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Dear Gentrifiers

Stop putting your restaurants in historically black neighborhoods if you can’t respect the culture

Woman reading a menu amidst a flood of gentrification that’s sweeping away buildings

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Often, the hardest part of my job as a food writer is reconciling my blackness with my desire to tell stories that aren’t bound by larger social implications. I would love to be able to simply write about my love of food and how it has a way of acting like an edible Pangea. To tell stories highlighting the ability of restaurants to become cultural superhighways where different ethnicities mingle peacefully, sometimes on a single plate.

But too frequently it is the burden of the underrepresented, those who don’t have a seat at the table, to call attention to how food, and restaurants specifically, can act as extensions of white supremacy.

I moved to Washington, D.C., in August of 2009, lured by the charismatic Barack Obama, who had been sworn in as president nine months earlier. Growing up in Los Angeles, I never saw crowds of black men and women suited up and in positions of power. There was a promise of change.

Over countless happy hours, brunches, and love affairs with men who almost always attended Howard University, I became something of an adult in the five years I spent living in what was then lovingly known as Chocolate City. It was commonplace for black Hill staffers, lobbyists, and power brokers to gather in the dimly lit belly of Stan’s Restaurant on Friday nights to order strong cocktails and eat fried chicken wings — drenched in mambo sauce — far from the gaze of their white coworkers (lest the stereotype be confirmed).

A decade ago, at the tender age of 22, I didn’t know that the city I loved — the one where black men and women made up the majority of faces in my favorite restaurants and bars — was in the throes of gentrification. But I should have. The signs were everywhere. When I left D.C. in August of 2014 to head to graduate school, construction notices were popping up, indicating that upscale grocery stores would replace boarded-up buildings or corner stores. Every time I opened my eyes it seemed as though more and more black folks in Eckington, my former neighborhood, were being replaced by younger, whiter, richer residents. At the time it didn’t occur to me that these changes weren’t abnormalities, but a sign of the times.

There are few historically black neighborhoods that aren’t experiencing some form of gentrification, from Harlem in New York to Inglewood in Los Angeles to seemingly the entire city of Atlanta. Some part of me enjoys the novelty that it brings: specialty wine shops, revitalized parks, and new places to eat, things that should exist whether white people are around or not.

But as I sprinted out of the rain on 14th Street one balmy spring evening, none of this was on my mind. I was just happy to be back in the city that shaped me, even if it looked different. My girlfriends and I decided to try out Bresca, a celebrated restaurant located in between Logan Circle and the U Street Corridor, a historic neighborhood once known as “black Broadway” but lost a third of its black population between 1980 and 2000.

We arrived for our reservation right on time and were shown to our seats by a hostess donning a Howard University shirt: a good omen, or so I thought. Our waiter came over almost immediately to introduce himself, drop off menus, and pour water. My group and I excitedly chatted about how happy we were to be back in the city we used to run all over in our 20s.

My eyes moved eagerly across the cocktail menu until they settled on one bafflingly named cocktail: the Transatlantic Crossing. For me, and countless other African Americans, no matter what may follow after that word, our first reaction to seeing “transatlantic” is always the same: images of black bodies packed head to foot in the suffocating bowels of creaking ships which carried over 12 million men, women, and children across an ocean against their will. Transatlantic means perpetual generational trauma. It means loss. It means death.

My friends and I debated whether or not to say anything and, as black women, risk the perception that we were making a scene. But we never really had a choice. In these situations you either speak up and risk making people uncomfortable or regret having been passive. When our waiter returned, it was impossible for us not to point out the offense.

In response, Bresca’s lead bartender — a woman of color — came over to our table to assure us that no offense was intended. Of course not. Moreover, she wanted us to know that the Transatlantic Crossing was her cocktail, named after the trade route that brought together all the spices present in the drink. It seemed, I pointed out, that she also forgot that black bodies were traded, bought, and sold alongside those spices.

She reacted with genuine concern and noted that as a person of color, she would never intentionally name a cocktail after something as horrific as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, yet there the drink was, in my hand at the table. This seemingly innocent cocktail name spoke to a larger problem within the restaurant industry. Too many white-owned restaurants are all too happy to co-opt black urban spaces or culture (and often, cheaper property values) to make a profit, all while disrespecting, disregarding, and displacing the very people whose communities they’re in.

Bresca, which opened in 2017, is located in the midst of U Street Corridor. According to the National Park Service, in its heyday — from 1900 to the 1960s — this community was once “[Washington, D.C.’s] most important concentration of businesses, entertainment facilities, and fraternal and religious institutions owned and operated by African Americans, while the surrounding neighborhood became home to many of the city’s leading African American citizens.”

But the ethnic makeup of this once-bustling black neighborhood has changed rapidly. In 1970, 70 percent of the neighborhood’s residents were black; by 2010, black residents made up just 30 percent of the population, according to Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City. D.C.’s Census Tract 44, per The Atlantic, reports that “the bulk of the black U Street population loss happened by 2000.” While almost half of the black people who once called this place home have since left, today, emotions are running high as residents grapple over the question of who has the right to call the Shaw/Howard community home.

The same day as our dinner reservations, Howard University was in the news because of ongoing tensions over white people treating the campus quad like a public park and walking their dogs on the lawn in the center of the school; one resident suggested the problem could be solved if students moved their over-150-year-old institution somewhere else. Nine days before, a Metro PCS store in Shaw, about half a mile from Bresca, was told that new residents had filed a noise complaint and that the store had to stop playing the go-go music it had pumped outside of its storefront for almost 25 years. In response, black residents hosted a block party-esque protest appropriately called #DontMuteDC.

It is in this cauldron of mixed emotions that Bresca sits, waiting to serve affluent D.C. dwellers. In a glowing article for Eater DC, the restaurant was praised for its attention to detail. That attention wasn’t in the building when it chose to name a cocktail after a trade that brought over 12 million black bodies to parts of Europe and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the shores of the United States.

Through all of this, I’m left asking one question: What responsibilities do restaurants have to their black and brown communities? A hell of a lot.

“Restaurants and bars are responsible for both training and supporting the communities that they’re in,” says Kisira Hill, a bartender, cultural anthropologist, and cofounder of Radical Xchange, a collective that aims to link hospitality with history, community, and intersectionality. “And if they weren’t [already a part of the] established historically black [or historically POC] community that is there, then they have a responsibility to involve people that already have their own culture and their own stake in the community.”

Restaurants often play a role in displacement. In grad school, I wrote my thesis on the gentrification of Downtown Los Angeles and impact that award-winning restaurants new to the area had on Skid Row residents. Due to the influx of new residents, businesses, and restaurants, the city was trying to figure out where to move the sizeable homeless population that called the roughly 50-block area that makes up Skid Row home. What I found during my research was that more often than not, when considering locations for their businesses, restaurateurs rarely considered the effect that their restaurants had on at-risk communities; often, they hadn’t thought about those communities at all. Restaurants moving into gentrifying spaces show a pervasive lack of cultural sensitivity. From placing fake bullet holes in walls to using coded language to market Chinese food, these businesses have to take a hard look at themselves and consider what message they want to send to their black and brown neighbors.

“It is the responsibility of cultural hubs, including restaurants, bars, and other community spaces, to foster a healthy and beautiful cultural interaction between people,” says Hill. I have seen restaurants embrace their responsibility to create equitable spaces by hiring within the community or developing pathways to career advancement through training initiatives.

In my various jobs as a line cook and ultimately a general manager, I witnessed the way restaurants can provide a family, a safety net, and a safe haven for people within its walls. It’s what drew me to food initially, and it’s why I’ve remained. But I’ve also witnessed, all too often, the way restaurants can be dismissive; how their actions can scream, We didn’t even consider that this would be offensive because we don’t consider you. We don’t consider you because we don’t see you.

I don’t mean to tear down Bresca. My dinner that night was phenomenal, the best I’ve had all year. The staff was attentive and welcoming, and the Transatlantic Crossing was spicy and boozy, with just the right amount of sweetness to bring it all together. In fact, that night it felt like we spoke to almost every manager, owner, sous chef, and line cook in the whole restaurant — each profusely apologizing for not catching their error earlier. The beverage manager assured us that the cocktail would be removed from the menu, and weeks later, it was.

To be black and American is to live in a constant state of discomfort. It means walking down the street in a once-familiar neighborhood and seeing strangers eyeing you suspiciously. It means displacement. It means death by a million microaggressive cuts. It means bracing for inevitable sucker punches and still getting the wind knocked out of you when they land.

“If [you’re] a part of the gentrification process in a neighborhood, instead of being like, ‘I don’t know what to do about it,’ how about y’all go to a community center, go to a town meeting, or reach out to other restaurants that maybe are not able to stay in that community anymore because they’re being priced out,” advises Hill. “Reach out to people that are involved in the community and be like, ‘We need help being a part of the community.’”

Every day, it seems there’s another article highlighting the growing tensions in gentrifying neighborhoods, from cops being called on innocent bystanders to the attempts at renaming historically black and brown neighborhoods. Whiter residents are displacing residents and cultures that have been in urban areas for generations.

When restaurants embrace the fact that they have a responsibility to serve the communities that they’re in, incidents like the one I experienced at Bresca will hopefully start to decline. Until then, it is our continued responsibility to use food as a pathway to examine and call out larger cultural issues when we encounter them.

Ryan Hughley is a food and culture writer originally from Los Angeles, though she has lived in Atlanta since early 2017 and cannot imagine calling any other city home. Sarah Robbins is a freelance illustrator and printmaker based in Baltimore, inspired by folklore and traditional printmaking.