Where to Go When Home is Where You Are

So last week I had the opportunity to go to San Francisco to look at a potential space for Diaspora. An invitation had come through a friend of a friend to look at a space in the Bayview, one of the city's southernmost neighborhoods. Traditionally a working-to-middle-class African American neighborhood, in the last decade the Bayview has become more mixed, slightly older, and slightly economically depressed. It's a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial spaces; south of the Dogpatch, it's home to the city's water services, the remains of the ship-building yards, and hills of Arts and Crafts cottages, mixed Victorian row houses, and warehouses. The MUNI runs through Third Street, and the space sits between two stations - in some ways, a perfect site. 

I spent a day in the hood. I talked to businesses in the area (including the folks at Ritual's spot at Flora Grubb Garden, Trouble Coffee, and even 4B's Portola location). The walkthrough rates are low in the daytime, and there's no certainty it would be a draw or an anchor for commuters. There's certainly capacity to build, and a community that lives and works there -- and will moreso in the future, as an SFSU STEM campus moves into the neighborhood, and as other commercial endeavors come online in the next year. So there are things on foot in the area, but it is not, on its face, an evident line-up for success. 

The landlord is a gent who's lived in the area for 30 years, and is as far as business planning goes, a dream -- liked by community members (and his current renters), knows the insides and outs of the area and its history, and is a booster to the core, wanting to bring energy and resources to the community. He's willing to offer a rent holiday while doing buildout, his square foot rates are appropriate, and he will support the venture from here to high heaven.  The support he is willing to offer is pretty outstanding from my (frankly) limited experiences with landlords. 

So as I sit here, a week later, contemplating this offer, I sit on some uncomfortable ground. Because aside from the gut instinct that the space isn't for us -- it's not large enough to grow into, and would require a lot of reno work -- I question what happens when I, a Jewish, white gay male who spent seven years in Berkeley and Duboce Park, opens up shop in the Bayview. In other words, this is a question about my role and place in the act of gentrification.

The notion of gentrification has become, in recent years, somewhat protean; its definition has been altered, obfuscated, shortened, or made so nebulous as to be all but meaningless. It is oft regarded as some as a net positive, the act of improving and bringing services to previously underserved areas. While true in part, these sorts of dictionary definitions often fit to serve the interests of those framing gentrification in such a way, removing the process and its actions from context, history, and overall impact . The term, coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, focused on the following conceit :: 

" Gentrification commonly occurs in urban areas where prior disinvestment in the urban infrastructure creates opportunities for profitable redevelopment.  It also occurs in those societies where a loss of manufacturing employment and an increase in service employment has led to an expansion in the amount of middle class professionals with a deposition towards central city living and an associated rejection of suburbia. "

This is the standard housing related evaluation of gentrification. Others, such as the one I work with, views gentrification as opposite community economic development; in the former, external sources of investment enter a community and circulate out of a community (investor enrichment), while in the latter external sources of investment circulate through and re-circulate within a community (community enrichment). I find the latter view is helpful in conjunction with the first, as it helps us center the who (is effected by gentrification? benefits from?) and the hows of the development program taking place. 

The process is never just one neighborhood; it is often systematic, happening in many places at once, and oftentimes happens in stages. While nominally about housing or real estate stock, it also has to do with the supporting causes of housing access -- conversions in labor markets and jobs, the structural changes of who is working, where and how, the incentives and programs federal, state and local that deal with property, and the policy actions by various agencies that can cause inter-generational impacts on any and all of these topics (think: redlining as done by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, its financial, ecological, and health effects on middle-class African Americans and their neighborhoods).  More often than not, the picture of a place is not its present, nor solely its inhabitants, but the history of a space, its community, and the structural shifts and changes that have come upon it -- implications often masked by narratives we are told about a place. 

In my time working in the sustainable food world, the question of access and food justice are commonplace, and growing moreso, moving beyond the problematic use of the term "food desert" (in itself a code for spaces that are prime for acts of gentrification) and actually finding ways of empowering communities to build their own food economies and avenues. The realization that food access itself was not an answer -- it is tied to the development packages that cities devise for real estate development, to the types of jobs created by such ventures and what they pay, the whos of access to services and political impact, and the hows of ways in which public decision making is devised -- found that in order to help communities in need, you needed to listen to them, to give them the tools and support to empower themselves and gain traction in the decision-making bodies of their polity. Not too lean too heavily on Burning Man's 10 Principles, but the nascent food movement, especially those working in food justice, realized that radical self sufficiency, communal effort, and civic responsibility were keys to generating access, rather than oftentimes imposing a vision of what that access should look like -- and  for whom. 

Coffee shops are not, on their own, responsible for such weighty matter. But I hold specialty coffee -- with its emphasis on improving quality of life for coffee farmers, baristas, and the coffee we drink -- to a higher standard. And as I've spoken about to other peers of mine on this topic, coffee shops are the canary of community development. Whether acting as community spaces or impromptu offices, coffee shops and cafes provide a sense of gravity and activity. As businesses with thin margins, they oftentimes need to seek spaces where rents are lower -- oftentimes finding their core customers are the people whose professional ambitions oftentimes require them to have cheaper rents. These conditions tend to occur in the neighborhoods of the formerly industrial spaces -- spaces closed down through the international race to the bottom of manufacturing prices, the hardball of managements resentment to union wages and the relocation to "right to work" states, or the aforementioned redlining and other urban policies, official and unofficial (domestic security agencies illicitly dumping cocaine into predominantly minority neighborhoods, anyone?). When cafes move into lower rent areas, what we often mean to say is that they are moving into spaces where communities have often been subject to structural forms of racism and economic oppression, where they are able to take advantage of what that means in terms of real estate pricing.

This is not often conscious, and rarely done cynically -- most small business owners want to be able to find spaces where they can afford to do what they want to do. Ultimately they're responding to the conditions years of policy-oriented decisions have borne. But none of this happens in a vacuum, and the ways in which shops behave in these environments matter. Hiring baristas or coffee interested people from within a community matters. Do people see themselves in these spaces? Invited into them? Do owners do the things that provide their workers dignity, an affirming wage, and a space to grow as people and employees? Does your staff make assumptions about the members of your community, or do they know and understand their de facto neighbors? Do you, as an owner, live in and understand the day to day of your neighborhood, or do you telegraph in from another neighborhood or place? And do you, as a business owner, understand if and when resentment may be raised at your if displacement begins to occur within your space? 

These were questions that racked my brain back when I was writing the various business plans as part of my masters thesis at NYU; more than that, I was attempting to look at ways to both (a) think systemically about the business models of cafes and (b) how to make such things viable business engines for community development. Both of these made reference points to job training, hospitality management, everything from service flow to the offerings on hand. Could I maintain price points that did what we wanted to do for farmers and coffee growers, while also affording to pay my staff above-average (15-20/hr) wages, and didn't fundamentally exclude large portions of the community within which I was located? The answer, as always, was "within reason". Consumer choices and business action alone will never be able to rectify the structural problems that exist in labor, commodities markets, real estate. But we can look upon and question whether we gamely accept those conditions and encourage them for personal gain or whether we can use business as a means to help rectify and organize against some of these conditions*.  

Which brings us back to the blank e-mail I've been trying to write for five days attempting to tell this guy no. Part of it feels purely logistical and business oriented. Part of me is racked -- this could be an opportunity, it could be a great way to test these waters. But part of me is also staring at these questions and wondering what the best move is. I currently have the resources to put one shot out there right now. And that one shot has a lot of work to do. In my mind there's a lot of business side thinking that is telling me no. But these questions that this particular instance raised in me are important questions to be asking, because the same way specialty coffee only succeeds when it really works on the side of its suppliers and growers, the same holds true of the communities and the customers it serves. That's why running a community business is important -- because the community is the element that matters, and how you define and operate your business community matters. And when concerning the role that business play in the drama between gentrification and its alternatives, that can make all the difference.**

*I'm reminded too much of the situation of Yaron Milgrom and the Local family of products in San Francisco as the Worst Case Study in this setting. While the story is still filled with holes, there were a few things interviewers and stakeholders agreed upon: Milgrom didn't really work with Mission residents or consider them his primary clientele or his source of labor. And when things blew up, his response was to get antagonistic, or more precisely, remain silent. While his mission is fantastic, I don't think the same care as say Bi-Rite went into thinking about how his work fit into the neighborhood or how it would effect it. 

** See the business differences between Bi-Rite and Local and you get some of that distinction.

*** On a personal note, this is also about commitment. In an ideal world where resources didn't matter, I'd be bi-coastal between California and NY. My family is in the former, along with communities really dedicated towards creating convivia around good food. In NYC, I have an amazing group of people and an intellectual life that is hard to beat. CA has hiking in close proximity; NY has a truly all night to sunrise nightlife. California has work-life balance; NY has people whose edge of expertise is sharper in some ways than I've seen elsewhere. Choosing one place to put down roots is no small decision. But its a decision that needs to be made. And if the issue of gentrification is one of the meta-sized issues of human existence, this issue -- the one of where my home, my community, my people are, is the big question weighing me down because if my visit to SF proved anything, it's that I have a home in both places, FAMILY in both places, and a community in both places that I strongly support, love, and want to build in. Locating where that home will be is probably as hard a question as what that home will look like, save wherever it ends up, it'll be the place I want to be.