a bird and a bottle

Food as Gentrifying Force?
November 13, 2006, 2:36 pm
Filed under: food

The N.Y. Times has an article today charting the changing food landscape of Mott Street (Chinatown becomes Little Italy becomes NoLIta). It’s interesting to me how restaurants – at least in New York – are both symbols of gentrification and gentrifying forces in their own right. It’s a chicken-and-egg question (no pun intended). Is it restauranteurs ahead of the trends and seeking a cool new spot who draw gentrification into a neighborhood, or the seedlings of gentrification that draws hip restauranteurs? For New Yorkers, think about the meatpacking district (where I no longer step foot, unless it’s to hit the Chelsea Market, which is itself a symbol of gentrification). Does it even matter?

Whatever the answer, it’s important to note that Mott Street is not only an example of gentrification across Manhattan neighborhoods, but also a sign of how little has changed in some ways. Chinatown, for example, clings remarkably to its patterns and, despite the shiny new high-priced buildings going up on its perimeters, has largely resisted gentrification. In August, my partner and I took a walk one weekend afternoon through the Lower East Side and Chinatown. As I walked across Grand Street (at Forsyth), a corner that has been the heart of several different ethnic neighborhoods in New York, we saw a middle-aged Chinese man with a pushcart on the sidewalk. Strewn around him were tire scraps and other pieces of found raw material. On his pushcart, he had an old (OLD) hand-cranked Singer sewing machine. He had a couple of small stools set up on the sidewalk, on which customers could sit while the man fixed their shoes. He spoke no English (and we no Chinese). But it didn’t matter. My partner got his shoes fixed, and he and I got to think about how little had changed on that little corner of Manhattan in the last 100 years. Sure, 100 years ago the man with the pushcart would have been Eastern European and would have spoken Yiddish (so it’s not as if nothing) has changed. And another former imigrant enclave – the Lower East Side – has moved so far into hipsterdom that Andrew Balazs is opening a hotel there (opened a hotel?). But enclaves remain, even in the heart of one of the most gentrified (and/yet beloved) cities in the U.S.

Do trendy restaurants have anything to do with all this? I’m not sure. But I do know that all this talk of food is making me hungry…


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