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The (un)surprising connection between veganism and gentrification

The geographic distribution of vegan restaurants is disproportionately in gentrified neighborhoods and is very similar to the distribution of coffee shops; vegan restaurants could be a cultural symbol of gentrification:

I made a little animated explainer video using After Effects.

For a more detailed and personal retelling of why this trend is disturbing in San Francisco’s context of gentrification, read on!

Confronting my participation in gentrification

I had always thought of myself as a seeker of “cool” areas to hang out. I was one of the cool, artistic kids, carving out a comfortable space between the “sketchy” facades covered in steel bars and street art. Absorbing the local culture through osmosis. Drinking it in.

That cool, artistic style as is described by Molly as a sort of cultural commodity that she was expected to deliver to eager college students like myself.

On an inconsequential day, I checked out the art gallery next to one of my favorite coffee places. One piece, among several other painted skateboards, said: “Gentrification is modern-day colonialism” 

I only had a fuzzy idea of what gentrification is, and its comparison to colonialism came out of left field. What did gentrification even mean?

What is gentrification?

Sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964, defining it as a process by which “original working-class occupiers are displaced by an influx of higher-income newcomers” [1]

Stacey Sutton at a TEDxNewYork talk defines it a “processes by which higher income or higher status people relocate to or invest in low income neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have been historically dis-invested in. When people invest in these areas, it’s typically to capitalize on the low property values.” [18]

The day I saw the skateboard jolted me into an awareness of the process in which I was complicit.

I’ve realized “up-and-coming” is really just yuppie sort of way of describing how low income neighborhoods are changing rapidly due to the interests and movements of wealthier people. We make the economic waves.

The destructive nature of gentrification

Kai, a musician, describes in a piece by Buzzfeed the changes that have occurred in his childhood neighborhood, the mission district [42].

A prevailing narrative when people talk about gentrified neighborhoods is one of inflating property values, a severe change in the culture and character, and displacement. [5]

Displacement and gentrification are not synonymous, but they often occur at the same time [4].

Displacement describes how residents are forced to move out due to housing or neighborhood conditions. It occurs either when building conditions deteriorate, or when the costs of living rise. [4]

How to Measure Gentrification

There is a continual effort in academia and government to quantify, to measure when gentrification and displacement is actually occurring. This research has the potential for being used to inform new city planning policy, to prevent the mistakes of the past.

One such project in the Bay Area is the Urban Displacement project. It was formed with the concern of how development related to new transit investment would impact low income communities and communities of color.[20]

Researchers for the Urban Displacement Project developed a scheme for categorizing whether an area has been gentrified or is in the process of being gentrified. [20]

These researchers used this scheme to categorize the neighborhoods in several major metropolitan areas as experiencing gentrification, displacement, or both.

This is San Francisco, which has been demarcated into regions called census tracts by the government, which we can aggregate into more demographically and culturally cohesive “neighborhoods.”:

These are the regions in SF that are experiencing gentrification or displacement:

Gentrified regions are indicated by the increase in wealth in an area, number of residents holding college degrees, and the loss of low-income households. High income regions are indicated by experiencing displacement of low income households, due to loss of naturally affordable housing, and/or relative low in-migration of low income households.

I noticed a pattern here – the areas that were experiencing advanced gentrification were definitely considered the “cool” areas to hang out – at least to my friends.

Vegan Restaurants as Linked to Gentrification

When I’m travelling to different major cities across the country, I’ve noticed another pattern. Whether it be New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, or San Francisco, vegan restaurants tend to be clustered in “cool” neighborhoods.

My friends and I would talk about visiting cities based on the density of high quality vegan restaurants – their “vegan scene”

But there is an understanding that vegan restaurants are often part of the backdrop of a “hipster”, or gentrifying, neighborhood. 
Former barista Molly Osberg notes this connection in the Brooklyn neighborhood surrounding her coffee shop:

“To staff a demographic shift as massive as the one that’s taken place around Williamsburg and Greenpoint requires quite a bit of manpower…We have rockabilly vegan diners … and the coffee shop where Hannah worked in ‘Girls.’”

Either way, When I visited San Francisco last spring, my knee-jerk reaction was to do what my friends recommended me to do – fully enjoy San Francisco’s “vegan scene”:

As I searched for a good vegan restaurant to check out in downtown San Francisco, I noticed something weird. Lots of the vegan restaurants tend to cluster in notoriously “gentrified” regions of SF.

For example, here is the mission district, an area that has often been at the center of the conversation about gentrification over the last several years:

The Mission is the neighborhood with the most vegan restaurants. I also find it interesting that the controversial Gracias Madre is located here – founded by the same couple that owns Cafe Gratitude and the controversial Be Love farm.

I wondered whether the implicit connection between vegan restaurants and gentrification could be validated with data.

Using the Urban Displacement Project’s classification of census tracts as gentrified, I found the the answer.

In fact, most vegan restaurants in San Francisco are in census tracts that are experiencing “advanced gentrification”:

The rest of the vegan restaurants in San Francisco that aren’t in gentrifying areas are in high income regions are at risk of losing affordable housing, in turn excluding low income families:

The data is pretty damning. There is indeed a strong relationship between the location of a vegan restaurant and whether that region is gentrified.

However, these metrics have limitations.

Although the categories of gentrification developed by the Urban Displacement project might useful to policy makers, these categories don’t capture how gentrification feels; what it means for the people who are affected by the often traumatic changes to the places they call home.

Furthermore, metrics don’t capture how vegan restaurants contribute to a changing cultural climate of a gentrifying neighborhood. They won’t illuminate whether vegan restaurants are indicative of the kind of cultural change associated with gentrification.

The Experience of Gentrification

We, the post-college adults, are still seeking coolness and social acceptance. We move into places we can comfortably afford because of a relatively lower price, but also because of the lifestyle it offers us. The ability to walk to the hottest craft beer watering hole, maybe even our workplaces. We can even live near our other cool friends.

Collectively, we contribute to a process with victims seemingly invisible. But their stories are everywhere.

Gentrification isn’t only a process that can be measured and quantified, it’s an experience. By only looking at numbers, we will always fail to understand the gravity of what gentrification means.

Take one metric popular in academia – displacement. If we measure the number of people who are displaced by gentrification, this number represents the people who have had to uproot their lives, often moving far away. At worst, displaced people can become homeless due to the shift [12].

For the people who do manage to stay in their neighborhoods, they deal with a neighborhood that can be increasingly unfamiliar and even hostile to their presence.

And, the experience of gentrification is compounded by race.

The destruction of the historic Fillmore district

Charles Collins grew up in the Fillmore district, the same area that, at the time, was deemed “blighted” by city planning officials in the 40s.

He could remember the houses were “were beautiful; the Victorian houses with all the gingerbread still attached to the buildings, and they were nicely painted. You could walk just about anywhere in the community and feel very safe.” [32]

To Collins, the area wasn’t “blighted.” [32]

Most of the residents in Fillmore were black. And most were renters. This was because banks denied mortgages to black people based on their race: areas with “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro or lower grade population” were marked on “residential safety maps” provided to banks as guides from federal housing agencies. [33]

Residents were also denied loans to revitalize the old victorian homes they lived in [33].

So, instead of empowering the Fillmore district residents with the tools to improve their community, the government and industry, working together from the top-down, determined what was best for economic interests. The residents were a secondary concern.

They razed much of Fillmore, destroying the culture and community that once thrived there.

Urban renewal has also set the historical and cultural context for gentrification, both of which similarly break communities apart.

Gentrified neighborhoods can experience “increased police surveillance, which results in increased harassment and abuse of people of color; the decreasing availability of public housing; the privatization of schools and other community and social services; the displacement of businesses run by people of color; and the overall change of the neighborhood’s cultural and social character.” [6]

The experience itself of a community breaking apart is traumatic, it’s a “profound emotional upheaval that destroys the working model of the world” in someone’s head. It undermines “trust, increases anxiety…destabilizes relationships, destroys social, emotional, and financial resources…” At the community level, “it ruptures bonds, dispersing people to all directions of the compass…” [34]

This experience is called root shock. [34] In the face of a government and system making changes to a community without regard to the interests of its members, reinforcing cultural and community ties is an important form of resistance.

A writer for Wear Your Voice Magazine writes about resistance in Oakland: “Proudly expressing our African roots in a historically black city that’s rapidly becoming anti-black, goes way beyond fashion. It has everything to do with identity, space, belonging, and our right to the city. It’s about finding ways to collect pieces of what’s been taken from us while preserving and creating new spaces where we can continue to be unapologetically black within a white supremacist structure.” [28]

For those at the center of gentrifying communities, the entire world changes. Imagine living in a place that slowly begins to not feel like your home any longer.

As for the mostly white newcomers to a gentrifying neighborhood, we barely notice.

The places that once looked like the hipster oases now looked like cultural and economic battlegrounds, between communities and those who held the economic power: landlords, hipster white folks with a solid education and income; we are the willingly naive gentrifiers.

The gentrifiers need to hear the stories of the gentrified.

Stories from the gentrified in San Francisco’s mission district

Musician Kai OD draws from his experiences growing up in the Mission district. In a semi-viral video, Kai confronts a tech league attempting to reserve a soccer field in the mission district, a space that had been used by neighborhood kids for years before. [25]

“You don’t understand, this field has never been reserved.“ [25]

The Mission district, home to the highest number of vegan restaurants in San Francisco and a center of community resistance to gentrification is a good place to start.

Poet Alejandro Murguía, a longtime Mission resident and poet describes what’s happening in the mission: “It’s gentrification, but it’s also a vicious, brutal gentrification [6:43][26]

For example, tech bus stops sprinkle the Mission district, replacing the public bus; MTA’s 26-Valencia.

The shuttles, paid for by tech companies like Google and Apple, allow employees to feasibly live in “cool” neighborhoods like the Mission and make a “reverse commute” out of the city to their tech campuses in Silicon Valley [35, 38].

In San Francisco, most evictions (68% of them) have occurred within four blocks of tech bus stops. Despite their impact on the neighborhood, the stops were approved by the local government [35].

These bus stops surround Clarion Alley.

Clarion Alley, once a drug ridden street, is home to the Clarion Alley Mural Project, according to an article by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu for the El Tecolote. [24]

The street is home to artwork that features political themes, many addressing the influx of tech wealth and gentrification.

One of the murals features the Anti-Eviction mapping project [30], an organization that has been tirelessly recording the stories of people who have struggled with eviction and displacement in the Bay Area. [23]

The beautiful alley itself, ironically, may be attracting gentrifiers that push out the original residents out; the same residents that fostered the culture of the district.

Poet Alejandro Murguía, a longtime Mission resident and poet describes the tension between culture and displacement: “The great contribution that draws people to the Mission District is its culture, its murals, its ambiance,” “But in fact, that is the first thing that is being destroyed—block by block, eviction by eviction. It’s part of the contradiction that’s going on in the Mission District.” [24]

This is a paradox: mission district is known for its vibrant Latinx culture, including popular spots amongst wealthier people, like La Taqueria [37], but according to a 2014 report by the Eviction Defense Collaborative, those evicted in the last several years are disproportionately black and Latinx. [36]

Cultural shifts linked to gentrification

We are cultural consumers. The culture that communities have built out of resistance and solidarity are the springs of inspiration that attract artists, and then the more bland bourgeoisie bros.

We convert and distill art and spaces into more comfortable, digestible, apolitical versions.   

There is a reason the white suburban culture in which I grew up, with it’s corporate chain filled strip malls, feels so generic.

“Why is fantasia dying, then? People have begun to forget their hopes and dreams, so the nothing grows stronger…It is like a despair, destroying this world” [40]

D.C. poet Zein El-Amine, in his piece Herring Highway, is reminded of “The Nothing” in the Neverending Story when he talks about gentrification [41]:

If you could
only see what has become of your city, the nothingness
spreading through it. The nothingness that straightens out all the curves,
rusts all that is rustic, dulls all texture, sanitizes all that is pungent.
We see it everywhere, as we expected it everywhere,
in the streets of my birth, in the streets of your birth,
in our exile, and in the exile from our exile.

This destruction, or re-imagining of culture is an important component of gentrification, signified by what cultural establishments are opened by gentrifiers. We can track gentrification in real time by looking at what types of establishments open in which neighborhoods [14].

This is because certain types of amenities and stores, as Molls Osberg writes, “arise to meet the demands of the shifting population,” the demands of the gentrifiers. These experiences feed new residents’ hunger for “third place” interactions, as well as a growing tourism industry. ” [38]

And then there is the coffee shop.

One could say the coffee shop is one of the main form factors for creative middle class community. For me, I’d always had a romantic idea that the coffee shop was the meeting place for intellectuals.

“Grabbing a croissant and an americano every morning from the same group of downwardly mobile performer-bohemians is the perfect test case for the creative class’s ideal of semi-anonymous community.” notes Osberg.

Ouch.

The appearance of expensive coffee shops in a neighborhood often signify gentrification. [13] They are cultural indicators of gentrification because they are one of the “lifestyle amenities that appeal to the tastes — and meet the demands of — wealthier residents. [13]”

Coffee shops are an “on-the-ground measure of a particular form of economic development” and reflective of a region’s “changing consumption patterns.” Subsequently, researchers have introduced the coffee shop as a metric for measuring gentrification in “real time” instead of waiting every decade for census data on city demographics.

These are the neighborhoods with the highest number of expensive coffee shops in San Francisco.

And, unsurprisingly, most coffee shops are also located in gentrified regions.

It’s kind of obvious isn’t it. The indictment of coffee shop hipsters as contributing to a hostile force in the neighborhood is more than just a vibe.

Are vegan restaurants cultural indicators of gentrification?

If vegan restaurants are distributed similarly to expensive coffee shops in the region, they may also act as a cultural indicator of gentrification. It would solidify mainstream veganism as one of the hostile cultural forces in the process of gentrification and neighborhood change.

So are they distributed the same way?

Well, San Francisco neighborhoods that have more coffee shops also have more vegan restaurants. They have a strong relationship. (A correlation coefficient of .81):

They are distributed very similarly to expensive coffee shops, which are a cultural and economic symbol of gentrification:

Furthermore, if we map the situation, the pattern is clear. Vegan restaurants are located in areas that are experiencing gentrification:

So vegan restaurants are predominantly found in gentrified areas. And, vegan restaurants are distributed very similarly to coffee shops, a cultural symbol and indicator of gentrification.

This means Vegan restaurants just might also be an indicator of gentrification. Something that contributes to a gentrifying neighborhood’s increasingly hostile vibe towards its original residents.

The stereotype of the white, hipster vegan girl might just be true. That stereotype was … me.

Why gentrification is relevant to veganism

Walking down those same streets, at those same coffee shops, at those same vegan restaurants. But instead of feeling cool, I’m reminded of the skateboard.

I see craft coffee establishments and high end vegan restaurants, housing edgy patrons who think they’re pretty cool for knowing about the “up and coming neighborhood

Meanwhile, the people who still remain see the neighborhood as increasingly alienating, due in part by the same people who supposedly life a “compassionate lifestyle.” And in the larger cultural context, these coffee shops and vegan restaurants are participating in a slow oxidation, a slow commodification, a removal, of the community that was there before. Because it’s lucrative.

Well, it’s f***ed up.

If vegans have stopped eating meat because it’s exploitive, that same idea should apply to our cultural consumption too?

What can be done?

The Urban Displacement project lists many potential solutions to prevent the harmful consequences of gentrification.

Most importantly, several community organizations are tirelessly working to protect residents from eviction and displacement in the Mission and in the Greater Bay area.

People, across the country, are sharing their stories and are resisting displacement, eviction, and lack of affordable housing. They’re fighting for their homes.

It’s time for us to listen.

A new vegan restaurant doesn’t necessarily have to exist in tension with its surroundings. In fact, many vegetarian and vegan restaurants across the country are centers for community solidarity and resistance. I won’t pretend I’m an expert, but it’s clear I’ve got some work to do. I’ve begun to ask myself some new questions:

  • Are the new vegan restaurants we’re eating at contributing to the neighborhood they’re a part of?
  • To they have the original residents of the neighborhood in mind when they set up shop?
  • If you’re a vegan living in a gentrified neighborhood, do you know it’s history?
  • Do you stand in solidarity with those who wish to remain in their neighborhood?
  • Do you know the people you’ve displaced?

And finally, the most important question of all: Are you a part of your community?

Sources

1. Gentrification, urban displacement and affordable housing: Overview and research roundup

2. How low income neighborhoods change: Entry, exit, and enhancement

3. Sociology’s revenge: Moving to Opportunity (MTO) revisited

4. Urban Displacement Project, Executive summary

5. What we don’t understand about gentrification | Stacey Sutton | TEDxNewYork

6. HOPE/POLITICS OF PLACE

7. Endogenous Gentrification and Housing Price Dynamics

8. Has Falling Crime Invited Gentrification?

9. How low income neighborhoods change: Entry, exit, and enhancement

10. SEPARATE AND SUFFERING: THE DAMAGING EFFECTS OF RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION ON METROPOLITAN ECONOMIES

11. Neckerman, Kathryn M., and Florencia Torche. 2007. “Inequality: Causes and Consequences.” The Annual Review of Sociology 33:335-357.

12. Gentrification, urban displacement and affordable housing: Overview and research roundup

13. More Coffee, Less Crime? The Relationship between Gentrification and Neighborhood Crime Rates in Chicago, 1991 to 2005

14. Retail Gentrification and Race: The Case of Alberta Street in Portland, Oregon

15. The Gentrification Effect

16. There’s Basically No Way Not to Be a Gentrifier

17. Talking about Gentrification

18. What we don’t understand about gentrification | Stacey Sutton | TEDxNewYork

19. Mrs. Loretta McDonald Takes Us Through Brooklyn for a Look at Gentrification’s Effects | BK Stories

20. About the Urban Displacement Project

21. The “Hood” is changing: How gentrification effects every cities’ neighborhoods

22. Losing Alberta: Gentrification in Northeast Portland

23. Narratives of Displacement and Resistance, Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

24. Artists brush back against gentrification

25. Mission Playground is Not For Sale

26. San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguia – Reading and Interview

27. SF Bay Area: Adventures of Gentrification and Seeking Housing

28. LIFE IS LIVING: BEING UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK IN A GENTRIFYING CITY

29. KAI OD – Blue Wave

30. Mural in Clarion Alley – 415-319-6865

31. James Baldwin – “Urban Renewal”

32. Charles Collins, Real Estate Developer, Former Fillmore Resident

33. How Urban Renewal Destroyed The Fillmore In Order to Save It

34. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It

35. San Francisco Tech Bus Stops, Displacement, and Architectures of Racial Capitalism

36. 2014 Eviction Report

37. The Story of La Taqueria’s Remastered Mission-Style Burrito

38. Inside The Barista Class

39. Riding First Class: Impacts of Silicon Valley Shuttles on Commute & Residential Location Choice

40. The Never Ending Story (The Nothing Scene)

41. Zein El-Amine, Five Poems

42. What It’s Like To Get Kicked Out Of Your Neighborhood