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Posts tagged ‘Williamsburg’

Free Markets

A couple of months ago I spent a weekend in Johannesburg to celebrate my friend Kate’s thirtieth birthday. Knowing me well, she suggested that we have lunch at the newish Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein, a neighbourhood which has been included in Joburg’s inner city improvement district scheme. Alongside 70 Juta, a small row of shops (one, inevitably, devoted to lomography), galleries, and cafes, the Neighbourgoods Market is part of a wider effort to attract people – and particularly those with disposable income – back into the city’s centre.

The decline of the Joburg CBD since mid-90s has been well documented: the flight of businesses to suburbs like Sandton and developments such as Melrose Arch means that the old city centre has changed beyond recognition. Buildings are derelict and crumbling, and crime is a significant problem. To my shame, I don’t know Joburg terribly well, even though I enjoy visiting it enormously. What struck me was not that the city centre has ‘died’, but, rather, that it is vibrantly alive, albeit – with the abundance of cheap Chinese shops, fast food joints, and street stalls – not in ways we would usually define a bustling, ‘healthy’ CBD.

The entrance to Braamfontein's Neighbourgoods Market

The point is that something needs to be done to bring businesses back to central Johannesburg, crime and grime must to be brought under control, and the city’s amazing mid-century architecture should be restored. The Neighbourgoods Market is in the parking lot of the most incredible brutalist skyscraper, the façade of which was designed by Eduardo Villa. Open on Saturday mornings, it brings people in to an area which would be otherwise deserted – and dangerous – on weekends. I really, really enjoyed it: the food was great and, as is usually the case in Joburg, both punters and stall holders were fantastically friendly.

Inside Braamfontein's Neighbourgoods Market

In fact, I liked it rather more than the original Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town. Established for similar reasons as the Joburg incarnation, the Market in Cape Town is located in a newish redevelopment of an old biscuit mill in the traditionally working- and lower middle-class suburb of Woodstock – although this area is now achingly cool, having been dubbed ‘Cape Town’s Manhattan’ by the New York Times. The more gentrified sections of Woodstock are now awash with vintage stores, bicycle shops, and Michelle Obama-attracting organic lunch cafes. Particularly on the main road, it’s all beginning to look like a set for a Wes Anderson movie.

At the Woodstock Neighbourgoods Market

There’s been a fair amount of debate about the gentrification of Woodstock, and much as I find the Neighbourgoods Market unpleasantly overcrowded and many of the people it attracts deeply annoying, I am less unsettled by its effects on the suburb than the wholesale transformation of the Bo-Kaap, near the centre of Cape Town, where a very poor group of people – many of them descendants of slaves – have slowly been evicted from their picturesque, brightly-painted cottages by landlords keen to attract yuppies in their massive Chelsea tractors.

The view from the Williamsburg Flea

The debates we’re having in Cape Town about gentrification are by no means particular to South Africa. In New York last year, my friend Geoff commented that he found the new-found coolness of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg – a working-class suburb once dominated by Orthodox Jews – baffling. I went to the Williamsburg Flea, a market selling food, craft, and an assortment of handmade and vintage clothes and furniture. My friends and I enjoyed it enormously – as much as we did exploring Bedford Avenue – but I could understand the original inhabitants’ unhappiness at how much this hipster invasion has changed the neighbourhood.

At the Williamsburg Flea

The point about the Neighbourgoods Market and the Williamsburg Flea is that they both attract people who are either new to those suburbs, or who don’t live there at all: they’re not aimed at the existing communities. (They’re too expensive, to begin with.) At a hipster night market in Dalston in December – it sold food, not hipsters because that would be illegal – I stood for a half an hour in a queue, risking hypothermia to buy supper at a food market in a covered parking lot near the Dalston Kingsland overground station.

At the Long Table night market in Dalston

Dalston has followed on from Islington, Shoreditch, and Stoke Newington as being the favoured spot for not-particularly-wealthy lefties looking for somewhere cheap and central to stay. It’s in Hackney, one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, and not overwhelmingly picturesque, but it’s now overrun with hipsters and Guardian-reading lefties (I count myself as one of these, obviously, I mean obviously). I didn’t see any members of Dalston’s original community at the night market – which included a stall run by Moro.

More of the Dalston night market

As I’ve noted before, this link between food and gentrification is nothing new. Kathe Newman has argued that ‘cupcake shops can provide a more accurate and timely guide to the frontiers of urban gentrification than traditional demographic and real estate data sets.’ Danya al-Saleh demonstrates this particularly well in her map of the slow encroachment of cupcake bakeries in San Francisco’s gang territories (click here for a bigger version):

As one commentator explains:

In the 1990s, it might have been the proliferation of Starbucks coffee houses that indicated gentrifying neighbourhoods, and in the 1980s, perhaps gourmet yoghurt shops moving into an area, etc. I don’t know about other cities, but in NYC where I live, right now it would be the new doggie day care centres that are springing up in many places that appear to designate a change to a more affluent, up-and-coming hipster-ish nabe.

Markets, cafes, and restaurants increase footfall in cities. I had breakfast at the newly-opened Clarke’s in the Cape Town CBD yesterday morning (it was fantastic – go), and was struck by how busy the area was: aside from the tourist traps around Greenmarket Square (not a green market) and Long Street, the CBD used to be deserted over weekends. Now, though, Capetonians are flocking to Jason’s, Skinny Legs & All and other places. The city feels safe, and alive again. The Cape Town Partnership, which has driven much of this renewal, has recognised the power of coffee shops in attracting pedestrians into the city.

At the furthest extreme, there is the urban farming which is seeking to transform Detroit, a city brought to the edge of collapse by bad urban planning and, more recently, the 2008 recession. But Detroit is a deeply unusual case. What’s happening in Braamfontein, Woodstock, Williamsburg, Dalston, and elsewhere is part of a trend which began in the 1990s: the connection between the, then, new-found enthusiasm for whole, ‘real’ food  brought into city markets by farmers and small producers, and the regeneration and gentrification of poor or decayed urban districts. Visiting the Union Square farmers’ market now, it’s difficult to imagine that Union Square used to be extremely dangerous.

At the Union Square farmers' market

These are markets for the middle classes, and it’s easy to criticise them for not doing more to integrate wealthy newcomers and less well-off original inhabitants – which is why, I think, the Joburg Neighbourgoods Market is a potentially less awkward experience than the Woodstock version. There aren’t very many people actually living in Braamfontein.

But I’m interested in the continuing success of these markets – and they’ve proliferated – in a time of economic downturn. They’re sustained by gentrification, but why their continuing success during times of financial insecurity? Will they continue to flourish as the tide of gentrification begins to recede? Are they sustainable?

As sales of organic vegetables in supermarkets have plummeted during the recession, there are more food and farmers’ markets than ever before. Last week’s coverage of Tesco’s extraordinarily bad performance over Christmas in the UK referred to the fact that part of the business’s problem is that it hasn’t responded adequately to changing patterns in consumer culture. As one article noted, people are relying increasingly on the internet for basic food shopping because it’s convenient and also allows them to compare deals and prices more efficiently. Shoppers are savvier in the recession.

But they still buy treats and luxuries – hence the success of Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, and John Lewis. Waitrose has been particularly clever in opening convenience stores in city centres: they’re certainly pricier than the ubiquitous Tesco Metro, but shoppers seem to be willing to fork out cash to shop in bright, clean, and, yes, convenient shops. The Tesco model of establishing enormous, town centre-decimating, and car-reliant hypermarkets on the edge of urban developments no longer appears to be successful. Tesco CEO Philip Clarke

was not sure Tesco needed any more of the sprawling out-of-town Extra stores it has spent so long battling planners to build – and that were vital in its conquest of Britain’s retail sector in the 1990s. He didn’t want to go as far as to label its more than 200 out-of-town hypermarkets as ‘white elephants’ but said they were now a ‘less potent force’ as electricals and clothing sales shifted online.

I think we can account partly for farmers’ markets’ continued success in similar ways. Even if very few people can afford to do a weekly shop at them, many will buy small luxuries to perk up meals in a time of financial insecurity: nice chunks of unusual cheese, proper bread, and handmade sausages. I wonder, though, if this change in shopping patterns indicates a fundamental shift in the functioning of consumerism – and in attitudes towards food.

At the Braamfontein Neighbourgoods Market

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

We could be anywhere

I’ve spent the past fortnight in New York – mainly for a conference at Columbia – and on my last morning had breakfast at a restaurant which could only have been in New York, and, more specifically, in Morningside Heights. The Hungarian Pastry Shop is a shabby, comfortable, and much adored cafe among local residents and Columbia’s students and academics. It serves a range of unbelievably good cakes and pastries, the menu for which is an ancient and faded handwritten banner above the counter. Mothers with small children munch apple strudel alongside workmen in overalls, lecturers with textbooks, and small old ladies with thick foreign accents.

The Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, New York

Founded by immigrants, this could only be called The Hungarian Pastry Shop outside of Hungary. Over the years, it’s been tweaked to satisfy the demands of now elderly mittel-European customers, a group of whom was sitting in the sunshine when I arrived, as well as the undergraduates who spend long hours reading over its big mugs of strong coffee. The Shop has a menu in German and table service, as well as an exterior decorated with murals, a graffiti-covered loo, and posters advertising digs, extra tuition, and auditions for student productions.

Breakfast at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

Over a cherry danish, orange juice, and iced coffee, I considered a comment made by my friend Ester a few weeks ago when we had lunch at a new cafe which has recently opened in Cape Town. Skinny Legs and All (yes, as in the novel by Tom Robbins) in Loop Street serves ‘real food, unadulterated, and unadorned’. We had homemade lemonade, soup, and excellent coffee.

As we were admiring the cafe’s interior, Ester noted perceptively that we could have been anywhere – that we could have found this restaurant and eaten similar food, underpinned by the same values and ideas about cooking, in any other city with a demand for sophisticated good food, be it Melbourne, San Francisco, or London. I think that this is a point worth exploring.

The menu at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

In New York I had coffee and lunch in cafes which I could have described in precisely the same terms. At Bubby’s in Brooklyn’s Dumbo, Tablespoon in the Flatiron District, and the City Bakery off Fifth Avenue I could have been anywhere. Of course, all of these restaurants say a great deal about New York, its gentrification and the role of food and restaurants in this process. The City Bakery was founded in 1990, at a time when the slow regeneration of Manhattan was nearing completion and when enthusiasm for artisan bread (best exemplified by the craze for sourdough in San Francisco) was beginning to peak. Bubby’s and Tablespoon – both of which emphasise the extent to which they source seasonal ingredients locally – ride on the City Bakery’s success. In a similar way, Skinny Legs and All is an indicator of the success of Cape Town’s central city improvement district, and also of the very, very slow emergence of a food-focussed South African green movement.

For all their localism, these restaurants are very similar: they serve similar food, they’re influenced by the same collection of chefs and food writers, their attitude towards cooking is based on an understanding of the value of seasonality, and they are influenced by global fashions in decor. Even the cafe I went to in achingly cool Williamsburg – populated by hipsters who conformed pleasingly to type with oversized sunglasses, topknots (for the girls), v-necked t-shirts (for the boys), and MacBooks – could as easily operate in Cape Town’s Woodstock, or in the trendier parts of east London.

Tablespoon in the Flatiron District

To note this similarity isn’t a criticism – it’s simply to point out that these cafes are local manifestations of a global phenomenon. But not all aspects of globalised eating are seen in such positive terms. Since the 1980s at least, there has been a heightened concern that globalisation is causing diets to become homogenised: that the international popularity of fast food chains, supremely McDonald’s, signals the end of discrete, local food cultures.

The apparent ubiquity of the golden arches seemed to indicate a kind of culinary ‘end of history’: as liberal democracy appeared to triumph with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so did the eating habits of the West. The opening of a branch of McDonald’s in Red Square in Moscow in 1990 was the final nail in communism’s coffin. I remember clearly going to eat at one of the first McDonald’s to open in South Africa after the end of the international business boycott. Eating there was as much an affirmation of South Africa’s re-entry into the world as was the country’s participation in the 1992 summer Olympics.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that McDonald’s no longer means these things – which isn’t to suggest that it’s not doing well. A recent article in the Economist predicts that McDonald’s and other budget chains, like Aldi, are set to profit out of a world in recession. However much revelations about the chain’s profoundly unhealthy products and poor environmental and labour practices have dented its apparent invincibility, it is still believed to be part of a broader shift in an international Westernisation of diet. This was confirmed, apparently, by Oxfam’s recent report on the global food crisis, Growing a Better Future, which claims that pasta is the world’s favourite food.

The City Bakery, off Fifth Avenue

But is this anything new? And it is possible for all of us, truly, to eat the same diet? As I wrote a few weeks ago, the survey on which Oxfam bases its report on favourite foods seems to be pretty dubious to me. It’s also worth noting that the success of global brands depends on their ability to ‘localise’ their products. McDonald’s has diversified its menu to appeal to local tastes, with a greater number of vegetarian options in Indian branches, smaller portions in Japan, rice products in Singapore and Taiwan, kebabs in Isreal, and pita bread in Greece. In other words, the success of McDonald’s lies not in the imposition of a foreign brand, but in its ability to make its products at once familiar and enticingly exotic.

Restaurants on the upper end of the scale use precisely the same strategy. Writing about the opening of a branch of Les Halles in Tokyo, Anthony Bourdain describes how he adapted his French bistro cuisine to suit Japanese tastes:

I…scale[d] down the portions and [prettied] up the presentations. …I rearranged plates to resemble smaller versions of what we were doing in New York: going more vertical, applying some new garnishes, and then observing customer reactions. I looked for and found ways to get more colour contrast on the plates, moved the salads off to separate receptacles, stuck sprigs of herb here than there.

At Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Verre in Dubai, the head chef had to become accustomed to cooking halal meat, which is drained of much of its blood and can’t be aged. Jay Rayner writes:

Then there was local taste. Some ingredients simply didn’t sell. If he brought in pigeon, he told me, they would lie in the fridge for a week, neglected by the customers, until, in desperation, he would turn them into a terrine. ‘And then I would eat the terrine.’ He also found himself serving a lot of meat well done.

On a domestic scale, the middle classes have eaten strikingly similar things all over the world since at least the nineteenth century. The movement of people within the British Empire caused the same dishes and menus to be served up on at last four different continents. When Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss arrived at the Cape from Connecticut in 1873 to establish an elite girls’ school, they were pleased – and relieved – to find that their middle-class Dutch-Afrikaner hosts ate the same meals, and in the same way, as they had done in the United States. Bliss wrote to her mother:

thus far I have seen quite as well regulated families & as much attention paid to ‘propriety’ as in America. … Wherever I have taken a meal there has been a servant in the room to wait on table or one has come at the tap of the bell, & all done so quietly & orderly.

The circulation of recipe books and advice on cookery in newspapers and in private correspondence around the Empire demonstrates the extent to which these diets remained fairly similar. They were, as today, inflected by local tastes and produce. In the Cape, the American teachers commented on the colonial habit of eating ‘yellow rice’ (rice cooked with turmeric and raisins and flavoured with cinnamon and bay) with every meal – something introduced by slaves from southeast Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The City Bakery, New York

In other words, the diets of the wealthy have tended to be fairly globalised since international travel was made easier, and more common, from around the beginning of the nineteenth century. With the invention of the jet engine in the mid-twentieth century and, latterly, the internet, these trends have moved around the world more quickly and we’re also considerably more aware of them. It’s the poor – those whose diets we have an unfortunate tendency to romanticise – who have historically tended to eat a fairly limited range of things.

The difference now is that there are far more middle class people wanting to eat similar diets. Oxfam also notes that the newly-affluent Indian and Chinese middle classes consume more meat and dairy products than ever before. Exactly the same trend occurred in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, but this was a shift on a far smaller scale and in a world where food systems were not as globalised as they are today.

How to find the City Bakery

I think that it’s misleading to suggest that diets are becoming progressively more Western. Rather, particular ingredients – meat and dairy above all – are increasingly popular in societies which, traditionally, have tended to eat more fish, vegetables, and other starches. Our planet simply can’t sustain meat- and dairy-heavy diets. Refocusing our attention to responding to the demand for these foodstuffs would be considerably more effective than simply bemoaning the Westernisation and homogenisation of global diets. This is an argument which not only draws an impossible distinction between ‘bad’ global and ‘good’ local diets, but also ignores a long history of global culinary exchange which has been mitigated by local tastes and preferences.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury, [2000] 2001).

Sarah Emily Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner (London: Headline Review, 2008).

James L. Watson (ed.), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’ Theory and Society 24 (1995), pp. 201-243.

Claude Fischer, ‘The “McDonaldisation” of Culture,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 530-547.

Brian Harrison, ‘The Kitchen Revolution,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 139-149.

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 516-529.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.