Commentary | Gentrification on a plate

The ‘cereal’ gentrification of communities around the world

They’re colourful, they’re loud, and they’re literally everywhere. I’m talking about food videos. Anyone who has been on Facebook in the past year has surely seen these videos by BuzzFeedFood, Tasty, Delish, INSIDER Food, and POPSUGAR Food.
This is not to say I haven’t indulged in watching a few dozen said videos myself. In fact, I recently found myself distracted from an entire lecture by food videos playing on a student’s computer in front of me. Though they may be captivating, their intent is far from innocent.

These videos contribute to gentrification by attracting tourism associated with hip new diners and dives. Though these restaurants have a following among outsiders, they are far less appealing to the locals in these communities. According to Jonathan Montpetit, reporting for CBC News, low-income residents are disillusioned by the appearances of shops and restaurants; they cannot afford to take advantage of the gentrification of their communities.

There can be positive aspects to the development of new restaurants in traditionally poor or neglected neighbourhoods: from Brick Lane, London to St Henri right here in Montreal. After all, gentrification can yield fresh revenue, an expanding cultural scene, or aesthetic improvements. However, the hidden culture behind the food videos that bring about some of this gentrification is harmful and exploitative.

Montreal is intimately familiar with the process of gentrification through social media advertisements. Gentrification affects students who are looking for an affordable place to settle down after they graduate; they may find themselves displaced as a result of gentrification, as it raises the cost of living.

St-Henri is one community among several in Montreal– Rosemont, the Gay Village, and Mile End, to name a few– which has been hit hard by gentrification in the past two decades.

For St-Henri the development of condos led to a growing number of new businesses preparing to cater to this new population. In turn, as the number of new businesses in St-Henri increased, so did median incomes, property taxes, and rent costs. The quickly-rising cost of living created complications for St-Henri residents, and they were not going unnoticed. In fact, distressed members of the community began to lash out against the noticeable gentrification with sit-ins, demonstrations, and even vandalism.

In May 2016, a group of protesters took action against a high-end grocery store in St-Henri called 3734. Fed up with the gentrification they’d been seeing for years, the vandals graffitied the “bourgeois” grocer, set off smoke bombs, stole thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, and left a strongly worded letter behind. Their actions are explained in the final statement: “Long live de-gentrification.”

Gentrification is not exclusive to Montreal, but is rather a growing international concern, especially within big cities. For example, gentrification in London, England elicited similar reactions from their local community members.

Back in 2014, a pair of British brothers opened Cereal Killer Cafe in the formerly poor and immigrant-filled neighborhood of Brick Lane, London. Described by the owners as a “colourful, nostalgic eatery,” it was a gimmick from the start. In fact, the cafe was allegedly a stroke of hangover-induced genius, and it has since served the brothers well financially.

Charging upwards of £4.00 for a bowl of sugary cereal, Gary and Allen Keery have made a killing– no pun intended– off hungry hipsters’ strange fascination with splashy, new-wave eats. And, though the cafe itself doesn’t offer much beyond breakfast, it has garnered staying power. Despite picking up most of its media coverage in 2014 and 2015, Cereal Killer Cafe and places of the like are still glamorized in videos across Facebook and Snapchat Discover–where media goes to die– in 2017.

One popular food video page, Delish, posted about the Cereal Killer Cafe just this past week, and the comments are overwhelmingly positive. Facebook users can be seen sharing the post and tagging their friends at will, exclaiming about how they “HAVE to try this place!” Yet, despite its sudden resurgence of popularity, Cereal Killer Cafe is no stranger to controversy. The Keery brothers certainly have their critics. In fact, the cutesy joint has been the target of criticism and protest through the years – according to a report for The Guardian by Nadia Khomami and Josh Halliday, protesters in 2015 scrawled the word “scum” on the cafe window and wielded lit torches while carrying pigs’ heads.

The protest’s motivations are understandable. Many people who believe in the solidarity of their working class communities are tired of social media bringing unwanted tourism to their beloved neighborhoods merely on the basis of a restaurant or bakery selling some ridiculous confection. Specifically, communities of colour and immigrant communities —among others—have been marginalized and forced out of their neighbourhoods in urban spaces across the world, despite having made their homes there through past decades. This is largely due to their collective food economy taking the brunt impact from this influx of Facebook-inspired eating habits.

For people of colour in newly gentrified neighbourhoods, part of the problem surrounding the growing popularity of food videos is that they promote inauthentic ‘ethnic’ restaurants rather than giving this invaluable advertising to lesser-known, authentic establishments. In a Washington Post article by Roberto A. Ferdman in which he interviews Krishnendu Ray, an expert on food studies at NYU, the double standard behind the American people’s obsession with “ethnic food” is exposed: “We want ‘ethnic food’ to be authentic, but we are almost never willing to pay for it.”

Additionally, Ray speaks to the idea that ethnic food is looked at from a position of superiority, “because of our refusal to treat it with the same prestige as we treat others [types of food], [the food] is not nearly as authentic as we imagine it to be.”
Of course, uncritical pop-culture consumerism lends itself well to the decrease in traffic to authentic eateries. People who see a Facebook video advertising a new hotspot not far from them are surely more likely to seek that out excitedly than they are likely to do further research and try to find something more authentic. After all, part of the allure of the minute-long soundbite-esque food videos is that they reel you in with pops of colour and lively music without actually giving you any substantive information. They might share two or three menu items—sans prices, of course—along with the general location of the joint. From there, it’s the consumer’s job to share the video with friends and desperately hunt for the spot it’s advertising.

Greeted by obnoxious poppy music and a clip of the classic “Mikey Likes It!” bit, I revisit the Delish video promoting the Cereal Killer Cafe once more. However, this time as I watch it I am overcome with a sense of bleakness. On the one hand, I am glued to the screen as sinfully sweet menu items with catchy names like “Unicorn Poop” and “Double Rainbow” are prepared before my eyes. On the other, though, I cannot help but remember the dark side of places like this, and the consumerism, gentrification, and urbanization of working class communities they cause at will.
Needless to say, I instantly lose my appetite.