Omnivore - Clarification...I hope

I was copied on the following letter to the editor from Harold M. Barnette, relative to my review of The Bureau:

To The Editor:

After having read Cliff Bostock’s food column in CL for many, many years I was profoundly disappointed with some of the remarks about the Edgewood corridor in his review of The Bureau.

The comments were uninformed, smug, and uncalled for. They added nothing of value to the review. As one of the “original” recent migrants to Edgewood I readily attest to the mixed bag of denizens to be found here. In addition to Café 458 there is a population of formerly homeless mentally ill served by a very worthy group, Project Interconnections, Inc.

Some of us remember how the on-going disaster that our country has become originated with Ronald Reagan in 1980, whose administration gutted the social safety net, turning thousands of mentally ill into the streets.

Even as it makes strides toward revitalization Edgewood is doing its part to serve those less well off who are every bit as much citizens of this land as the more affluent you or I. Ditto with the comparison to Buford Highway. The historic and social/cultural experience of “inner city” denizens is very different from that of every group that voluntarily immigrated to this country, a fact we triumphantly acknowledged through our courageous choice in the recent presidential election.

Such snarky put-downs are not cute—they just reinforce and encourage ignorant attitudes. This is not intended to beat Cliff down. I have read enough of his stuff to know that he is a better person than this column suggests. Many if most Americans have had their moral sights lowered by our collective experience during the past 8 years.

Now may be a good time to reflect on the values of humility, modesty, and sympathy for those struggling with misfortune. And the people who could benefit from such reflection do not all live in the exurbs.

I wanted to respond to this letter because I find it mystifying. My column's remarks about the cultural shift occurring on Edgewood are a critique of my own earlier use of the term "gentrification," which, with a reader's prodding, I concluded inherently suggests exactly the kind of thing that Mr. Barnette is now, oddly, accusing me of.

The term suggests "improvement" of a neighborhood by displacement of its dominant poor residents or the establishment of dependency between the underclass and its new "gentry." I don't think it's arguable that the poor were displaced in Midtown, Virginia-Highland and Inman Park. I have never felt this was a good thing. But I think the term "gentrification" inherently suggests that it is indeed a good thing. I was disowning the word's use because it disguises the suffering that this change can bring about.

In my column, I said this:

It is easy to dismiss such people as nuisances, or even as exotic figures that might be depicted by Goya. But the suffering is real. Maybe nothing expresses this mélange of cultures as well as Café 458, which feeds the poor on weekdays and the comparatively affluent on weekends.

Why Mr. Barnette reads that as snarky befuddles me. It's a description of what is true. It is not a critique of Cafe 458, whose work I greatly admire. It's certainly not a trivialization of the suffering I see on Edgewood. I'm observing the interactions of two classes. It is way too early to assume anything about how the dynamics will resolve themselves, regardless of good intentions, which I have not questioned anywhere in my column.

As for my comparison of Edgewood to Buford Highway, my point was that the latter experienced the reversal of what seems to be happening in the former. The affluent were replaced by the poor, but the area ended up quite prosperous. Thus the assumption underlying the term "gentrification," that improvement depends on the displacement of the poor, is false.

Mr. Barnette wants to attribute this to the enterprising motivation that brought immigrants here in the first place. Perhaps. But — and this was not part of my column's subject — I would look deeper and ask whether it is possible for the privileged to establish ongoing residency among the poor without performing in loco parentis and reinforcing rather than rupturing the power dynamics of class hierarchy. I believe Cafe 458 and Samaritan House are sincerely addressing that question in the design of their programs. But I would refer Mr. Barnette to the expansive literature on colonialism, foreign and domestic, before assuming that differences in the behavior of immigrants and the inner-city poor are unrelated to the way affluent settlers view themselves and their own role in relationship to the poor.

I am sorry if anyone else found my comments hurtful. My brief reflection on "gentrification" was intended to show how the way we language something may say something we do not intend. It appears that I may have compounded that problem rather than clarifying it!

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