Race, Class, and Food Insecurity

May 21, 2014 § 4 Comments

When we lived in Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montreal, we lived about two doors down from a community garden in the shadows of the massive Église Saint-Charles.  That community garden had been there as long as I could remember, it pre-dated my first residence in the Pointe back in 2002-4.  The people who used it were the poor, working-class and marginalised Irish and French Canadians who lived in the Pointe. But, by about 2009 or 2010, the garden had been taken over by the gentrifiers, forcing out the old school urban harvesters.  Many of these gentrifiers thought they were new and unique in gardening in an inner-city neighbourhood.  Indeed, this is something I saw over and over again in Montreal, on the Plateau, Saint-Henri, the Pointe, and other neighbourhoods, as hipsters discovered the benefits of community gardens.

But they were hardly new ideas in old working-class neighbourhoods, particularly in the Pointe.  The Pointe had long had community gardens.  Aside from this one in on the rue Island, there was also a bigger one in the shadows of the railway viaduct along the rue Knox.  And the problems arise when the original inhabitants of the Pointe were forced out of these gardens by the gentrifiers.  The gardens were used to supplement diets, obviously.  I also noticed something else when I lived in the Pointe in the early part of the past decade and when I was in Saint-Henri mid-decade.  In both neighbourhoods, the local IGA (grocery store), both owned by the same family, the Topettas, opened new, glitzy stores.  The IGAs in the Pointe and Saint-Henri had been in grotty store fronts, on rue du Centre in the Pointe, and rue Notre-Dame in Saint-Henri.  When the new IGA opened in the Pointe c. 2002 and in Saint-Henri in 2005-6, I noticed a lot of low income families wandering around the stores with a slightly dazed look on their faces, complaining about rising prices.  This was ameliorated some by the opening of the big Super C at Atwater Market, which generally had much lower prices than either IGA.

I was thinking about all of this as I was reading an excellent article on TheGrio about food insecurity and food gentrification.  The article was written by Mikki Kendall, an African American feminists in the States, about the process of food gentrification.  Kendall writes about having grown up poor and eating the more undesirable cuts of meat, like hamhocks, neck bones, and the like.  She recalls her grandmother being an expert at turning “turning offal into delicious.”  Kendall notes the gentrification of what I call poor people’s food.  As haute cuisine chefs re-discover these traditionally less desirable foods and turn them into fancy dishes for the wealthy, it drives up the prices of these cuts.

[As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if the joke is ultimately on the wealthy eating these cuts of meat at expensive restaurants and I think of Timothy Taylor’s brilliant début novel, Stanley Park, which recounts, in part, the story of Jeremy Papier, a chef and restaurauteur in Vancouver.  Papier favours local ingredients and culture and comes to rely on animals trapped in Stanley Park for his fancy restaurant on the border of the Downtown Eastside, the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canada.]

But to return to Kendall and the IGA and community gardens in Pointe-Saint-Charles: Kendall notes that with the rising cost of these traditional cuts of meat used by the poor comes an inability to purchase them:

Yet, as consumers range further and further afield from their traditional diets, each new “discovery” comes at the expense of another marginalized community. Complaints about the problem are often met with, “Well, eat something else that you can afford” as though the poor have a wealth of options, and are immune to dietary restrictions based on religion, allergies, access, or storage capabilities.

So, ultimately, the poor are left to eat processed food, which isn’t good for any of us.  That is the only thing that is easily accessible.  When I was student, I noted with deep and bitter irony that the cheapest meal option was often McDonalds.  Or, if I went to the grocery store, aside from Ramen noodles (a processed food I cannot stand), the cheapest option was Kraft Dinner (or Mac & Cheese for you Americans), another slightly vile processed food (full confession: KD remains my comfort food of choice, I import large quantities of it from Canada).

And the end result of all of this bad, processed food is the toll it takes on the health of the poor, both in urban centres and rural areas.  In the United States, African Americans are, on the whole, poorer than everyone else.  In Canada, it is the aboriginals.  It is no coincidence that food insecurity hits African Americans in the US hard.  It is also no coincidence that rates of heart disease, hyper-tension, diabetes, and obesity are much higher in African American and Canadian aboriginal communities than in the rest of both nations.

We can and must do better.

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Griffintown and the Importance of Urban Planning

May 12, 2014 § 6 Comments

This will be the first of a series of posts on Griffintown this week.  I was in Montréal last week, mostly to finish up a bit of research on the Griffintown book, which, at least has a title, ‘The House of the Irish’: History & Memory in Griffintown, Montreal, 1900-2013.  The last chapter of the manuscript deals with what I call the post-memory of Griffintown, the period of the past half-decade or so of redevelopment and gentrification of the neighbourhood.  Griffintown was in desperate need of redevelopment, so let’s get that out of the way first and foremost.  A large swath of near-vacant city blocks next to the Old Port, along the North Bank of the Lachine Canal, and down the hill from downtown, it was inevitable that it would attract attention.

My problem was never with redevelopment per se, then.  My problem was with unsustainable development, willful neglect of the environment, of the landscape of the neighbourhood, and with blatant cash grabs by condo developers, and tax grabs on the part of the Ville de Montréal.  And so that’s what we now have in Griffintown, for the most part.

In between conducting oral history interviews with my former allies in the fight for sustainable redevelopment, I wandered around Griffintown, Pointe-Saint-Charles, and Saint-Henri a fair bit.  This was both professional interest and because I lived in the Pointe and Saint-Henri.  I also had an interesting discussion with a clerk at Paragraphe Books on McGill College.  Then there were the interviews.

deserted

Housing development, Copenhagen.

My friend Scott MacLeod says that many of the condos going up in Griffintown look like “Scandinavian social housing.”  I think he’s onto something.  This is a picture from a housing development in Copenhagen.  It is quite similar to what’s going up in Griffintown, with one key difference.  In Copenhagen, there is green space.  In Griffintown, there is none.

Part of the genius of Montreal is an almost utter lack of urban planning on

Griffintown condos.

Griffintown condos.

the grand scale.  And in the case of Griffintown, the city has been almost negligent in its approach.  During its overzealous attempt to approve any and all projects proposed by developers in Griffintown from about 2006 to 2010, the Ville de Montréal overlooked a few key components for the new neighbourhood: parks and schools.  It was only after 2010 that the city thought that maybe it should earmark some land for, you know, parks.  Schools? Who needs them?

 

The West and the Rest and the Fate of the Environment

May 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

I just read a quick book review in Foreign Affairs of Charles Kenny’s new book, The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West.  This comes on the heels of a spate of books in recent years about why it is that the West rules now, but why it won’t shortly.  The best of these books (at least amongst those I’ve read) is Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules — For Now: The Patterns of HIstory and What They Reveal about the Future. The worst is my favourite village idiot, Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, and not just because of his incredibly stupid device of the “killer apps” that the West downloaded first, but have since been downloaded by the rest, but because of Ferguson’s inability to hide his triumphalist ethno-centrism.  I also teach a lot of World History, so the topic interests me.

Kenny argues that, in contrast to Ferguson and others, that the rise of the Rest isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the West.  Moreover, Kenny also claims that the rise of the Rest isn’t due to any failure on the part of the US, but, rather, is a function of Washington’s global leadership.  And, unlike any other writer I’ve read on the matter, Kenny is also concerned about the possibilities for environmental degradation due to global economic advancement.  This is interesting, actually, making me think of Doug Saunder’s Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Re-Shaping Our World (I reviewed that here on this blog).  Saunders is also a triumphalist, arguing that urbanisation is a great boon to humankind, but he overlooks the environmental degradation from cities.

However.  Where Kenny falls down, at least according to this review (I do look forward to reading The Upside of Down), is that he expects the free market (along with education and innovation) to take care of that problem.  This is where I get suspicious, given that the free market has done very little for environmental degradation, and left to our own devices, we humans would destroy the environment without some kind of governmental intervention.  I don’t see why it would work any better in the developing world, frankly.

But, Kenny also redeems himself in his concluding argument wherein he favours the establishment of global rules and regulations to regulate global development and environmental damage.  Of course, I’m not sure how this squares with his faith in the free market, but I suppose I’ll have to read the book to find the answer to that.

Genesis 1:28: Justification for Colonialism

January 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

I assigned William Cronon’s landmark Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England this semester in American History.  I read this the first a long, long time ago at the University of British Columbia during my undergrad.  I read it again at Simon Fraser University during my MA studies.  The book itself is 31 years old this year, but it was re-issued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2003.  It is still a fantastic book, in my opinion.

But one thing struck me as I was reading.  Cronon writes, concerning the English Crown’s attempts at taking possession of the land of New England:

The Crown derived its own claim to the region from several sources: Cabot’s “discovery” of New England in 1479-98; the failure of the Indians to adequately subdue the soil as Geneis 1.28 required; and from the King’s status — initially a decidedly speculative one — as the first Christian monarch to establish colonies there.

These are all points I am familiar with, obviously, after all those years of schooling and my teaching career.  But sometimes, when I see the justification for early imperialism laid so bare as this, I am astounded.  I won’t even get into the logical fallacies of relying on the Bible to justify the Crown’s claim to the land, possessed by non-Christians.

It gets better though, Cronon notes:

…by the late seventeenth century, Indian lands were regarded as being entirely within English colonial jurisdiction; indeed, the logic of the situation seemed to indicate that, for Indians to own land at all, it had first to be granted them by the English Crown.

Oy vey.

Urban Redevelopment: Getting it Wrong, Springfield, MA

October 27, 2013 § 3 Comments

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

As regular readers of this blog know, I am interested in urban redevelopment, especially when it comes to questions of doing it right and doing it wrong (and chances at redemption).  For the most part, the wave of urban redevelopment that hit North American cities in the 70s and 80s was the wrong way, in that it left us with neo-brutalist architecture in the midst of our cities that is cold, uninviting and intimidating.  A case in point of this would be City Hall Plaza in Boston.  It’s a desolate, soulless urban square that people use for one of three purposes: 1) official events, because they have no choice; 2) to sit on the fringes of to eat lunch; 3) to get to the Government Center T station.  Many cities have this problem today, these horrid, horrid neo-brutalist buildings.  In some places, like Boston, it doesn’t so much matter, because the downtown core of the city is bustling, Government Center lies between Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market and the stately Boston Common.  Government Center is the site of, well, government in Boston and so this site is full of civil servants, but also tourists and Bostonians crossing between the tourist centres, the North End, and the downtown core of the city.  In other places, like nearby Worcester, this 70s/80s wave of urban redevelopment led to a massive #fail.

But, the legacy of deindustrialisation is also very real, especially in small formerly urban centres, like Worcester, but also Springfield, Mass.  Springfield is about 100 miles west of Boston and it feels about as faraway from Boston as one can get.  Springfield is a depressed, sad little city.  It has a high crime rate, nearly double that for the rest of the Commonwealth, including Boston.  It’s murder rate, .13 per thousand, is almost triple the national average (perhaps unironically, Smith & Wesson’s corporate headquarters are in Springfield). The same is true for robbery and assault.  Its property crime rates are also well above the national average.

It wasn’t always like this for Springfield.  Until the 1960s, it was a bucolic industrial city, surrounded by natural beauty.  It had a low crime and unemployment.  It was the very first Springfield in the USA, and was the birthplace of basketball.  Indian Motorcycles were from Springfield.  So was Charles Goodyear.  Merriam-Webster’s first dictionary was published there in 1805.

I-91, downtown Springfield and the Basketball Hall of Fame

Springfield experienced decline due to a combination of deindustrialisation, the closing of the Springfield Armory in 1969 (the target of Daniel Shays and his rebels in 1786), and poor urban development decisions (most notably the running of I-91 through the downtown core and cutting off downtown from the waterfront of the Connecticut River.  Various attempts to redevelop the city have failed miserably (like the basketball Hall of Fame).  And recently, the city decided that it was going to open a massive urban casino to flag the failing fortunes of Springfield.  Why they thought this would work is beyond me.  Certainly, people will now come to Springfield to shop and gamble.  But, the casino will also siphon off jobs and hurt what business still exists in the downtown core.  And now, even that appears to be at risk.

Rural Palimpsests: Amity, Missouri

October 24, 2013 § 7 Comments

DSC01146Amity is a blink-and-you-miss it tiny town on Route J in northwestern Missouri.  The last census put its population at 54, though it has since shrunk to 47 (though, in the stupidity of American metropolitan areas, it is apart of the St. Joseph MO-KS Metropolitan Statistical Area, despite the fact that there is 30 miles of relatively empty farmland between St. Joseph and Amity).  It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a dying town.  Amity was founded in 1872, but when the Chicago and Rock Island Railway was completed in 1885, the townsite moved about a mile north to straddle the tracks.  In its new location, Amity thrived, as general stores, hotels, banks, schools, and churches popped up as the town became an important stop on the railway.  A stockyard for the Rock developed and the town became a waystation and loading zone for agricultural products from DeKalb County onto the railway.  Similarly, consumer items were unloaded in Amity for the stores there and for DeKalb County in general.  The town’s population rose to a high of 225 in the 1920s.

But Amity was a victim of circumstances, as it lived with the Rock, it also died with it.  The Chicago Rock Island and Pacific (as it was eventually called) was a notoriously poorly-run and inefficient railway.  By the 1970s, the gig was up.  It had been run into the ground, and it pulled out of Amity in 1975.  But the Rock (and Amity) were the victims of more than just poor management.  Deindustrialisation was also central to the story here.  As factories shut down in the major cities of the MidWest, from Chicago to Kansas City and beyond, the railways became increasingly less important to the heartland of the United States.  And Amitysuffered.  Even before the railway pulled out, the stores were suffering, the schools and churches were closing.

The former site of the Chicago Rock Island Pacific Railway through Amity

The former site of the Chicago Rock Island Pacific Railway through Amity

Today, Amity is barely hanging on. During our cross-country trip in August, we stayed with friends in Amity, Sam and Monica.  To my city eyes, Amity was a piece of rural paradise.  But Sam and I got talking about the history of the town.  Sam is a native of Amity and Monica is from nearby Maysville.  The longer we talked, the more fascinated with Amity’s past and present I became.  I have written before on the changing rural landscape in North America (Hawley, Massachusetts, Phoenix, British Columbia, and Sainte-Sylvestre, Québec), but in talking with Sam I began to think about the costs of deindustrialisation in North America.

Abandoned home, Amity

Abandoned home, Amity

Reams of work has been done on deindustrialisation in major cities (Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Hamilton), and my own work has looked at the cost of deindustrialisation on Griffintown, Montréal.  But there was a real trickle-down effect at work here.  The landscape of the MidWest (to say nothing of the rest of the continent) is cluttered with Amitys, places that were once important waystations on the railways, or homes to factories themselves (Monica’s mother worked at a Quaker Oats plant packaging instant oatmeal for two decades before it closed down).  But their stories are in danger of being lost through little more than negligence.

As a culture, we don’t pay attention to these forgotten places, hell, we don’t even pay attention to the MidWest, at least outside of Chicago.  For the life of me, I cannot call to mind a single TV show or movie set in a Midwestern city that’s not Chicago in the past quarter century.  No wonder the people of the MidWest feel left out.

2nd Street, Amity, looking north towards where the railway used to be

2nd Street, Amity, looking north towards where the railway used to be

But there is history here (I realise that sounds like a dead obvious statement) and the stories from places like Amity are important, as they speak to the human and cultural cost of deindustrialisation in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s just as much as those stories that arise out of Buffalo and Hamilton and Milwaukee.  They place a human cost on the depopulation of rural areas of North America, and they place a cost on the loss of culture.  The four of us (my wife, Margo, and I, Sam and Monica) are barely into our 40s, but we have lived through a series of cultural revolutions, from politics to technology.  We are a transitional generation between the old ways of doing things and the (post)modern, post-industrial culture that we live in today.  We remember rotary telephones and a world before the internet.  Hard to imagine.  But we’re also glued to our iPhones and lost without the internet when it goes down.  Sam’s work as an artist seeks to preserve what he calls “obscure” technologies, printmaking and pottery.  And I am an historian, my entire professional life is centred on the past.  As a public historian, my work is centred on how we remember that past.

I am currently working on a research project that looks at the relationship between the far right of American politics and its relationship to history.  But once that wraps up, hopefully in the next 6-8 months, I am going to begin work on my next project, which will be based on Amity and DeKalb County, looking at the cost of deindustrialisation on these rural spaces in the MidWest.

The Failure of Urban Redevelopment and the Chance at Redemption: Worcester

October 22, 2013 § 3 Comments

Worcester, Massachusetts, is like pretty much every city in New England not named Boston or Providence, and kinda like those Easter Bunnies I used to get when I was a kid: hollow centre.  The downtowns of Hartford, New Haven, Springfield, Worcester, etc. were done in by deindustrialisation and horrid, horrid urban redevelopment schemes.  The urban redevelopments schemes of the 70s, in hindsight, look as though they were especially created to destroy urban centres, not save them.  Boston’s Government Center, for example, is one of the most hideous examples of neo-brutalist architecture I’ve ever seen.

Water/Fire, Providence, RI

Water/Fire, Providence, RI

Government Center, Boston

Government Center, Boston

Worcester’s other problem is that it’s near Boston, less than an hour away.  In fact, before I moved to Massachusetts, I thought Worcester was just a suburb of Boston.  Boston is by far the biggest city in New England, over 5 times as big as the number 2 city, which just so happens to be Worcester (in fact, Worcester is the western boundary of the ridiculous Boston-Worcester-Manchester Combined Statistical Area).  Worcester gets by, it is the home to several universities, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School, plus hospitals.  But the downtown is a disaster.

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

Worcester attempted and failed miserably to redesign its downtown in the 70s.  It made sense at the time, as Paul McMorrow points out in today’s Boston Globe, the city erected a shopping mall downtown to counter the growth of suburban shopping malls.  This was a common tactic.  In some places, usually Canadian cities, this worked.  Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, Ottawa all have shopping malls downtown.  And in those cities, the malls are successful.  Those are also very large cities, Ottawa is the smallest and its urban centre is still over 1 million people.  It is worth noting, however, that I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a large American city with a successful shopping mall at its core.  Boston has a small shopping concourse in the Prudential Center, but that’s it.

Nevertheless, the Worcester Center Galleria was a valiant effort.  But it failed.  Twice.

Worcester Center Galleria

The mall, when it was constructed, obliterated the street grid and landscape of downtown Worcester.  But now, it’s been town down and the old street grid is being restored.  The new CitySquare development is designed to do what most new urban redevelopments do: provide shopping, office space, and urban condos.  All to convince a new, wealthy, demographic to move downtown, and stay downtown.  McMorrow is hopeful for Worcester, as am I.  And as Providence shows, urban redevelopment can be done and can be successful.  But Worcester has the same problems as the rest of Massachusetts outside of Boston: the economy.

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