Shortly after the news broke that Sqirl, one of LA’s most popular restaurants, had been serving jam from buckets that developed mold, it became clear that food handling was just one of Sqirl’s issues. Jessica Koslow was accused of taking credit for her employees’ contributions and, then, the spotlight turned to comments she had made about Sqirl’s Virgil Village neighborhood years ago. Alongside moldy jam, there was another issue that could no longer be ignored: Koslow was unapologetic about her restaurant’s role in the area’s gentrification.
Sqirl opened in 2011 in Virgil Village, a pocket of Los Angeles populated by Salvadoran churches, Ecuadorian restaurants, and auto garages. Rent for the 800-square-foot space, by Koslow’s admission, was incredibly cheap. “My cheat is this shitty corner on Virgil and Marathon,” she said in 2016. “My cheat is like, I pay $2 per square foot.” Soon after opening, the restaurant’s grain bowls and $15 jars of seasonal jam drew lines of customers. The notion that Sqirl was the first desirable business in a neighborhood populated mostly by Central Americans became a part of the restaurant’s origin story: On another occasion, Koslow described the location as being “on a street no one knew about, in a neighborhood no one cared about.”
“There’s an image that the restaurant is looking to cultivate,” former Sqirl sous chef Gabe Rios recently told the LAnd magazine. “And over time, the image became very clearly not where the community was, but where it was going.” But against the backdrop of this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement and calls to support BIPOC-owned businesses, an outwardly progressive restaurant could no longer support gentrification without scrutiny.
Gentrification is the process by which more affluent people and businesses move into a neighborhood, effectively changing the character of that neighborhood by creating a rent gap between existing land values and potential ones. (A 1976 study by the Urban Land Institute described gentrifiers as those “establishing a new investment climate” in an area.) The change can take place over decades, and while the technical definition of gentrification doesn’t include race, gentrification in the United States by and large impacts Black and Latinx communities who are displaced by wealthier white people. The pattern repeats itself in neighborhoods in nearly every city: Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights in New York, Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta, West Philadelphia, and so on.
The forces that drive gentrification are based in policy, many of them racist. When it was founded in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration would deny mortgage insurance in Black neighborhoods, a process that became known as redlining. Those measures essentially prevented Black people from owning their homes, making it easy for them to be pushed out, and although the 1968 Fair Housing Act made redlining by the FHA illegal, its basic upshot — a systematic denial of services to selected groups of people — still happens in the public and private sectors.
Elsewhere, zoning regulations that once enforced segregation have been changed to bring new people to a neighborhood. But often, they follow similar redlining measures and disproportionately up-zone, or add population density, to minority neighborhoods, inviting in more outsiders while decreasing the amount of rent-stabilized or low-income housing as demand goes up. Other current policies that support gentrification come in the form of tax abatements that lure in new income-eligible homebuyers (who again, can pass an often racist mortgage and lending process), new development, and new businesses at the expense of those longer standing.
While gentrification was happening in cities throughout the 20th century, the cycle we’re currently in started in the 1990s, when members of the white creative class were compelled to move back to cities by low rents and the promise of cultural capital, spurring a reversal of white flight described by theorists like Richard Florida as “urban revitalization.” As these new residents moved in, businesses that catered to them soon followed; the initial third-wave coffee shop or destination restaurant or fake dive bar then signaled to other outsiders that the neighborhood had appealing amenities. More outsiders moved in, and more restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, and fancy bars followed, the cycle repeating itself over and over again in urban neighborhoods across America. “‘Foodie’ culture often serves as gentrification’s leading edge,” according to a CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute brief, “by signifying that a community is ripe for investment.”
But, while restaurants have been beneficiaries of this process, in recent years, some have taken an even bigger role in neighborhood shifts. As developers in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta recognized the cultural appeal of restaurants, they began courting chefs to open restaurants as flagship tenants, often expressly to attract new residents from outside the community. Developers and policymakers may describe these investments as revitalization, but when “revitalization” replaces the people who live in a place with wealthier white residents, prohibiting them from enjoying any of the new investment in the neighborhood, it’s gentrification. “Gentrification happens from the top, down,” Devita Davison, founder of FoodLab Detroit, says. “Revitalization, to me, is change in the community from the bottom, up. And what that means is that change is controlled by the people who live there. Gentrification is a tool used by the people who want to live there. They’re different things.”
Restaurateurs haven’t paid enough attention to gentrification, and restaurants that otherwise espouse liberal philosophies, like fair wages and ethical sourcing, are often less cognizant of how they may contribute to displacement. In the restaurant business, with its slim margins, operators likely want a mix of customers; destination diners mean a potentially infinite customer base. Owners might assume that neighbors will appreciate having a nice restaurant nearby, but its physical existence doesn’t equal accessibility to the people that live there. Compounding the problem, restaurants that move into a community without making any attempt to be for the community are nonetheless deemed “approachable neighborhood restaurants” by their peers and media — also, largely, outsiders to the neighborhood in question. Sqirl, for example, was praised for its accessible menu of moderately priced, unfussy breakfast foods, not whether it had been embraced by its immediate neighbors.
If these past months have been good for anything, it’s taking stock of the ways we can all do better. Restaurants will continue to seek out locations in neighborhoods with low rents, and while they can’t on their own reverse the policies that stack affordable rents in gentrifying communities of color, they can make strides to be actually accessible to the wider community and not harbingers of displacement. This work is essential. “Gentrification,” says Davison, “is a social justice issue.”
Accessibility should be a goal of neighborhood restaurants. Many restaurateurs recognize the value of affordable pricing — having an entree or two under $10, or $2 happy hour beers — but they overlook the other ways a restaurant should define “accessible.” Ultimately, restaurants should aim to become third places for the wider neighborhood. “With the call for change within our communities and government institutions, we also need change to come from within the restaurant industry,” Amethyst Ganaway wrote on Eater in June 2020, during the first weeks of the Black Lives Matter protest movement. “New third places should be created, tearing down old racist and classist ideologies and putting systems in place that represent true inclusivity and compassion.”
To become this kind of third place, restaurateurs need to be aware of the face they present to the community. A new business with an entirely white staff isn’t going to appear welcoming to a community of Black and Latinx residents who may already be concerned about displacement. Restaurants should strive to hire locally for both back of house and front of house. “A gentrifying restaurant that’s all white — or looks all white from its front of house staff — in a community of color can do things very differently,” says Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. “[Instead, they can] rely on that community of color as clients rather than bring in a community of consumers from outside of the neighborhood.”
Jayaraman believes that investing in the community will only help a restaurant in the long run. Start “thinking about your workers as consumers, thinking about their families as consumers, thinking about their community as consumers,” she says. With this kind of thinking, there are “bottom-line benefits,” like a built-in customer base and, if those hired from the community are paid as well as they should be, less turnover.
Restaurateurs need to understand who lives in a community in order to serve it, and this takes work. Kamau Franklin, founder of the Atlanta-based Community Movement Builders collective, encourages restaurateurs to dialogue with neighborhood associations and community groups about what the restaurant’s role should be. Restaurateurs and restaurant organizations should be “looking at what those neighborhoods continually look like, talking to the leadership of folks in those neighborhoods, and trying to figure out what those folks are saying they need.”
At a bare minimum, a restaurant should respect a community’s culture. In her 2019 essay “Dear Gentrifiers,” Ryan Shepard describes the time she dined at a new restaurant in a historically Black D.C. neighborhood with a cocktail menu that seemed to reference the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 2018, a white woman opened a restaurant in Crown Heights, a gentrifying neighborhood of Brooklyn, and in a press release characterized the building as “a long-vacant corner bodega (with a rumored backroom illegal gun shop to boot)” and boasted about “a bullet hole-ridden wall” (it was more likely cosmetic damage). That kind of insensitivity, as Shepard writes, shows how restaurant owners “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.”
Mindful community involvement from groups of restaurant owners, hopefully, can lead to deeper policy change. The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute urges food advocates and community activists to take part in neighborhood planning meetings so that they can oppose zoning changes that may disadvantage existing businesses. With more awareness of the forces that threaten neighborhoods, they can lobby for the kinds of policy that keep communities intact.
Greater recognition of restaurants’ capacity to fuel gentrification is starting to happen. In recent weeks, Koslow’s role in the changing demographics of Virgil Village was scrutinized, most astutely by the LAnd article co-written by Samanta Helou Hernandez, the founder of This Side of Hoover, an Instagram account that documents gentrification in Virgil Village. The account, which has more than 8,500 followers, acknowledges the existing community and its resilience as new residents and construction move in post-Sqirl. And as Black Lives Matter generated calls to pour money into Black communities, other websites and Instagram accounts that similarly amplified POC-owned neighborhood businesses gained new support. That increased awareness translated into a meaningful response: The spotlights and lists in June boosted sales at Black-owned businesses, including restaurants in gentrifying neighborhoods, such as Peaches Hot House in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood.
This support needs to outlast the summer. And just as food media once galvanized the Sqirls of the world, it can lift up the longstanding restaurants in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, and more thoughtfully question the restaurateurs who declare their businesses to be neighborhood restaurants. “[Journalists should be] asking, ‘Do you think about what your role is in terms of community?’ and not accepting a standard answer like, ‘We’re going to help turn this community around,’” Franklin says. “I think there is this plethora of set answers that folks in business like to give, which is, ‘We’re a part of the community fabric and dynamic.’ Too many times they get away with it because people don’t ask the follow-up questions.”
In thinking about a future with truly accessible restaurants, ones that aren’t signposts of gentrification, there are lessons to take from those leading the charge right now. Restaurants in cities from NYC to Los Angeles to Providence have transformed their spaces into third places for protesters. White restaurant owners, like Greg Baxtrom of Maison Yaki in NYC, are turning over their restaurant spaces to support Black businesses. Chefs like Josef Centeno in Los Angeles are using their skills to feed hospital employees and out-of-work restaurant workers and not asking for money in return. These are restaurants that have reverted to their first purpose: feeding the community.
Of course, some were doing this work long before the pandemic and protests. “I think community work is something that is just so overlooked,” Zenat Begum, owner of the five-year-old Playground Coffee Shop in Bed-Stuy, told Eater. “It wasn’t until COVID that we were able to get a platform to really start talking about a lot of the stuff that we have done in the last five years.”
Before the pandemic, Playground offered programming like yoga classes and readings; when the pandemic began, it set up community fridges. In nearby Bushwick, Francesca Chaney opened her vegan cafe Sol Sips with sliding-scale brunches and a message that vegan food was for Black people, too. These restaurants were opened by people with meaningful roots in their neighborhoods, not outsiders. But if outsiders must open in gentrifying neighborhoods, these are the examples they should look to.
For these restaurants, and the models that have emerged during the pandemic, profit is secondary. As long as restaurants are operating under capitalism, they will struggle to be completely compatible with the support of Black and Latinx communities in gentrifying neighborhoods: When profitability is at the forefront, anything else becomes disposable, Davison says.
Restaurants can’t fix gentrification, but no one is asking them to; few are calling for restaurants to stop opening in gentrifying neighborhoods. Changes to policies that favor wealthy homeowners over lower-income residents and new developments over investment in community are the only ways to meaningfully curb gentrification. What restaurant owners can and should do to support that is incorporate the community into their visions.
“These people are customers, too,” Franklin says, referring to the people who live in neighborhoods long before they become targets for investment. When considering opening a new restaurant, restaurateurs shouldn’t be driven by “what they think is going to be the best for them in five years or 10 years based on their projection for what’s happening to the community. Instead, it takes looking at people like they’re human beings, like they matter, like they should have a role and a say.” Which, really, should have been the way restaurants operated all along.