Geopolitics

In Liberia, The Good Faith And Bad Politics Of Ebola

Even as President Sirleaf is criticized by some, one opposition parliament member has decided to donate his own time and money to work directly with those affected by the outbreak.

President Sirleaf at the outbreak of the crisis accepts Chinese aid.
President Sirleaf at the outbreak of the crisis accepts Chinese aid.
Christophe Châtelot

MONROVIA — Legislator Saah Joseph is an exception. First of all, this 38-year-old opposition party member refuses to join the growing ranks of his political allies criticizing the way Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is confronting the deadly Ebola epidemic, which has hit this country hardest.

Second, this parliament member is on the ground every day fighting against the deadly virus at a time when several government ministers have simply fled the country to escape the epidemic that has already killed more than 2,400 Liberians.

"Ebola is a national issue, not a political one," says Joseph, who represents the 13th district of Montserrado (a county that includes the capital, Monrovia). He is a member of the Congress for Democratic Change, the opposition party founded by former soccer player and former presidential candidate George Weah.

Joseph has purchased three second-hand ambulances imported from the U.S. for Ebola patients to be driven to hospitals. That means he actually doubled the number of vehicles that health authorities in Monrovia had at their disposal. Before the crisis, he also created a free school for the poorest families and former child soldiers. "I did all that on my MP salary," he says. "The war had destroyed everything."

The last, gruesome chapter in this country's history in fact left Liberia torn apart in 2003. Moreover, critics say the foreign aid that came into the country since President Sirleaf was first elected in 2006 has been squandered.

Hassan Bility, West Africa regional director at the human rights organization Global Justice and Research Project, says: "There's no trace of it: not in health, nor in education or infrastructure."

Before Ebola

Most of the money now being pledged to help Liberia fight Ebola has not yet actually arrived in the country, but the defiance towards Sirleaf, 2011's Nobel Peace Prize winner, is growing, having begun well before the current Ebola outbreak. "It really started with her reelection in 2011," a foreign diplomat working in Monrovia says. "The level of corruption is ever-increasing. She's placing people close to her in the highest positions, including her son at the head of Liberia's National Security Agency."

Sirleaf is also accused of having waited until the end of July to react to the deadly epidemic that began months earlier, and of taking advantage of it to give herself more executive powers, which she did on Oct. 10.

"She wanted to limit freedom of movement, of speech and of reunion and asked to be able to requisition private properties without compensation," says Moses Acarous Gray, one of the most vocal opponents within the Congress for Democratic Change. "When our rulers have such powers, that's called dictatorship."

On a recent day, MP Joseph said he prefers not to talk politics, but rather focus on an anti-Ebola treatment center managed by the Health Ministry and the World Health Organization. The nurses in this 150-bed hospital, which was overcrowded as soon as it opened in mid-September, were threatening to go on strike if their monthly bonus wasn't raised to $700, from the less than $500 they get now on top of their $200 wages.

To ease their daily expenses, Joseph decides to make one of his buses available to transport them from their homes to this high-risk hospital. This comes on top of the vague promises the government has made about the bonuses. The strike is cancelled. "Everybody does what they can," he says. "But it's true that the people aren't very happy."

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Society

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

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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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