It was probably inevitable that debates over food, writing, and gentrification would collide in what is arguably one the country’s best food cities, richest literary cities, and most out-of-its-gourd land-use cities.
The stew in question comes from Soliel Ho, a restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. They recently wrote an essay that asks, "Have I been actively complicit in normalizing [San Francisco’s] gentrification?" The essay answers mostly in the affirmative.
Food and urbanism have been linked since cities were invented. So, Ho’s inquiry is entirely on-point. Ho is correct that, especially these days, real estate agents refer to restaurants as "amenities" and that "neighborhoods get whiter in addition to more affluent." They admit to "passively casting the surroundings of the restaurants we review as 'changing' or 'up-and-coming,'" which is a woefully glib way that many observers of urban development – myself included – sometimes refer to complex neighborhood changes.
But here’s where the souffle collapses. There’s an argument to be made that, at the very least, new restaurants signify gentrification, and they have been routinely indicted by anti-gentrification activists. To wonder whether writing about a restaurant – its menu, service, ambience, mouthfeel, whatever – feeds gentrification seems like a new flavor of liberal guilt.
Ho offers a sweeping economic theory of gentrification centering on "neoliberal policies that prioritize more lucrative land use and endless growth over policies that might ensure existing residents’ right to shelter." Never mind that San Francisco has grown anemically, from 775,000 residents in 1950 to all of 874,000 in 2020, or that building anything in the city -- including, say, a residential tower with 73 affordable units -- is nearly impossible. Ho ignores an entire library of academic research on the incredibly complex topics of gentrification and displacement in favor of a verdict rendered by instinct: "Any random person you talk to might not know exactly how gentrification works, but they can probably talk about what it sounds and tastes like."
Even if we can define gentrification -- by instinct or (perhaps better?) by professional consensus -- who’s really to blame for it?
Do we blame a food writer who probably makes half the city’s average annual income? A chef-entrepreneur who waited 14 months for permits and is probably six-figures in debt? A young couple who bought a starter condo in the only neighborhood they could afford? An incumbent restauranteur or shopkeeper who offers new dishes or products to appeal to new residents? A developer who thinks 100 rental apartments might improve upon a vacant lot?
The ghost of Adam Smith?
One the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with urban theorizing. If you can criticize pork loin for being oversalted, you can criticize a city for being inequitable. And yet, Ho's mea culpa is itself unwitting. They join a long, nearly sacred tradition of bemoaning gentrification and then completely failing to place blame on the people and entities that most deserve it.
The fact is, the only people who are not flagellating themselves over gentrification are usually the ones who are actually responsible for it. Here are a few suspects that elude Ho’s grasp:
Owners of commercial properties who want to prop up their property values by limiting equitable development
Longtime, wealthy residential property-owners who want to restrict the city's housing supply (and, in so doing, inflate property values)
Old-timers who reflexively fear change, whatever form it may take
Radical leftists and fellow travelers who oppose anything that smells of capitalism
Planners who don’t have the fortitude, or the permission, to promote managed, equitable growth
Attorneys itching for fights (and fees)
Organized anti-growth groups
Nonprofit developers who want to protect their turf
And, of course, elected officials who are aligned with, or at least afraid to take on, any of these constituencies
You don’t see any of them accepting blame in the pages of major newspapers. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it.
What that means is that people thoughtful enough to at least ask the question, like Ho, end up holding the bag. The actual proponents of gentrification probably love her essay, because it distracts from their culpability. They get to pile on and blame those bourgeois restauranteurs and precious coffee roasters. And radical activists, many of whom fancifully believe that all residential development should be 100% affordable, probably loved Ho's piece because it conforms with their critique of "predatory" capitalism.
Let's also not forget about San Francisco's notorious permitting process. Only the most deep-pocketed restauranteurs can bear the expense, take the time, and weather the uncertainty required to satisfy the city's fastidiousness. The restaurants that open have to be high-end in order to overcome that barrier (not to mention pay the rent). If Ho and other critics want to support new, but presumably modest, restaurants founded by and appealing to longtime residents of the Mission or SoMa, they might turn their eyes toward the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the San Francisco Office of Small Business, the Board of Supervisors, and all the other city offices whose regulations and procedures routinely threaten to choke off the new businesses that they are supposed to support.
Until capitalism crumbles, there will be expensive food and cheap food, and expensive housing and really expensive housing. Taking jabs at restaurants or coffee shops or yoga studios won’t change that.
The rise of “gentrification,” however defined, does not mean that that restaurants are evil. It means, in part, that there’s not enough housing, and not enough housing for people of all income levels. It means, fundamentally, that the city isn’t functioning properly. It means that it is inequitable in many ways and failing to serve the highest purpose of a city: to uplift diverse people and unit dives people—at Michelin-starred temples, greasy spoons, and everywhere in between.
Author's note: This piece has been updated to reflect Ho's preference for they/them pronouns.