Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reproducing DC's culinary reputation around national actors

The City Paper has an article about food tours in the city, "Tourist Traipse: D.C. Culinary Walking Tours." As far as visiting places that somehow are unique, food-wise, it didn't seem as if any such places were uncovered. From the article:

All the same, the tension around what constitutes local authenticity is something of a constant among the burgeoning number of food-oriented local tours. It’s easy enough to understand why. In 2008, Destination DC, the District’s official tourism marketing organization, conducted a poll about perceptions of Washington. Although 58 percent of U.S. travelers either agreed or strongly agreed that D.C. was the kind of place where you could find elegant restaurants that were known for their top chefs (nearby Philadelphia scored 55 percent), only 28 percent of respondents thought D.C. was a destination with unique local foods (compared to Philly’s 47 percent). ...

In the intervening years, several factors have changed, according to Destination DC’s director of communication, Rebecca Pawlowski—most of them relating as much to the televisual as to the culinary. “Having Top Chef film a season here—as well as having contestants from the area on Top Chef and The Next Food Network Star—helps highlight the District as a culinary destination,” she says. She also points to the influx of celebrity chef–driven restaurants—such Wolfgang Puck's The Source, Michael Mina's Bourbon S, and Alain Ducasse’s Adour—and the out-of-towners who earned their fame here, like José Andrés and Michel Richard.

What's interesting in the second quoted paragraph is that DC's being highlighted as a culinary destination comes as a result of the same kinds of changes that have made DC's central business district an international real estate investment market.

If you think of this in terms of the discussion of centre-periphery in sociology, then it makes sense that DC is now a peripheral or secondary restaurant market, being reproduced by centre actors who are opening restaurants as an extension of their activities in other more relevant markets.

(This isn't a 100% phenomenon. "DC" chefs like Michel Richard and Jose Andres are part of the national industry, and are opening restaurants in other major markets including Los Angeles and Las Vegas.)

Really, what's happening is that DC's culinary business environment is being reshaped as another branch of an increasingly nationalized restaurant-culinary scene through money and national media (magazines, television, etc.), notwithstanding places like Ben's Chili Bowl, the Maine Avenue Seafood Market, Dancing Crab, or the Florida Market retail-wholesale food distribution complex.

Another factor is that suburban outmigration and the relative speed of neighborhood change in the city has already made over ethnic districts which may have included German, Italian, Greek, or Chinese ethnicities. What's left in DC is an "old" original ethnic restaurant here or there, such as the recently (maybe 2-3 years ago) closed AV Ristorante, which was a lingering vestige of Downtown's Italian areas, or Old German Restaurant on H Street NW.

Other local foods include Southern and African-American cuisines ("soul food") and Chesapeake Bay related seafood--for example the city once was criss-crossed with Oyster houses. I suppose the local chain Cameron's, which sells cooked seafood, is a kind of continuation of oyster houses, along with some crab houses. And over the past 20-30 years, as Ethiopian immigrants came to the area (as a result of strife in that part of Africa.)

A lot of the energy in local cuisines comes from immigrants. But the pattern of immigration in the region has bypassed the city out of a reflection of suburban outmigration and relatively high rents in the city, so rather than immigrating to the city, more people have moved directly to the suburbs, skipping over the city entirely.

This is why you have an incredibly vibrant Asian community in Fairfax County (e.g., the same City Paper issue has a full page ad of restaurants and stores in the Eden Center), or significant Peruvian Chicken establishments in Arlington County and in Langley Park on the border of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, while DC's "Chinatown" has been reproduced, more or less, into Gallery Place.

There has been some interesting articles in the New York Times over the past few months that touch on this same issue, including this piece about the vibrance of ethnic cuisine in suburban Indianapolis ("In Indianapolis, the World Comes to Eat") and how Little Italy in Manhattan has been subsumed, more or less, into Chinatown ("New York's Little Italy, Littler by the Year").

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