Updated: Oct 9, 2020
After a long discussion on gentrification the lingering question became; what could a community cafe do to to help address gentrification, and were the cafe's facing similar challenges of gentrification?
The community cafes are doing what they know best, feeding people that otherwise would not have the resources to feed themselves. Yet there are unique challenges each of the cafes face. Stigma towards poverty and homelessness plays huge role in how the cafes must market their service. Some take great measures to make sure they are not branded as soup kitchens. Even though a community cafe's mission supports feeding low to moderate income families, some of which experience homelessness, the subtle distinction between being labeled as a soup kitchen verses a cafe can make all the difference in how welcomed they are in a neighborhood. What drives this? Is it the fear of our fellow homelessness neighbors, if so then what is it we associate with this experience? Is it that a cafe resonates more as a third space for a neighborhood, than a soup kitchen? Regardless the reasoning to the bias, the cafes are trying to utilize their space as a safe harbor for those in need. Some share that their patrons email them directly to request earlier opening hours and to see if the cafes would be open to offering additional ways to help.
In some of the neighborhoods, signs of gentrification have started to surface. As properties become cheaper, prospective developers have begun purchasing as many parcels as possible. In Rochelle, Illinois, Nippon Sharyo, a Japanese rail manufacturing plant closed its plant in 2018 only after 6 years in service. The company received over $10 million in public subsidies in exchange to create 250 jobs and retain 15 at its office in Arlington Heights. It is not certain if the agreement was modified or enforced after the closing. In Aurora, it is shared that 42 new business have migrated to the town emitting a feeling of the local community being forgotten. In Illinois, high taxes are expressed as a concern in operating a community café. Illinois has the 7th highest sales tax and the 2nd highest property tax rates in the country. With a graduating income tax bill on the horizon, some burdens could be redistributed to wealthier families if passed as intended. As with many states, the burden of property tax rates coupled with municipal policies aimed to stimulate development and investment can sometimes have adverse effects on existing communities.
We discussed that the landscape needed to be updated to prioritize helping existing communities in a more holistic manner, rather that sparking large projects that displace or radically alter the vibe of the community. Bias and perception also come into play when migrating into an existing community, especially one inhabitant by communities of culture. Discussion revolved around the complications of coming in as “saviors” and utilizing the suffering of existing communities as a means to continuously capitalize on grants. Robust solutions often require more intentional engagement to better understand the community so the cafe can assume the role needed to make the most impact. Gentrification much like the challenges of hunger and food insecurity, stem from layers of contributing factors, some spanning many decades. With the daunting task of overcoming these challenges, the cafes can only do so much to thwart gentrification themselves. The question becomes what one or two things can an entity commit to that can help address this challenge, and how might they be able to work with other cafes' and organizations to build a collective effort?
One idea explored using the cafes as a common ground to hold more direct conversation on gentrification and the challenges faced by community members. The cafes could be a place to teach and illuminate the actualities of hardships, including those that result in gentrification. Some personal commitments from a few of the cafe owners included reading a new book each month to better understand gentrification, to holding sessions at the cafes to discuss racial and social issues more openly.
So, a few personal final thoughts come to mind as I dive deeper into the rabbit hole. The term food desert also becomes an interesting article of conversation. To recall a few wise words from Malik Yakini “the term dessert refers to something that happens naturally”. As it has been discussed, very little about the abundance of hungry and impoverish families is natural. It is an intentionally designed result. The aftermath of years of oppressive tactics aimed at certain communities. Although some of the policies have been abolished, the effects are still felt all the while new precipitated isms are being manifested utilizing economics to create new barriers to entry. As lack income seems to indicate lack of success or lack of trying, it is easier to write off the grievances of those effected as not trying hard enough. Given the disparities in wage and access to opportunities for certain communities, economics becomes a new means of legal discrimination to control influence and power and deny an equitable future.
Applied to the topic of discussion, gentrification becomes a legal way to celebrate and create incentive to displace historically marginalized communities for the sake of financial gain to benefit a more affluent population. This feeds an endless cycle of economic growth needed to sustain the increasing hunger of investment returns. Is economics without prejudice when it is a human manifestation, I think not. As with any technology or human invention, change can be made, the question becomes what will it take to making a willing change?