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Foodscape gentrification in San Diego's City Heights, Barrio Logan, & Southeast Neighborhoods

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

Dr. Joassart-Marcelli paints a stark picture of the San Diego foodscape in her talk, Contested Geographies of Food, Ethnicity, and Gentrification. Her talk follows about 10 years of research on three diverse neighborhoods in San Diego: City Heights, Barrio Logan, and Southeast San Diego. All three neighborhoods fall victim to the phenomenon explained by Joassart-Marcelli as "food apartheid", a process, she explains, happens over time as neighborhoods are created through racially motivated zoning laws and redlining.

She first discovered the phenomenon when thinking about "the fact that affluent, primarily white, presumably culturally enlightened people increasingly [venture] in unlikely places in search of unique and authentic food, which is often described as ethnic food".

She explains that the consumer base trekking to areas once described as "unsafe" or "unsanitary" results in changing the geography of food in those places, places that rely heavily on local business to provide for what were once food deserts.

What seems like a solution- local businesses providing for the community food needs- is actually a double-edged sword. Public officials and other community growth organizations tend to take advantage of ethnic food hubs to create vibrant and exciting communities for potential gentrifiers.

Foodscapes are physical, cultural, lived, and imagined food environments. They help define a neighborhood and provide for a community, made up of restaurants, shops, gardens, and markets. They carry deep notions of authenticity, tradition, and domesticity and hold ideologies, feelings, and even imaginations.

Yet, foodscapes are constantly in flux, victims of political processes, planning decisions, constantly socially and politically produced in local environments. Joassart-Marcelli further illustrated the idea of the foodscape by emphasizing that food desserts are not natural or random. A community's foodscape is highly reliant on public investment and infrastructure, and the politics of place in that city or town.

In all three neighborhoods Joassart-Marcelli focuses on in her book, she witnesses a type of gentrification focused on ethnic food. Wealthy businesses capitalizing on the "authentic" reputation of the local food experience in a place where they've "have had to devise strategies to feed themselves and their families. So in all three neighborhoods, ethnic entrepreneurship plays a critical role in providing business owners with jobs and incomes and residents with a source of culturally appropriate food".

"Under these condition, residents of Barrio Logan, City Heights, Southeastern San Diego and many similar neighborhoods around the country have had to devise strategies to feed themselves and their families. So in all three neighborhoods, ethnic entrepreneurship plays a critical role in providing business owners with jobs and incomes and residents with a source of culturally appropriate food."

Those "discovering" these businesses are the cosmopolitan elite, hailing from wealthier neighborhoods and bringing with them what Dr. Joassart-Marcelli coins the "urban food machine". Consisting of media, consumers, and the almighty restaurant review complex of today, smaller businesses are popularized through biased reviews commenting on authenticity and "hole in the wall"charm-- but only if you'll brave otherwise "unsightly" conditions urban elites look down upon. Joassart-Marcelli also notes that in her research she saw trends of such reviewers referencing experience in other countries providing them expertize on restaurants in the area. She also notes higher reviews following more gentrified spaces, like those of the Barrio Logan area.

This process of food gentrification pushes out local residents from the food scene through outsiders capitalizing on opportunity and lower retail rent, therefore stripping them of their ability to make choices about food in their community, again. Joassart-Marcelli points out that whiteness plays a big part in this process. New businesses cater to the white individual as their "average customer" which not only ensures local residents feel unwanted but generally pushes prices beyond what is reasonable in the area much like other forms of gentrification.

Although Joassart-Marcelli admits there is no easy solution to the problem, a lively Q&A session after that talk illuminated solutions such as community land trusts, community food sovereignty efforts, and advising consumers to participate in local food economies thoughtfully.

Want to listen to the talk or learn more? Find the recorded Zoom session on our Youtube page, and a podcast from our partner, Shareable, wherever you get your podcasts.

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a professor of Geography and director of the Urban Studies and Food Studies programs at San Diego State University. She earned a PhD in Political Economy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Her research and teaching focus on urban poverty and social justice, with a particular interest in urban geographies of food. Pascale’s work emphasizes the role of food in sustaining immigrant communities, providing economic opportunities, and revitalizing low-income neighborhoods, and draws attention to the relationship between food and gentrification. It builds on her earlier research on the informal economy and new immigrants' labor geographies. She works closely with several community-based organizations that are working towards creating a more just, healthy, and sustainable food system for San Diego. Pascale has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, one monograph (The $16 Taco), and two edited volumes (Food and Place and Informal Work in Developed Nations) and has written a Food Geographies textbook that will be released in a few months. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


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