Smokehouse/BBQ stands and gentrification

I live in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Portland Oregon.  Up-and-coming is another way of saying “gentrified”, which describes when poor neighborhoods (usually populated by minorities) get bought up and taken over by comparatively wealthy white artists and progressives.  It’s always a mix of good and bad: on the one hand properties get improved, crime goes down, and new businesses flourish; on the other hand, poor people are essentially driven out.  The fact that it’s so often tied to race makes the situation especially delicate and frustrating.

One poignant sign of this change is the regular, repeated failure of smokehouse and BBQ restaurants and stands.  They spring up like dandelions, and they go out of business not long afterward.  These businesses are usually owned by Black people.

I understand the motivation to open such a stand: if you’re good-enough at BBQ that all your friends say you should have a restaurant, and you can scrape together just enough money to open up a cart or small shop, then it seems like a good idea.  After all, everyone loves your food, so they will come eat at your stand.

Unfortunately, there are two huge roadblocks:  First, meat is very expensive, so a plate of smokehouse BBQ meat can easily cost $11, while a very filling burrito at the “taco truck” down the block can be closer to $5.  Second, the population that normally eats this food is increasingly leaving the neighborhood—and the ones who stay generally can’t afford to pay $11 for a meal, at least not often enough to keep the cart in business.  The flood of hipsters and young white parents that moved in are more likely to eat falafel, tacos, waffles, pad thai, vegan wraps, and other foods less heavy on the meat.  They also don’t particularly like the sides that customarily accompany BBQ plates: cold cornbread, boiled greens, Wonder bread, and tiny servings of suspicious mayonnaise-y potato salad or coleslaw.

It’s almost a lost cause.  But there is an earnestness in the persistent opening of new smokehouse meat stands, like individual villagers standing against an army.  It’s almost a heroic attempt to save the earlier culture of the neighborhood, and also a canny reach for the money that is moving in.  But earnestness and heroism cannot pay the bills, and the money won’t come to you if you don’t cater to the new population.

I have ideas about what they should do.  Smaller meat portions, served with fresh vegetables and brown rice, or in corn tortillas, would significantly lower the cost per serving, and appeal to the new crowd.  But these are not my businesses, and it is not my food, and I am an invader in this neighborhood.  It is not my place to tell people to change themselves and push down their traditions, just to meet the expectations of another race or economic class.  All I can do is look on with a stabbing pain in my heart each time I see a new BBQ stand open up, and watch as it sits empty of customers for however many weeks or months it takes the proprietor to give up and shut it down.  I wish I could post an open letter to them that they’d actually see before they invest all their hard-earned money into a fragile new business.

Of course, posting such a letter around the neighborhood would be considered racist.  Even this blog post might be taken badly by some readers, but I truly hope not.  My intention here is to support efforts that may succeed, and lament efforts that persistently fail—and to remark upon an upsettingly recurrent signpost of the drawn-out painful changes that a neighborhood can experience.

Postscript:  On one nearby street, there is a BBQ place right next to a taco truck.  The BBQ place has the strictly traditional menu, and zero customers.  I mean I almost never see anybody eating there.  The taco truck next door has their traditional menu, but they also have a big colorful sign advertising a full menu of vegetarian and vegan options.  They stay busy!  There’s usually somebody placing an order at any hour they’re open.  Those guys are smart—they did not lose their culture, they did not change their appearance, and they did not leave their neighborhood!  They just adapted, and their business seems to be thriving.

Feel free to leave constructive replies and suggestions below.

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1 Comment »

  1. DIego said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 3:32 am

    These smokehouse joints sound good. yet i can instantly see whythey fail: price. around here you dont’ see those sorts of amazing places with intensely traditional menus cooking with grills and stuff, offering imported sodas etc outside of local hispanic/portugese/italian festivals, theme parks and parades. Nobody wants to pay over 12 dollars for a single meal from a cart unless they’re boxed in the area, lol.

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