€œDo we now start locking ourselves up in our houses, afraid to go anywhere?â€
Not since 9/11 has a moment like this brought the nation together, and that evaporated quickly. Since then, calamity seems only to drive the left and the right further apart, while faith in the nationâ€™s institutions deteriorates further.
Across the ideological and partisan divide, it no longer seems possible to even explore â€" much less agree upon â€" causes and solutions. So the response has been muddled, even while the next tragedy looms.
â€œAlthough itâ€™s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate,â€ President Obama said Sunday. â€œAnd as Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.â€
While Obama refrained from speculating about whether Mateenâ€™s religious beliefs might have been a factor in the rampage â€" or even saying the word â€œIslamâ€ â€" he did make an appeal for tighter gun control.
â€œThe shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle,â€ the president said. â€œThis massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub.â€
â€œAnd we have to decide if thatâ€™s the kind of country we want to be,â€ Obama added. â€œAnd to actively do nothing is a decision as well.â€
Obamaâ€™s comments reflected his frustration over the failure of his efforts to tighten the nationâ€™s gun laws following the Newtown massacre. Recent polling suggests that support for gun control is on the decline.
Critics, however, would argue that Obamaâ€™s observation about doing nothing could also apply to failing to face up to the religious component of many acts of terrorism.
If Muslim beliefs were behind the attack, said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), â€œcommon sense tells you he specifically targeted the gay community because of the views that exist in the radical Islamic community with regard to the gay community.â€
â€œI think itâ€™s something weâ€™ll have to talk about some more here, across the country,â€ Rubio said.
Others pointed out that many other religions have no claim to moral superiority, when it comes to their attitudes toward gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
â€œWe want to get on the moral high ground when it comes to policing homophobia in other religions,â€ ESPN commentator Jemele Hill, a former Orlando resident, said in an interview. â€œWeâ€™re not the ones to be engaging in this, as if we have always been supportive of these issues. History says just the opposite.â€
Tough â€" and intolerant â€" rhetoric has often been a winner for politicians at times when Americans are worried about their security.
Trump, who advocates putting a temporary ban on Muslims entering this country, saw his poll numbers rise significantly in the wake of the San Bernardino attack, as well as after a series of terrorist assaults in Paris last November.
That may be why presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton struck a purposeful tone in her response to the Orlando mass shooting, although she, like Obama, did not make reference to a specific religion.
â€œFor now, we can say for certain that we need to redouble our efforts to defend our country from threats at home and abroad,â€ she said. â€œThat means defeating international terror groups, working with allies and partners to go after them wherever they are, countering their attempts to recruit people here and everywhere, and hardening our defenses at home.â€
She, too, gave a nod to the need for tighter gun control, saying Orlando â€œreminds us once more that weapons of war have no place on our streets.â€
Yet there is danger in going too far to politicize a nationâ€™s grief, even if that happens smack in the middle of a presidential election year.
â€œThe key thing here is, this was not a political event,â€ said GOP pollster David Winston. â€œIt is a tragedy the country has to deal with.â€
And perhaps, at some point, to demand a solution.
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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