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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes: Survival, Appropriation, and Resistance in Gentrifying Immigrant Neighborhoods

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Introduction
In many urban neighborhoods, “ethnic markets” are the primary— if not
the only— source of food. Most are small stores operated by owners who
belong to groups socially constructed as “ethnic”— a fluid and situational
category related to immigration, race, and class and involving both self-
identification and classification by others. These enterprises not only make
food accessible to local residents and thereby reduce food insecurity but
also create economic opportunities for immigrants, contribute to a sense of
place and community, and help revitalize neighborhoods (Joassart- Marcelli,
Rossiter, and Bosco 2017).
Nevertheless, ethnic markets are often vilified as selling overpriced,
unhealthy, and low- quality food— a perception that contributes to the stig-
matization of ethnic neighborhoods and the devaluation of immigrant food
practices (Joassart- Marcelli, Rossiter, and Bosco 2017). Paradoxically, urban
ethnic markets and eateries have also recently become a terrain for foodies
to distinguish themselves by their cosmopolitan, democratic, and adven-
turous attitudes (Johnston and Baumann 2010; McClintock, Novie, and
Gebhardt 2017).
As we began writing this chapter, these contradictions were laid bare by
intense conflicts surrounding a proposed fruteria (a fruit and juice shop)
in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego— one of our study sites.
When a young white woman— known on social media as the “barefoot
bohemian”— proclaimed her intention to “create an urban sanctuary” and
“bring healthy options to the barrio,” she stirred up a storm in the com-
munity, both online and offline, with people accusing her of appropriating
3 Contested Ethnic Foodscapes: Survival, Appropriation,
and Resistance in Gentrifying Immigrant Neighborhoods
Pascale Joassart- Marcelli and Fernando J. Bosco
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60 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
Mexican culture, contributing to gentrification, and behaving as a “white
savior” (Zaragoza 2017).
These contradictions reflect historical ambivalence regarding the mean-
ing of ethnic food and the place of immigrants in cities. They also reveal
new developments in the political, economic, and cultural geographies of
cities. Global migration, neoliberal urban politics, and economic restructur-
ing, including rising inequality and the expansion of cultural economies
based on consumption and lifestyles, have deeply transformed contempo-
rary cities and encouraged new forms of gentrification (Amin and Thrift
2007; Theodore, Peck, and Brenner 2011). Today, food and lifestyles in gen-
eral have become means to brand places and generate economic value but
also to differentiate and exclude (Joassart- Marcelli and Bosco 2018a).
In this chapter, we examine the place- based tensions surrounding food
and ethnicity in the context of gentrification. We define gentrification as
the transformation of low- income urban areas into upper- middle- class resi-
dential and commercial use that is accompanied by the displacement of
residents (Lees, Slater, and Wyly 2008). In particular, we draw attention to
the contested meanings of ethnic food and taste in urban neighborhoods
that have been historically associated with immigrant communities and
are now being transformed into trendy consumption sites by an influx of
capital and new residents. We explore the contradictions between racial-
ized descriptions of immigrant neighborhoods as “food swamps” and “food
deserts” on the one hand and the simultaneous praise of their authenticity,
diversity, and sense of place on the other hand. We ask, who shapes the
discursive and material production of ethnic food, and to what ends?
We begin with a critical overview of the concept of an ethnic foodscape,
using a historical example from New York’s Lower East Side. We then turn
our attention to City Heights and Barrio Logan, two San Diego neighbor-
hoods characterized by large and diverse immigrant populations, active
ethnic food economies, and varying levels of gentrification pressure. Our
goal is to emphasize the fluid, relational, and contested nature of these two
ethnic foodscapes.
Ethnic Foodscapes as Fluid and Contested Spaces
The concept of a foodscape is useful to contextualize understandings of
food in particular places and draw attention to the social, economic, politi-
cal, and cultural factors shaping its significance (Joassart- Marcelli and Bosco
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 61
2018b). It highlights the material and discursive environments in which
food acquires meaning and emphasizes the importance of perspective—
the angle from which landscapes are observed, including the unique lens
of ethnicity. According to Joassart- Marcelli, Salim, and Vu (2018), ethnic
foodscapes consist of physical places (e.g., ethnic enclaves, home kitchens,
restaurants, markets, gardens), people (e.g., immigrant cooks, street ven-
dors, shopowners, tourists, experts), objects (e.g., ingredients, spices, seeds,
cookware), discourses (e.g., understanding of health, domesticity, belong-
ing, ethnicity), and sensual elements (e.g., tastes, smells, sounds, memories)
that are associated with the foodways of ethnic groups in particular places.
Historically, restaurants, street carts, and food stores have been central
elements of ethnic foodscapes, providing economic opportunities to the
first and subsequent generations of immigrants, helping feed families, and
structuring social interactions within neighborhoods (Gabaccia 1998). New
York’s Lower East Side provides a poignant example of how food, ethnicity,
and place are coproduced. At the turn of the twentieth century, hundreds
of thousands of Eastern European and Russian Jews moved into its cramped
tenements, replacing previous generations of German immigrants. Pushcart
vendors, street markets, coffeehouses, kosher bakeries, delis, butcher shops,
and restaurants emerged throughout the neighborhood (Lobel 2015). They
provided residents with a source of income, contributed to social reproduc-
tion, strengthened the cultural fabric of the neighborhood, and shaped the
rhythm of the streets. They also attracted the attention of outsiders, includ-
ing cultural elites drawn by the bohemian atmosphere (Beck 2014). Since
then, most Jewish families have relocated elsewhere, making room for new
waves of immigrants (see chapter 4 of this volume for Maryam Khojasteh’s
analysis of this dynamic in the context of Philadelphia). Over time, Latino
bodegas, Middle Eastern stores, and Chinese restaurants replaced previous
businesses, yet Jewish food continues to frame the Lower East Side’s sense
of place. However, it now does so in a nostalgic and commoditized form
that reflects gentrification trends and the tastes of more affluent consum-
ers attracted by the historic character of the neighborhood (Beck 2014).
Remaining Jewish restaurants such as Katz’s Delicatessen, Russ & Daugh-
ters, and The Original Yonah Schimmel Knishery have been praised by food
critics and have reached cult status, attracting locals and tourists in search
of an “authentic” New York experience.
The different meanings associated with ethnic food reflect a funda-
mental tension between what could be described as the use value of ethnic
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62 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
foodscapes (their ability to fulfill a physical and social need for residents of
ethnic enclaves) and their symbolic value (their contribution to social status,
distinction, and identity). In contrast to use value, which cannot be easily
monetized, symbolic value has become a major source of profit in today’s
cultural economy (Baudrillard 2000). Along those lines, Bourdieu (1984)
argued that the symbolic value of food— or taste— is a socially produced
means of class distinction. In rapidly changing neighborhoods, food— which
is both biologically necessary and deeply symbolic— has become a tangible
medium for newcomers and earlier residents, as well as immigrants and
natives, to relate to each other. While ethnic food may promote encounters
and forge connections between different groups, it also tends to exacerbate
differences, reflecting broader sociospatial processes associated with class,
race, ethnicity, and different understandings of “good food.”
This chapter seeks to unpack these tensions by investigating current
developments surrounding ethnic food businesses in San Diego. Our analy-
sis rests on fieldwork conducted during the past five years in City Heights
and Barrio Logan. In 2015, we conducted audits of all food stores in City
Heights (n=82). In summer 2016, we followed up with interviews of owners
(n=24) and customers (n=67) of ethnic businesses in that neighborhood,
working with interviewers speaking English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
While we do not have the same extensive primary data for Barrio Logan, we
have an intimate knowledge of the neighborhood, as well as observational,
media, and census data, which warrant using it as a comparative study site.
Ethnic Foodscapes of City Heights and Barrio Logan
Despite their unique histories, City Heights and Barrio Logan are representa-
tive of many so- called inner- ring urban areas in US cities. They first emerged
as middle- class residential areas on the outskirts of the central business dis-
trict in the late 1800s and prospered until discriminatory planning deci-
sions and political- economic forces changed their fate. Their foodscapes
therefore must be understood within these shifting political and economic
contexts.
In Barrio Logan, economic decline occurred in the early twentieth cen-
tury, when the railroad brought factories and warehouses to the area. As
lumberyards, canning facilities, and shipyards were added to the land-
scape, partly because of zoning regulations favorable to such industries,
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 63
wealthier residents left their Victorian homes and relocated to more desir-
able areas (Rosen and Fisher 2001). Most of those who remained were Lati-
nos employed in local industries and restricted from owning or renting a
house in other areas by racially biased housing covenants (Guevarra 2012).
Immigrants from Mexico settled in the neighborhood in large numbers
throughout the first half of the century. By 1950, Barrio Logan was one of
the largest Mexican American communities in California (Delgado 1998).
In the 1960s, the construction of Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bridge
galvanized the community in the Chicano movement (Rosen and Fisher
2001) but also contributed to the loss and deterioration of housing, the exit
of more affluent residents, the worsening of environmental conditions, and
the economic decline of the neighborhood— trends that continued until
very recently (Le Texier 2007).
Until the 1960s, City Heights was a typical white middle- class suburb,
with an active commercial main street and a majority of single- family
houses. However, rapid suburbanization subsidized by housing and trans-
portation policies spurred the relocation of the most affluent residents and
businesses, leaving behind lower- income households (Wolch, Pastor, and
Dreier 2004). Here, too, decisions by city planners to rezone the area for
multifamily residences, and state and federal highway construction, trans-
formed the community (Ford and Griffin 1979), heralding a long era of
decline and neglect (Bliesner and Bussell 2013).
Today, both neighborhoods are home to many immigrants and racial
minority groups who have taken up residence in the multiunit buildings
that replaced single- family homes. Barrio Logan maintains a distinct Chi-
cano and Mexican identity. Although it also has a large Latino population,
City Heights is much more ethnically diverse: in the past 30 years, it grad-
ually became one of the largest refugee resettlement areas in California,
welcoming successive waves of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia,
Ukraine, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, and, more recently, Burma and Syria.
Despite differences in their ethnic compositions, both neighborhoods
have very small proportions of non- Latino white residents— 9.6% in Barrio
Logan and 11.7% in City Heights (US Census Bureau 2016).
Figure 3.1 shows the location of City Heights and Barrio Logan and for
each neighborhood highlights the high proportion of foreign- born residents
relative to the rest of the region in 2016 (US Census Bureau 2016). Data from
the US census in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010 consistently reveal significantly
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64 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
higher proportions of immigrants and nonwhite residents, higher poverty
rates, larger household sizes, and lower home ownership rates in these two
neighborhoods (and the surrounding areas) than in San Diego as a whole.
By the 1970s, the neighborhoods south and east of downtown, includ-
ing our two study areas, had come to be viewed by the general population
as dangerous and dysfunctional places and by entrepreneurs and finan-
cial institutions as too risky for investment, reflecting earlier patterns of
redlining (Ford and Griffin 1979). Meanwhile, the city of San Diego began
concentrating its redevelopment efforts in the downtown area, banking on
tourism and real estate to stimulate growth and ignoring growing problems
in surrounding communities (Chapin 2002).
The foodscapes of City Heights and Barrio Logan reflect these unique
histories of marginalization and neglect. Both have recently been described
by residents, local media, and community- based organizations alike as
food deserts, despite the presence of numerous small grocery stores and
Figure 3.1
Proportion of foreign- born residents by census tract, central San Diego, American
Community Survey 2012– 2016.
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 65
restaurants (Joassart- Marcelli, Rossiter, and Bosco 2017), reflecting inher-
ent biases in the food desert concept (Shannon 2014; Widener 2018). It is
true that, by 1980, very few food retailers remained. The city of San Diego’s
historic business license records indicate that there were only three licensed
food stores in City Heights at that time, including a grocery store, a conve-
nience market, and a gas station, and three restaurants, serving pizza, fast
food, and Mexican fare (City of San Diego 2017). In Barrio Logan, there were
six licensed food stores and three restaurants. In the subsequent decades, the
majority of food businesses that opened were so- called ethnic businesses.
By 2015, City Heights was home to 82 food stores and 74 restaurants, most
of which (38 stores and 57 restaurants) had a visible ethnic association,
including many Mexican, Vietnamese, Chinese, and East African businesses.
Barrio Logan’s foodscape has historically been dominated by Mexican busi-
nesses, which by 2016 comprised 8 of the 10 small convenience or specialty
stores and 20 of the 38 restaurants located in the area. Still, neither place
had a supermarket.
Very recently, community- led efforts and tax incentives have succeeded
in attracting a new supermarket in each neighborhood. Both opened in
2016 and brand themselves as Mexican markets, which pleases a major-
ity of residents but also frustrates others, including people who wished for
stores that catered to other ethnic groups and newcomers who would have
preferred trendier and presumably healthier markets. Several food stores,
cafés, and restaurants also have opened within the past few years, offering
“upscale” or “authentic” ethnic food “with a twist.”
At the same time, community gardens and farmers markets have become
part of organized local efforts to increase food security, especially in City
Heights, where refugee organizations have embraced urban agriculture as
a mechanism for integration and resettlement (Bosco and Joassart- Marcelli
2017). These recent changes in the food environment are more than a mere
reflection of demographic trends; they are leading the way in the transfor-
mation of both neighborhoods and, as a result, have become sites of tension.
The Use Value of Ethnic Foodscapes in the Everyday Lives of Immigrants
Although the food environments of City Heights and Barrio Logan are
often depicted in similarly negative terms, they play important roles in the
everyday life of these communities. In Barrio Logan, fruterias, tortillerias,
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66 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
carnicerias, and other Mexican businesses have dominated the landscape,
while food establishments in City Heights replicate the ethnic diversity of its
residents, with Asian, East African, and Latino businesses operating side by
side. Although there are concerns, particularly from public health experts,
regarding the affordability, healthfulness, and quality of food, these small
establishments have been instrumental in providing local residents with
culturally appropriate food— often at prices competitive with those of super-
markets in surrounding areas (Joassart- Marcelli, Rossiter, and Bosco 2017).
In addition, these businesses are often important in creating a sense of place,
promoting social interaction, and fostering community within the micro-
geographies of city blocks.
Figure 3.2 illustrates the location of food stores and restaurants in each
neighborhood, distinguishing between stores without any specific ethnic
association and those visibly associated with very broad ethnic categories.
The maps suggest the presence of active ethnic food economies and chal-
lenge traditional depictions of “food deserts” as devoid of accessible food,
to the extent that most residents have (at the minimum) geographic access
to a variety of food retailers (see also Joassart- Marcelli, Rossiter, and Bosco
2017). Our interviews with customers of ethnic food stores in City Heights
show that, although some residents shop outside their neighborhoods, the
majority patronize local businesses on a regular basis— 3.5 times per week
on average.
For immigrants, and new refugees in particular, the relationship between
shopkeeper and customer goes well beyond economic transactions. We wit-
nessed numerous informal and friendly conversations taking place in the
stores, suggesting that people knew and cared about each other. Natalia,
who owns a Mexican store in City Heights, states, “[My business] is a com-
munity. I know a lot of people here because I’ve been here fourteen years,
so they know me and I know them, but yeah it’s like family, you know?”
Numerous customers also referred to the store in which they had just made
a purchase and the surrounding neighborhood as a “community.” Some
customers also noted the lack of stigma associated with using electronic
benefit transfers (EBT) in these ethnic markets, and owners confirmed that
participating in the EBT program was essential to their business.
Despite the significance of ethnic businesses in the daily lives of resi-
dents, our research indicates that many of these stores struggle to stay
open and be profitable, leading to a high rate of turnover and widespread
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 67
self- exploitation. Indeed, numerous owners, mostly foreign- born men, told
us that they were working 70 to 80 hours per week, often with help from
a spouse, child, or sibling. Many do not count their hours and do not pay
themselves a set income. In very small businesses, personal and business
finances are often mixed without clear accounting; owners take money
from the cash register to buy dinner or put gas in their car and rely on their
own savings to maintain cash flow. Similarly, many owners told us that
they never borrowed money from a bank or received any type of financial
or technical assistance with their business but instead used their own sav-
ings and family contributions to support their professional activities. The
family’s economic and social integration is so deeply intertwined with the
success of the business and its role in the community that the lines between
the three spaces of family, business, and community are often blurred; the
hard work is often justified by future economic gains as well as the positive
Figure 3.2
The ethnic foodscapes of Barrio Logan and City Heights. A variety of food businesses
can be found in both neighborhoods, representing many of the dominant ethnic
groups and providing geographic access to food for most residents.
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68 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
role that the store plays in the neighborhood. For instance, the owner of a
Mexican store told us how much he appreciates it when “[his customers]
say thank you for being here, thank you for having good produce. And I
love that, when they say that because we do work long and hard, put
in so many hours here.” These interactions sustain the livelihood of
shopowners, who depend on good relationships with their customer base,
including providing a welcoming, culturally sensitive, and supportive envi-
ronment. At the same time, they facilitate the daily lives of families, many
of whom struggle with integration, discrimination, and food insecurity.
Contestation in the Ethnic Foodscape: Appropriation and Resistance
Recent changes in Barrio Logan and City Heights have led to tensions in
the communities and contestation in the foodscapes. The return of white
and affluent residents to these neighborhoods is putting upward pressure
on rents and property values, contributing to the displacement of older resi-
dents (Delgado 2017). At the same time, gentrification is putting into ques-
tion the place of ethnic markets and the taste of older residents, including
immigrants who fashioned the foodscape in past decades. While newcom-
ers are attracted to the diversity, simplicity, and authenticity of older food
establishments, they also seek novelty, exoticism, and social distinction— a
trend associated with cosmopolitanism (Johnston and Baumann 2010). This
results in the transformation of food spaces to cater to the tastes of new resi-
dents, often by “improving,” “revamping,” and “glamorizing” ethnic foods.
The photographs in figure 3.3 illustrate how these tensions play out in
the urban landscape, with new food establishments eclipsing older ones.
Immigrants and older residents are typically excluded in this “revitaliza-
tion” process, since they do not own the new businesses, do not have a say
in how the food they serve is prepared, usually cannot afford it, and feel
culturally and emotionally disconnected.
Although the owners of older stores and restaurants we interviewed saw
economic opportunity in gentrification, many feared competition from new
businesses and questioned their ability to meet new demands. In particu-
lar, owners became defensive when asked questions about healthy food— a
heavily classed and raced concept (Hayes- Conroy and Hayes- Conroy 2018;
Guthman 2008) associated with gentrifiers and outsiders. Many pointed out
that the new residents wanted more variety of local and organic produce,
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 69
Figure 3.3
Old and new elements of the ethnic foodscape of Barrio Logan (top row) and City Heights (bottom row). Photographs on the left side illus-
trate the small establishments that have served these two communities for decades, including (A) a Mexican café in Barrio Logan and (B)
an Afro- Caribbean store and (C) a Chinese poultry market in City Heights. Photographs on the right show recent developments, including
(D)an Asian fusion restaurant in a new mixed- use development and (E) a trendy hot dog stand that plays on the Chicano culture of low-
riders in Barrio Logan and (F) a hip coffee shop trailer in City Heights. Photos by the authors.
ADE
BCF
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70 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
but the owners indicated that they did not have the capacity to meet
that demand. According to the owner of a small Mexican market in City
Heights, “The neighborhood is changing a lot. There is a lot of new people
coming in and they demand a lot of new things. I try to provide them,
but it’s really hard because I don’t have the money to purchase them. I
have the space, but having inventory is expensive. I would like to open a
café, but there’s going to be expenses in terms of putting in new windows
and buying chairs. I just don’t have the money.” Another ethnic business
owner explained, “Well now everybody asks for organic. I have to figure
out how I’m going to order it, the quality is very expensive, and my local
customers, they don’t want to spend that.”
Others, however, were adamant that their traditional customers were in
fact already purchasing healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, chicken,
and other unprocessed ingredients, to cook at home— although perhaps
packaged, served, and/or priced differently. They resented being labeled
negatively by new residents who stereotype certain ethnic markets as “junk
food stores”: “Sometimes people tag you as a ‘Mexican store’ or a candy
store or piñata store. I’ve seen people walk by and talk between them-
selves, ‘oh, it’s a candy store, they don’t have [fresh produce] there’ or ‘it’s
a piñata place.’ For some people, if you have a 99 cents number, logo,
anything on your front, people assume you are a 99 cent store and they
don’t come. Some of them might say no, it’s low quality, which I am trying
to stay away from that.”
In contrast, owners of new businesses were often quick to claim their pio-
neering role in bringing healthy and authentic food to the neighborhood,
suggesting that these types of foods were not available until their recent
arrival. For example, the manager of a new grocery store told us how savvy
and innovative the owner had been in bringing “quality” ethnic food to the
neighborhood, often by appropriating knowledge from smaller producers:
Nobody’s really trying it [tortillas made fresh in the store]. And when [the
owner]opened [the store], he didn’t have tortillas. He wasn’t making them. He
wanted to do it, but he had no idea how. He just kept trying to talk to people
to find out how you do it, he went someplace in Southeast San Diego … bought
all a [Mexican] guy’s stuff, and then the guy came to work for him for a little
bit and taught him how to use everything. Out front our little tacos I mean
it’s Tijuana street tacos they just kind of went out and started looking at it [a
Tijuana taco shop], and then they went and hired some of those people to start
the thing for them.
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 71
As this quotation illustrates, there is an unspoken hierarchy between Mexi-
can food workers, who might know how to cook, and entrepreneurs, whose
valuable business skills can turn that knowledge into a large- scale profitable
endeavor that attracts a much wider clientele. The Mexican- inspired décor
and products of this particular business conceal the fact that the owners
also own a number of other mostly nonethnic grocery stores in the region,
including a successful chain focused on fresh, healthy, and organic food.
This phenomenon of nonethnic business owners selling “authentic” ethnic
food can be interpreted as a form of cultural appropriation (McClintock,
Novie, and Gebhardt 2017). To the extent that authenticity is commod-
itized and valued by affluent outsiders, both as a way to earn profit and as
a sign of taste and distinction, it is linked to gentrification (Zukin 2009).
In fact, recent media attention to the foodscapes of Barrio Logan and City
Heights has attracted a growing number of adventurous foodies eager to
sample its authentic food. For example, the food guide Zagat (Horn 2016)
named Barrio Logan as San Diego’s “next hot food neighborhood,” and San
Diego Magazine (Ram 2015) described City Heights as “a central urban nabe
lay[ing] claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues,
craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun.”
Residents of City Heights have only recently begun to resist cultural
appropriation. In Barrio Logan, however, where there is a longer history
of community activism as well as stronger gentrification pressures (Le Tex-
ier 2007), people have been more vocal against this trend. In fact, as we
noted in our introduction, a recent event in Barrio Logan drew our atten-
tion because of how well it illustrated rising community tensions regarding
the cultural appropriation of ethnic food and its relationship to gentrifica-
tion. In October 2017, a white and seemingly privileged woman posted a
video on her Kickstarter site to raise funds for La Gracia Modern Fruteria— a
“plant- based cocina and vegan coffee bar” that would “help [us] improve
San Diego and bring a healthy option to the Barrio.” The video (available
in Zaragoza 2017) was so rife with stereotypes that it almost looked like a
parody; it included glamorous shots of the blonde entrepreneur strutting
in front of historic Chicano murals, prepping colorful fruit bowls, exotic
smoothies, and “wellness lattes” in her upscale kitchen, and vacationing at
luxurious Mexican beach resorts— all with a Spanish guitar soundtrack. It
received instantaneous and fierce backlash from the community, particu-
larly on social media, where race and gentrification became central to the
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72 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
conversation. Deeply offended by what was described as “a blatant grab at
capitalizing off of Mexican culture” and “yet another signifier of gentrifica-
tion in Barrio Logan” (quoted in Fokos 2017), thousands of people reacted
by posting remarks on various platforms. In the comment section of one of
the first articles to report outrage on this issue (Zaragoza 2017), one person
wrote:
Nothing in the hood is broken white lady. We already have fruterias. Just cause
the hood is cool, and you like to resort in Mexico doesn’t mean you can go all
gentrification on the people. Take that shit to Encinitas, Solana Beach or Del
Mar. Theres plenty of white ladys just like you who would love your $15 fruit
cups. Idont want my rent to go up, i dont want neighbors complaining about
our fiestas, i dont want a vons where my carniceria used to be. They dont sell
the queso seco i like. Stop trying to turn our hoods into Kensington [a historic,
quaint, affluent, and primarily white urban neighborhood of San Diego].1
Another commenter (quoted in Fokos 2017) urged residents, “Don’t
support white owned businesses in Barrio. Don’t be friendly to them.
Don’t give them your money. Shut them down by any means necessary.”
The Defend Barrio Logan Facebook page also posted several critical entries on
La Gracia and other similar food ventures, which they clearly view as cul-
tural appropriation and an integral aspect of gentrification— one they argue
is worth resisting in order to protect the character of the neighborhood and
maintain affordable housing for its residents. In the midst of this social
media frenzy, activists spray- painted “no gracias” (no thanks) on the front
window of the store that had been leased for La Gracia. As a result of this
backlash, the official video and promotional materials were taken offline
and the project was put on hold.
To be sure, some comments on Zaragoza’s article (2017) were supportive
of La Gracia, claiming that “[business] is good for everyone!” and “the free
market economy will decide if she makes a success of it or not.” Some also
noted that the entrepreneur “seemed to be in the best of humanitarian
intentions” and “showed appreciation towards our culture” and “interest
in the community.” To a handful of commenters, opposing her business
was seen as a form of “reverse racism.” These remarks underscore the com-
plexity of pinpointing racism, or even discussing it, in a context where free
market and color- blind ideologies dominate. The failure to acknowledge
the racial power differentials that exist in the marketing of ethnic food and
foodscapes allows gentrifiers to talk about appreciation for authenticity and
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 73
support for the community without taking responsibility for contributing
to the resulting displacement.
The customers we interviewed in City Heights also showed ambivalence
toward the changes taking place in their neighborhood. For many custom-
ers, especially recent immigrants, ethnic markets have a social or emotional
significance as spaces of social reproduction and economic livelihood. That
meaning is lost on customers who come in and out to buy a can of soda,
a bag of chips, or a pack of cigarettes, without speaking more than a few
words or even looking at the cashier. We observed and interviewed a num-
ber of such shoppers, most of whom were not immigrants, had recently
moved into the neighborhood, and were typically more affluent. They
explained to us that they were only shopping at ethnic markets because
it was convenient, but many reported not liking “the smell of the place,”
how “dirty” it was, “the lack of healthy options,” and the “high prices.”
In some instances, these interviewees related these negative characteristics
to race, implying that people of certain ethnic backgrounds had different
tastes— presumably inferior to theirs, since they tolerated low- quality food.
It was striking to us how polarized customers’ perceptions were; what was a
“friendly neighborhood place” to some was a “dump” to others.
This bifurcation was primarily related to race and class, with affluent
and white residents more likely to criticize the foodscape and its ethnic
businesses. People’s relationship to their neighborhood’s foodscape, how-
ever, was more complex than this simple dichotomy. Many of the newer
residents claimed to have moved to City Heights or Barrio Logan because of
its diverse and vibrant food culture. At the same time, some longtime resi-
dents seemed to resent the very ethnic markets on which they rely almost
daily, for a variety of reasons associated with the lack of diversity, afford-
ability, and quality of food. These complaints need to be understood in a
context where the foodscapes of City Heights and Barrio Logan are gen-
trifying while simultaneously being scrutinized by health advocates and
stigmatized as unhealthy and inferior through the enduring food desert
metaphor. Despite the observed availability of fresh produce in many shops,
shame transpired in both business owners’ remarks regarding the simplicity
of their businesses and customers’ denigrating comments about the paucity
of good food options in their neighborhoods. For instance, an East African
store manager told us: “I am sorry, this is very small and a little messy. I
need to paint and make repairs. The store does not look very good right now,
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74 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
but we East Africans are used to this. You probably would not shop in a place
like this. It’s not for everybody. I am trying to change it, but it’s hard. I
know what I need to do to make it better. I just don’t have the money.”
Some consumers echoed this idea that one would not want to shop
in certain City Heights stores if they had other choices. It is highly pos-
sible that these statements were motivated by study participants’ assump-
tions about our positionality, which they may have perceived as aligned
with gentrifiers or health professionals. The various expressions of shame,
embarrassment, or resentment need to be deciphered in light of power dif-
ferentials between the different actors shaping ethnic foodscapes, including
immigrants, low- income residents, and newcomers, as well as researchers
and policymakers.
Conclusion: Resisting the Gentrification of Ethnic Foodscapes
The evidence we gathered through interviews, audits, surveys, public data,
and media content indicate that two of San Diego’s most iconic immigrant
neighborhoods are undergoing a critical transformation in which food plays
a central role. The quest for authenticity, exoticism, and adventure is bring-
ing affluent and mostly white consumers back to these communities and
altering their foodscapes, with significant consequences for low- income
and minority residents.
Although this influx is assumed by some to have a positive effect on exist-
ing businesses and to signal the spread of multiculturalism, our research
shows that it contributes to gentrification and displacement of older busi-
nesses and residents for whom the foodscape represents an integral part
of their livelihoods and social lives. This reflects the tension between the
use and symbolic values of ethnic foodscapes. Several urban scholars have
highlighted these contradictions with regard to housing and the built envi-
ronment of low- income urban neighborhoods, showing for example that
an old building will have significantly more market value as a symbol of
yesterday’s urban village where new elite lifestyles can be sold than it would
as affordable housing for multiple households (Zukin 2010). We argue that
a similar dynamic applies to changing ethnic foodscapes where the sym-
bolic value of ethnic food and its capacity to signify authenticity, cosmo-
politanism, and social distinction for middle- and upper- class consumers
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 75
is more valuable to investors and policymakers than its role in the social
reproduction of immigrant and minority communities.
In a context where the symbolic value of ethnic food is increasingly
relevant, the question of who controls the way food is represented, pre-
pared, and marketed is central to understanding how foodscapes evolve
and who ultimately benefits from them. Under current circumstances in
the United States, immigrants who are perceived as “ethnic”— a racial code
for nonwhite— are more likely to be poor, marginalized by immigration
policy, excluded from mainstream finance, and omitted from urban plan-
ning decisions. As a result, their ability to capitalize on the cultural heritage
and symbolic value of their own food and neighborhood is limited. Instead,
outsiders with more capital and business experience, often acquired in
other “up- and- coming” neighborhoods, have the capacity to take advan-
tage of this opportunity by appropriating the food and omitting the his-
tories, struggles, and cultures of immigrants. The erasure of these legacies
is felt viscerally by many immigrants, for whom the food has a different
meaning that is intimately tied to those very histories.
Although changes in immigration and urban dynamics have exacerbated
inequality, urban communities around the country are finding ways to
resist this new form of food- related gentrification (Anguelovski 2016). First,
there is a growing awareness that gentrification is a multifaceted process
that often begins with seemingly innocuous projects such as community
gardens, cafés, craft breweries, farmers markets, healthy food stores, biking
trails, or art galleries. Although these projects ultimately threaten them,
local residents and community organizations have often encouraged and
facilitated them because they were viewed as a resource for the neighbor-
hood. Increasingly, however, local actors have become weary of initiatives
and developments that usurp control from the community and may lead
to displacement. Active antigentrification campaigns in Barrio Logan and
other immigrant neighborhoods across US cities reveal a growing suspicion
of cultural appropriation and a rejection of the commodification of eth-
nic food cultures. This is illustrated by the boycott of places like La Gracia
Modern Fruteria, described in the previous section. This awareness has
prompted entrepreneurs to work with the community in creating and sup-
porting businesses that provide jobs for residents, meet their daily needs for
healthy and affordable food, and create space for community gatherings.
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76 P. Joassart- Marcelli and F. J. Bosco
A number of community organizations have allocated resources to help
existing businesses revamp their storefronts, add refrigeration, expand their
selection of whole foods, and build connections with local growers, instead
of advocating for corporate retailers and supermarkets (Mari 2016). Some
are working toward creating co- ops or other forms of community- owned
businesses that would serve residents and reinvest profits locally, inspired
by “For Us, By Us” approaches (McCutcheon 2011) and examples such as
Mandela Marketplace in Oakland, California (Figueroa and Alkon 2017),
and the Ujamaa Food Co- op in Detroit, Michigan (White 2011). However,
these initiatives require economic resources as well as collective awareness
of and mobilization against gentrification. Although City Heights benefits
from nonprofit and philanthropic resources, antigentrification efforts are
stronger in Barrio Logan, where there is a longer history of local activism
against environmental racism, poor planning decisions, and municipal
neglect (Le Texier 2007).
At the same time, it is also important to recognize that food is only
one element— albeit an increasingly important one— in the gentrification
process, which is both cultural and economic. Indeed, for Smith (1996),
gentrification is first and foremost a process of capital accumulation in which
culture greases the wheels. Without the influx of capital and the expecta-
tion of high returns, it is unlikely that a produce market or ethnic restaurant
could transform an entire neighborhood. Accordingly, fighting food-
related gentrification of ethnic neighborhoods requires a redistribution of
economic resources that empowers residents to stay put through labor and
housing policies (e.g., community land trusts, living wage initiatives). This
is particularly relevant for immigrants, who often earn poverty wages, have
low rates of home ownership and limited access to credit, and are therefore
more vulnerable to rising rents and evictions— a concern exacerbated by
the lack of well- paying jobs and affordable housing programs for this popu-
lation. In addition, unlike the typical solutions to food deserts that seek
to attract outside investors, programs that help immigrants invest in their
foodscapes are instrumental in ensuring that these enterprises benefit the
community and meet the needs of residents first. Without conscious efforts
to support small ethnic businesses and empower immigrant communities,
the ethnic foodscape is likely to become a commodified landscape of con-
sumption that will benefit outside investors and consumers at the expense
of current residents.
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Contested Ethnic Foodscapes 77
Note
1. To preserve the anonymity of people who posted comments online but did not
explicitly agree to participate in this research project, we do not include citations for
those comments except for the main article in response to which they were written.
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