Friday, April 17, 2015

Omnivorous Gentrification: Gentrification and Food in DC

Sociologists have noticed that middle- and upper-income individuals worldwide have shifted from highbrow consumption to omnivorous consumption of music, literature, food, and so on. In the area of food, this has meant a shift from fine dining to more casual dining across a wide range of cuisines. Here in DC, we see an amazing variety of restaurants opening to excited acclaim: taquerias, chifa restaurants, Taiwanese-style ramen shops, Balkan small plates places, farm-to-table restaurants, and so on.  The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had argued that highbrow consumption was a way those with higher social class distinguished themselves from those with lower class status, bringing this distinction into their bodies and potentially becoming nauseous or afraid of contamination when eating lower class food. Thus, we can see this relatively new cultural omnivorousness as a movement away from snobbery and towards equality or a kind of democratization of taste.

However, sociologists have shown that our omnivorousness is a new way to seek status, which is linked to gentrification and continuing inequality. In the American Journal of Sociology, University of Toronto sociologists Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann presented their analysis of foodie writing from such magazines as Gourmet. They found that this high-end foodie writing was dominated by discussions of food or restaurants as "authentic" or "exotic." "Authentic" places have carefully developed historical back stories tying them to a specific location or a specific person, and are presented as having simplicity and as relatively free of commercial interests, "Exotic" places are seen as providing rare or unusual foods, though the majority of foods discussed in gourmet food writing are not from Asia or Africa or Latin America but rather from various corners of the United States.

These frames reflect a long-term American rejection of elitism and embrace of democracy, inclusivity, and equality. However, this democratic ideology obscures how gourmet food writers, restaurants, restaurant review writers, and individual consumers use authentic or exotic foods to display their cultural capital and maintain status. In the case of gourmet food writing, writers legitimate a relatively narrow range of foods, which, in fact, require considerable cultural capital to recognize as desirable and considerable economic capital to afford. Think about Union Market -- "a district with authentic soul" -- replacing the wider variety and inexpensive food outlets of the shrinking or demolished Florida Avenue Market. In contrast to the overt democracy ideology, there is a covert ideology of status and cultural distinction, which reinforces inequality.

Sociology PhD student at the University of British Columbia Zachary Hyde built on this work by studying newspaper reviews of new restaurants in Downtown Eastside, a gentrifying section of Vancouver. In Downtown Eastside, young chefs have opened trendy restaurants of casual or "authentic" dishes. For example, one reviewer wrote, "J.C. Poirer once worked at the late, great Lumiere in Vancouver under Rob Feenie...In the last few years, he abandoned haute, rolled up his sleeves, and segued into the casual rock 'n' roll dining scene in the Downtown Eastside. At Pizzeria Farina...he makes a small selection of simple artisanal pizzas" (Hyde 2014: 348).  Elite cooking is now marked by "authenticity," "authentic" "creativity," and honesty. It is presented as without contamination by nonartistic motivations, like making a profit.

In the Washington Post, Tom Sietsema works within these trends in his review of the restaurant Rose's Luxury:
The backgrounds of the staff, led by chef-owner Aaron Silverman, 31, read like a list of hot spots from around the country. General Manager Andy Erdmann hails from the esteemed Uchi and Uchiko in Austin. Chef de cuisine Scott Muns comes to the project from the very good Volt in Frederick. Last but far from least, Silverman, a Maryland native who trained at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, counts time at the beloved McCrady's in Charleston and Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York. 
The top chef's philosophy is simple: "I'm not in the restaurant business. I'm in the good times business." Fun is in his blood; the restaurant's name is a salute to the chef's long-gone grandmother, Rose Silverman, revered in her time for her dinner parties, poetry and playwriting. "She enjoyed life and having fun," says her grandson. (Post, 10/15/2013)
Sietsema highlights the highly trained chefs in a laid back atmosphere working on simple dishes with personal meaning and connections, while not discussing economic motivations that might contaminate the carefully developed back story and the "fun." Yet, chef Aaron Silverman is opening a fine dining restaurant -- "'really fancy. Fancy is fantastic. Formal not so much,' says Silverman while sitting at a rustic wooden table at Rose's" -- so we are likely seeing another layer of fine dining developing.

Hyde argues that these restaurants are presented or present themselves as helping the community. They may do this by "revitalizing" or "improving" the area or by donating to local charities or by hiring employees. Yet, according to Hyde, "the tastes of newcomers trump concerns over accessibility to affordable goods" (p. 355). Brooklyn College sociologist Sharon Zukin has also found that consumption spaces like restaurants privilege and legitimate newcomers' consumption as "authentic," which allows newcomers to stake claims to the neighborhood like at Union Market. These claims to authenticity reflect the interests of new residents and are a means to excluding other residents either from consumption spaces or from the area more generally. Thus, claims to authenticity help to gentrify spaces and displace people, while presenting this as merely great, eclectic taste.

Why did omnivorousness become connected with gentrification? Can omnivorousness be separated from gentrification? Or are we witnessing a battle that pits different kinds of omnivores against each other? Is omnivorousness a kind of cannibalism, the rich eating the poor? The poor then might show their omnivorousness and eat the rich?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Update: Kojo Nnamdi Show today

It is always hectic during the semester. In addition, in response to the demand to "publish or perish," I have been submitting articles for publication in the non-virtual world. Soon, I will be publishing a real blog post. In the meantime, I am going to be on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" today at 1:30pm, talking about bus culture along with the director of short video on the X2. Feel free to join us by calling in.

P.S. You can listen to our discussion here: 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Sociology of Martin Luther King, Jr.

While making dinner on Thursday evening, I turned on WPFW. They happened to be playing a speech that Dr. King gave in March 1968 at the National Cathedral, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution." His mode of interpretation takes the listener on a wonderful intellectual journey. He moved from a piece of literature ("Rip van Winkle"), through history (see confirmation of what he says by Smithsonian historian Pete Daniel), ethnographic observation (of the poor in the United States and abroad), social movement strategy (the Poor People's Campaign), and finally religion. His global perspective sounded so familiar and so different: "we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution."

Yet, what drew me to sit right down in the middle of my kitchen floor to listen to him was the fact that he was speaking as a sociologist. Yes, he was trained in sociology:
Martin Luther King, Jr, B.A. in Sociology, Morehouse College, Class of 1948. However, I am pretty certain that this is his Doctorate picture. Source: Sociological Images.
His sociological approach was even more clear in his speech at Western Michigan University (below) that I heard this morning. In the speech, he criticizes psychology for its desire to create a society of well-adjusted individuals and to eradicate "maladjustment" in individuals. At the time, child psychologists in particular used the terms "maladjustment," "deviance," and "delinquency." Dr. King moves beyond the individual focus of psychology to the societal focus of sociology. Within a society with racial segregation, poverty, and religious bigotry, it is not only normal but also positively good to feel and remain maladjusted, for example, in segregated places or during discriminatory acts. Feelings of "maladjustment" and "deviance" led people to join a range of social movements -- the civil rights movement to name just one -- to change society, rather than merely adjust themselves as individuals.

He made one further statement that impressed me: "I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few."

It made me think of DC: "I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities (like apartments affordable for low-income households) from the many to give luxuries (and luxury condos) to the few."

His sociological training shaped his social vision of the world. And, at the same time, the world of social movements that he worked in profoundly changed sociology. Thus, in his speeches, we can hear both what sociology was and what sociology would become.

P.S. A previous post on Dr. King. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

How to End Homelessness? Jobs

On December 17th, homeless advocate Eric Sheptock brought together a group of people to get some feedback on an article he was writing. Eric is himself homeless and lives in the CCNV (Federal City) shelter near Judiciary Square. (You can follow him on FB and Twitter.) We met in a basement meeting room in the MLK Library. The group included a resident of the DC General shelter, another homeless person, a former ANC commissioner from near Barry Farms, a resident of Barry Farms public housing, a volunteer social worker, and a Visiting Fulbright Professor and grassroots community organizer from Budapest, Hungary. Of course, these descriptions of the group do not capture the many other identities of these individuals. The discussion was completely fascinating and led to a great article that you can read at the end of this post.

The article shows how past attempts to end homeless have failed and asks whether the District government actually wishes to end homelessness. In 2004, the District implemented Homeless No More, the 10-year plan to end homelessness in DC. Homelessness was supposed to have ended on December 31st, just 5 days ago. Instead, homelessness in DC increased by at least 50% since the plan was adopted. And the DC government has ended programs that might help the homeless:
In February 2013 the plug was pulled on a sweat equity program open to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients, even though the majority of homeless parents in the job-training program were on track to be housed and employed. The $2.6 million spent renovating two buildings on Wayne Place in Southeast is cited as the reason for shuttering the pilot program. Yet city officials heralded it as proof that many welfare recipients want to work. 
The article suggests that the DC government does not actually want to end homelessness:
If we assumed the government is doing exactly what it intends to, it would appear D.C. Government intends to fail to end homelessness; it would appear that mayors Fenty and Gray each pulled together affordable housing task forces to create a facade of wanting to enable low-income workers to live in D.C. If that is not the case, then our government's track record on these issues looks grossly incompetent: spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars without ending homelessness. Either option is cause for concern. 
Instead of ending homelessness, the DC government has encouraged gentrification.

What might actually help to end homelessness? Living-wage jobs and a Homeless Bill of Rights.

According to the National Coalition for the Homelessness, Homeless Bill of Rights measures work to ensure that homeless individuals are:

  • Protected against segregation, laws targeting homeless people for their lack of housing and not their behavior, and restrictions on the use of public space.
  • Granted privacy and property protections.
  • Allowed the opportunity to vote and feel safe in their community without fear or harassment.
  • Provided broad access to shelter, social services, legal counsel and quality education for the children of homeless families.

The following cities and states have passed or are considering homeless rights legislation:
California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Baltimore, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Madison, Wisconsin.

While a Homeless Bill of Rights is necessary to end housing and employment discrimination, I believe that Eric's main policy recommendation is a massive jobs program, jobs with a living wage. (What is a living wage in DC? Here is what MIT says.) A massive jobs program would help a whole range of people all across the United States.

Here's the article:

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Why is it so difficult to see in Ward 6?

Image from
For some time, I've been thinking about the problem of seeing. Certain spaces become somehow rather unclear or even difficult to see, while others appear quite clearly.Some people see a completely different reality from others.

One of my neighbors recently brought up Hine Junior High, the abandoned school near Eastern Market Metro. He said that he walks by the building all the time and thus he has a much better understanding of it than most people. In his view, rats regularly run around the building, people often defecate on the grounds, and the building is nearly burned down and falling apart. As a result of this perspective, he finds gentrification to be a quite positive development. He also mentioned that the redevelopment of Hine would increase housing prices, which is also good in his view.

Hine Junior High. Image by author.
I walk by the Hine building all the time and have never seen the world that my neighbor described. Yet, I, like most people, also have problems with seeing because seeing is both a social and a physical phenomenon. When we travel to a new city, we often turn to guide books or websites oriented towards our social position (for example, the NY Times "36 Hours" column). These guides help us to see the city by giving it some sort of meaning and place to start from. We also experience a wide range of spaces through the stories told to us by our neighbors, friends, and social networks, as well as by strangers we happen to meet.

I had walked by Potomac Gardens public housing project for years, but I did not have a clear view of the buildings. My view was quite hazy. When I met Liane Scott of Grassroots DC, I was invited into Potomac Gardens. Through my social connections within Potomac Gardens, I gained a way to see Potomac Gardens.

Earlier this year, Liane and I visited several residents in their apartments. I had never been in a public housing project apartment before. We took the elevators first in the Potomac Gardens senior building. The sunlight that flooded the windows in the hallway with the elevators reminded me why the American Institute of Architects (AIA) included Potomac Gardens along with Eastern Market on the 1974 AIA Architecture Tour. We walked down the immaculate hallway and sat with a senior in her apartment, which was like other one-bedroom apartments I had seen before. The large windows in the small living room and the bedroom brought in a lot of sunlight. The kitchen was tucked away near the door and had a bright electric light in it. The senior resident showed us photos of her family members and talked positively about her apartment life.

We later went to visit two families in the townhouses. We visited a mother with her two young children. She was less positive about life in Potomac Gardens due to concerns about safety in her stairwell. During the conversation, she often looked out the big window beside her dining table and talked with people walking by two floors below. The window brought in much sunlight and fresh air, as well as a view of trees. Then we went to another family's apartment that had curtains over its windows and thus was more dark and enclosed. In the apartment that day, there were a range of relatives and visitors, as well as a small, cute dog. Many people depended on the official occupant of this apartment, who was living one of the (I think) two bedrooms. For example, a cousin -- a young man in his early 20s, someone who would easily fit in among the students in my classes -- had once lived on the couch for several weeks or maybe longer. He had recently moved on and was now back visiting. A young woman sitting next to him on the sofa was drunk and seemed injured. She recognized a deep social gap between her and me and kept calling attention to it in a joking manner. Such social interactions made Potomac Gardens more clearly visible to me.

Why do some social networks in Ward 6 see certain spaces as filled with chaos and crime, while other social networks see a different reality in the same space? Why are some spaces hazy and unclear, while others are clearly defined?

The social nature of our vision makes certain spaces appear clear to us (though we should always ask what are we clearly seeing and what is hidden from view) and other spaces hazy or chaotic wastelands. In one of my favorite articles, "The Dead Zone and the Architecture of Transgression," Gil Doron discusses how urban planners and architects see abandoned buildings, closed industrial areas, empty lots, spaces under bridges, and other such spaces as "wastelands," "voids," and "Dead Zones" and seek to rescue them from their wasteful existence by redeveloping and "revitalizing" them. When further investigated, these apparently empty places are in fact not dead at all, but rather represent "an order of a different kind." Thus, some see Potomac Gardens as representing a wasteful existence.

How might we move beyond this rather elitist perspective? The newest issue of Slavic Review arrived in the mail just as I was pondering this. In it, Oxford University Russian literature professor Philip Ross Bullock writes about the "colonial gaze" -- a view of the world from the perspective of those in power, a view that serves the interests of those who rule. This view is often from above, suggesting a panoramic mastery over the world. The colonial gaze organizes the subject population into fixed categories described by statistics and organizes space into fixed maps with clear borders. The colonial gaze rests on binaries, such as "civilized" people vs. "savages," the "superior" people (homeowners) vs. the "inferior" "Other" (public housing residents or renters).

Bullock suggests that we might develop an alternative way of seeing by undermining the binaries of the colonial gaze. First, we might introduce "a number of simultaneous ideological, ethnic, and cultural perspectives, thereby breaking down the reductive binary oppositions that structure the operation of the colonial gaze" (p. 759). For example, by mixing up our social worlds, we might acquire a variety of perspectives or we might recognize things that we had been blind to without being aware of being blind. Second, we might resist being categorized or resist being named. Bullock continues, "To resist naming is to resist being seen...thus thwarting the ideological assumptions that flow from the Soviet [DC elite] center to the 'oriental' (or rather, orientalized) [or the Other of the] periphery" (p. 760). Nonconformity to the binaries of power may subvert the colonial gaze. Finally, social connection, not as a hierarchical relation of pity and paternalism but as a horizontal relationship of solidarity among neighbors, might allow for a vision that develops mutual understanding. Here, as strange as it may sound, an article on Russian literature provides a potential model for an alternative way of seeing in Ward 6.

Have you developed alternative ways of seeing?

P.S. For more photos of Hine and a great comment by a reader, see my previous post: "Hine Jr High: Dead Zones and Life Zones."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays to WMATA

Source: "Red Line (Washington Metro)"
I've always been a great fan of public transit. I particularly enjoy DC's public buses, with their comfortable seats, great views of the city, and friendly passengers. One of my many long-range research projects has been to write a book about American bus culture called I Ride the Bus, to move beyond the usual focus on American car culture and show the interesting social life created among passengers, bus operators, bus depot employees, bus "foamites" (people who love buses so much that they are said to foam at the mouth), and so on. My appreciation of public transit led me to work for NYC Transit for nearly two years, which also exposed me to new aspects of the social worlds created on subways. We sociologists love it when such social worlds become visible, or, in the case below, audible to us.

A few weeks ago, I was on the Orange line and got a peek into WMATA's world of work. The train seemed to be having some door trouble. A man in WMATA gear pushed the call button to talk with train operator. Here was their conversation (I changed the numbers they used in the conversation):

  • This is the train operator. How may I help you?
  • This is 9XX. 
  • No, this is 9XY...Who is this?
  • This is 9XX. 
  • Is this Mr. Morales? ...You've been with me all this time? ...I'm so glad you're with me! You are one of the best!
  • There is no one leaning on the doors. There is a problem with the doors. 
  • Thank you! I have been having trouble with the doors 8, 10, 20, 24. We've been losing them across the city. I'm so glad you're with me. Thank you.

The operator's appreciation of a fellow worker and his specific skills was so spontaneous, revealing some of the joys of the collaborative work in places like WMATA. Organizations in general rely on the technical and social skills of their employees, including their abilities to work collaboratively, in order to function day-to-day and over many decades.

Happy Holidays to WMATA. Thanks for all the great work that you do.

Happy Holidays to all the residents of Ward 6 and of the entire District too!

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Legacy of Marion Barry (III)

Last night, we went to the Wilson Building, where Marion Barry was lying in state for 24 hours. We waited in line outside, while protesters against police violence and the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner moved from the Wilson Building out into the city. Inside the main entrance of the Wilson Building, the casket was covered with a kente cloth and an enormous number of red roses. It was a moving occasion.
The Republic
As I discussed before, Marion Barry has several legacies, as someone who supported gentrifying development even while providing jobs to, and greatly identifying with, low-income residents, as well as someone who supported DC's cooperative movement. Here I talk about the work that his administrations accomplished in reducing poverty in DC.

In January, a Washington Post poll found that most residents in Washington, DC, think that the city officials have little control over gentrification, displacement, and inequality: “Washingtonians often see that boom benefiting different groups. What many residents do agree on is that the city’s mayor and other elected officials have little ability to ensure that the new prosperity will lift all boats.” (1)  While this poll may reveal a lack of confidence in the current political leaders in DC, it also reflects a feeling that these processes are inevitable or even that trying to stop them might lead to worse results. Sociologists, however, have found that political leaders have a dramatic effect on poverty and wealth. In his comparison of rich democracies, the amazing sociologist David Brady (2009) found that governments greatly determine one's risk of poverty and shape the experience of poverty. Political actors in the formal political arena determine the nature of the welfare state and thus the nature of poverty in each country. In his book, he found, “Poverty is lower and equality is more likely to be established where welfare states are generous, Leftist collective political actors are in power, and latent coalitions for egalitarianism exert influence, and all of this is institutionalized in the formal political arena” (p. 6). Poverty and inequality not only vary across wealthy democratic countries but also vary within countries like the United States.

During the 100 years of Congressional control over DC, Congressional politicians elected by people far away from DC ran the DC government. The chairmen of the Congressional DC committees included segregationist politicians such as Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, and, until 1972, Representative John McMillan of South Carolina. In 1974, DC Home Rule allowed DC residents to vote on who would run the city and, as a result, they could finally shape the city. When Barry became Mayor in 1979, he brought leftist collective political actors into DC government, actors allied with broad coalitions advocating egalitarianism and the implementation of social policies that would specifically help low-income residents.

During his first, second, and third terms as Mayor from 1979 to 1991, Marion Barry realized programs that reduced poverty in DC, including his well-known jobs programs. These programs specifically targeted low-income residents, seeking to provide these residents new opportunities. In his autobiography, Barry wrote:
We spent a lot of time fighting against folks who were not affected by poverty, unemployment, homelessness, inequality or the citywide deficiencies in education. As the mayor and the leader of the local government, I saw that we could use budgets and more city revenue and resources to try and create more opportunities for those who did not have opportunities, while still managing a major city to do well. That was my job as the mayor, not to be satisfied with the status quo, but to build a much better Washington for everyone. (p. 158)
The approach of the Barry administrations during the 1980s reduced poverty in DC.

In the graph below, we can see that the percentage of people living in poverty decreased both in the US and DC during the 1960s. This large decline can be explained by the federal War on Poverty and the myriad of policies that helped low-income people escape poverty. However, while poverty continued to decline in the US, DC poverty increased in the 1970s.

Then, after Marion Barry become Mayor in 1979, poverty in DC decreased -- from 18.6% to 16.9% -- through the 1980s, while poverty increased in the US -- 12.4% to 13.1% (see chart to the right). The unique decline of poverty in DC suggests that District policies aimed at helping low-income residents made a difference.

In the 1990s, however, the DC poverty rate increased to 20.2%, even while poverty decreased in the US as a whole. From 1995 to 1999, Marion Barry had his fourth term as Mayor. Within months of his inauguration, the Congress imposed the Control Board. The five-person Control Board could override decisions by the Mayor and the city council and implemented a broad reorganization of the District government.(2)  The Control Board implemented significant budget cuts and undermined Home Rule. During the period of the Control Board, poverty increased in DC.

While the Barry's administrations will continue to be debated, the numbers on poverty show that poverty reduction is one of the legacies of Marion Barry's 1980s administrations. Marion Barry's early administrations demonstrate that political leaders can make a difference in reducing poverty and creating a new, more inclusive city. And other kinds of leaders can make policies that increase poverty and create an exclusive city.

(1) Marc Fisher, “In the District, redevelopment exposes old fault lines,” Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2014, p. A1, A16.
(2) The Control Board’s official name was the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. For the entire text of the bill that created the Control Board: H.R.1345, District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act of 1995 (Enrolled as Agreed to or Passed by Both House and Senate),