Her eyes tear up when I come into the room although the word “daughter” holds no meaning for her anymore. When friends and relatives ask me "How’s your mother?," they are not referring to the woman I used to relate to in that role, but to a whole other person behind an invisible wall.
I give her a kiss on the cheek, and she smiles and strokes my hand. Sometimes she says or does something that seems like old times but it’s really just husks of what used to be that still linger inside her.
It takes a lot of time to get her ready for her walk, into her coat and shoes. She can’t remember how to put shoes on anymore. We need the help of a carer to get her coat on: it’s difficult to get a person’s arms into sleeves when that person doesn’t understand why. Also, my mother no longer trusts anybody.
So much of her has gone, so she’s afraid of losing herself completely – she doesn’t want to sit down or stand up because she’s afraid to lose control over space the way she already has over time. She is constantly on the defensive. But I’m not giving up. I don’t want to lose our walks too. But they get shorter every time.
I have to admit that in some ways my mother was always a challenge for me, even before she got sick. We fought a lot. When I was writing my doctoral thesis, she used to send me want ads for secretarial positions so I wouldn’t get too self-important. Nowadays such things no longer matter, and I am just a person that knows deep down within herself she has emotional ties to – she just can’t remember why. And I have to accept that. Anger is not the answer, and I try not to grieve too much.
I pull open the heavy door – extra heavy as a deterrent to running away – of the premises my mother shares with eight other dementia patients, and we go outside. I gulp in the fresh air – the smell of urine is ever present inside. What will it be like when we can’t go on walks anymore? What will we do when I visit? She doesn’t talk anymore. She seems to enjoy being read to but when we leaf through old photo albums I sometimes feel as if I’m trying to prove to her that there was a past.
"Who’s that you’re with?" I remember her doctor asking her once when she saw us together, and my mother had looked at me, smiled, opened her mouth and then shut it again, confused. "That’s right, that’s your daughter isn’t it," the doctor had filled in, and she’d nodded.
I had thought that maybe if I so totally believed she was still my mother, it would give her an anchor and she would believe it too. But then I saw from the way her eyes were darting around as if looking for something – something from the past perhaps, maybe even something that had never existed. My mother is no longer here, I thought. She has become someone else.
A woman who reminds me of my mother
Walking down the street, she particularly enjoys it when we encounter small children. I tell her about my children – her grandchildren – but she no longer remembers them. My daughter doesn’t want to come see her grandmother anymore, because the last time mom told her “Get out! I don’t know you!” But then when the child, in tears, had said “But you’re my Gran!” she had felt pity for this unknown, crying child who couldn’t find her grandma and she had stroked her head.
A fire truck drives by sirens blaring, and this angers Mom; she puts her hand up as if to ward it off. Sometimes she gets angry with me as well – she tried to hit me once when I was helping her shower. Since then I have only helped her shower infrequently; I leave it up to a carer to bathe her, not because it’s so difficult but because I remember how when she swung at me she suddenly became my mom again. I wouldn’t have tried to hit her back but I would have hated her, and I have no right to because she’s not my mother – she’s a helpless, scared woman who sometimes reminds me of my mother.
When we get to the playground, she wants to go in – she likes the kids, but she also threatens them if they get too loud, and that frightens them. So I steer her past the park. It also frightens me to see the anger come out of her, that she used to keep well-hidden maybe even from herself. All the aggressions a good mother was not supposed to have, the endless sacrifice. "You go ahead and eat, I’m not hungry," she would say and would only eat after we’d all had our fill.
We walk by her old apartment. We had put off having her in care because we didn’t want to take her out of familiar surroundings. But a month after she moved out, she stopped recognizing the old building where she and her husband lived for ten years. The loss of her husband, about ten years ago was when it all began. She was in her early sixties, and I in my late thirties. She lost the great love of her life and with him her interest in living. She withdrew into herself.
She is slowing down now, leaning more heavily on my arm. She wants to go back to the home. She seems as she often does, to be searching for something, mainly with her eyes, her hands. Fleetingly I think that as an adult I have no right to a mother, yet there’s a pinprick of sadness and also anger at the thought that there are other women who go home to visit their mother and get their favorite meal cooked, get a call and a present on their birthday … and you, you don’t even know my name.
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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