January 17, 2014
CAIRO — The statue of the founder of the Bank of Egypt, Talaat Harb, stands in one of the busiest traffic junctions in the center of Cairo. This week, it was surrounded by four posters advocating a “Yes” vote in the referendum for the new Constitution.
The overwhelming victory for the referendum, according to early results, marks a crossroads in the turbulent post-Mubarak era of Egypt. There are many here hoping that this, along with the ban late last year on the Muslim Brotherhood, will restore a sense of stability after three years of tumult following the Arab Spring democracy movement.
But beyond the cafes and metros full of diligent citizens intent on reading the 247 articles in the proposed new Constitution, the rest of the country is already thinking towards the next election. If popular demand is anything to go by, the successor to the dethroned President Mohammed Morsi should be the military strongman and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The use of conditional tense here is essential as the architect of last summer’s coup has not yet put forward his candidacy, leaving the field open to the left-wing Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, General Sami Hanan, and icon of the old Shafik regime and moderate Islamist Aboul Foutauh.
Mubarak once deemed Sisi, who'd served as his chief of military intelligence, “as cunning as a snake.” Morsi, whom he'd eventually oust last summer, had appointed him to the top military post based in part on his religious credentials (demonstrated by his always-veiled daughter). A Gallup survery found that 90% of Egyptians see Sisi as essentially much longed-for shelter from the storm.
“There’s nobody else,” explains Samer Askander, at his stand in the Khan al-Khalili market, a destination for the increasingly rare tourists.
Samer is waiting for the announcement: “Next week we’ll put out pendants with the face of the new president on them.” With a mixture of pride, superstition, and despair, another stall owner Nermin Nazim has already launched his successful line of bracelet with the name of the saviour of his country from what he calls “Islamic fascism.”
“He’s the man who suggested after the parliamentary elections in 2010 that the army prepare itself for an impending revolt and to stay out of it,” remembers octogenarian journalist Mohammad Hassanin Heikal, who'd served former presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.
He tells those he knows that the Minister for Defence is “atypical” of the military: “He doesn’t shout, he doesn’t give in to anger, he’s never where you think he might be — even when he’s looking right at you.”
At the iconic Tahrir Square, the presence of the 59-year-old Sisi is both invisible and ubiquitous. A sober, sand-colored monument has taken the place of the tents, and the noisy cars are back. This message exudes order, discipline, normality. But to really sniff out the mood of the city, just take a trip to the shops, and not just ones like Kakao Lounge, a pastry shop that sells kilos of chocolate with the enigmatic smile of the general on them for less than a euro. This same smile, which is really reminiscent of the Sphinx, has a place in almost every window, an affirmation of identity even before conscious political choice.
“The economy won’t restart without security and we only have Sisi,” says Khaled el Hindi, a founder of the Tamarod movement which collected millions of signatures to oust Morsi. Their office is closed and Mohammed Khamis, one of the founders, speaks to me via telephone from his hometown, Hurghada, where he has gone back to be a tour operator: “I don’t like the idea that the army is our destiny, but what other option is there?”
From Luxor, another tour guide, Francis Amin Mohareb confirms the fear that the Valley of the Kings felt when Morsi nominated a member of Gamaa Islamiya, the terrorists responsible for the 1997 attacks that killed 62 people, as governor in June 2013: “The tourists are finally starting to come back, Sisi is our solution.”
Is it real? “It’s Islamophobia pushing Sisi forward, but there aren’t any alternatives. Revolutions happen in waves; even the French resorted to Napoleon after ten years of instability,” notes political analyst Said Sadek in a cafe in Cairo’s American University, where students, like his daughter, dream of Western democracy. “This isn’t Stockholm, idealism must give way to realism even at a cost of a temporary return to military authority.”
In reality there are some dissenters. There’s the supporters of the Brotherhood stationed in front of the Al-Azhar University. Political analyst Ahmed Neguib warns: “If Sisi wins, there will be chaos, because the army will become the target of terrorism.”
Feminists such as Dalia Ahmed still haven’t forgiven Sisi for the mandatory virginity tests imposed by the army at the Tahrir protests. On March 9, 2011, 17 of the women protesting were detained, beaten, prodded with electric shock batons, subjected to strip searches, forced to submit to "virginity tests" and threatened with prostitution charges.
Then, there’s the revolutionaries waiting for the release of the anti-coup leaders captained by Ahmed Maher. But even among the military, says a source, despair reigns: “If Sisi is elected, we will all be dragged into the management of public order in exchange for having only criticized the difficulties of a country that hasn’t gotten back on its feet quickly.”
“But who else is there if not Sisi?” asks activist Daoud Bakker in a restaurant in Zamalek. “He stands back and lets his legend grow.”
Khaled Hafez, a star of the Biennale art exhibition, is preparing Andy Warhol style portraits of the Generalissimo, multiplying his face by four, Egypt's redemptive, post-modern Big Brother.
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food / travel
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.
October 20, 2021
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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