Gentrification takes many forms. On August 7th, I stood in-line for about 45 minutes to get my taste of Fillbelly’s at Boston’s first ever Food Truck Festival (That was the the problem with this festival. Who waits for a food truck?) During that time, I had plenty of time to check out the variety of trucks around me. On the one hand, Fillbelly’s and Boston Speed Dogs were what you’d expect to see; cheap, good food with working class appeal. On the other hand, sharing the space were fancier food trucks that required much more of a capital investment, such as the Lincoln Street Coffee and the Cupcakory. This one event illustrates a class war being fought on American Streets, really more of a skirmish, when we think about the larger forces at work.
The reason that the food truck festival happened without much conflict and the reason that the Boston Gastronauts went to the food truck festival in the first place are one in the same. Food trucks are relatively rare in Boston. The Boston Globe cites “a difficult inspection process, often eight months or more.” These outdated laws probably share space with the statutes that allow you to duel on the Common if it’s Sunday and the Governor is present. Either way, the trucks that have persevered give a miniaturized view of the people who are really trying to start one of these businesses. Even if there’s time and red tape involved, it’s still cheaper than opening a restaurant. In practice this means that the Sausage Guy shares space with an “$85,000” (according to the same article) Espresso truck, at the same event, without any jockeying, because space is not yet an issue.
In New York, a place with many more mobile eateries, the relationship has not been so friendly. A New York Times article last year described the “Turf War” between the new upscale food trucks and the older, more established ones. This piece calls the newer vendors “culinary entrepreneurs, most of them with English as their first language and little fear of police or immigration authorities, [who] are on a mission to bring better street food to New Yorkers, and ready to bring dark corners of the business to light.” This sentence of course, says much more about the older vendors than the newer ones. The established food trucks don’t have the money to make the legal system work for them. The newer food trucks do not support the old way of doing things because going through government channels will favor those with more money and those who are part of middle-class culture. True, most of the food truck laws are based around corruption and exploiting a broken system, but this consideration is secondary for the boogie newcomers. Many of them admit to using the corrupt methods to get their business started, presumably because it’s much faster than the more legal methods. If the newer food trucks succeed and the cities of the United States start strictly policing food trucks, the older working class food trucks will be run out of business by the competition.
Like most class conflicts in the United States, the roots of this situation are not found in the thing itself. It is a cliché to say that the upper and middle classes control the country, and in this case, I find no reasons to argue with common knowledge. Two examples from the world of food trucks can illustrate this point. The first comes from the planet of Brooklyn. For years in Red Hook Park, impromptu food festivals have accompanied the weekend soccer games. At these, people from around the neighborhood would serve all kinds of cuisine from the Spanish-speaking Americas, usually out of the back of vans and from under tarps. The city tried to shut down the vendors because of health code violations, but, because of support from local officials and the newer middle class residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the food vendors were allowed to return after they updated their set-up to meet health codes. Usually this meant buying food trucks to replace the tent and portable stove layout. How this is cleaner, with all of a sudden diesel exhaust being spewed into the air, is anybody’s guess. The real end result was that by requiring these vendors to refurbish their setups, the middle-class newcomers and the city government forced their preconceived notions of the food festivals on the people that had created the events.
In the suburbs of New Orleans, the story was much different. After Hurricane Katrina, Mexican immigrants started to move into the city, heavily changing the demographics. Mexican food trucks soon followed. Jefferson Parish responded by amending health codes in such a way that they banned the trucks but left other mobile vendors intact. City officials claimed the move wasn’t racially based, instead saying that the aim was “strengthening zoning standards that have deteriorated since the storm.” And really, there’s nothing more trustworthy than zoning laws. They have never been used to promote segregation and discrimination.
While the first story has a happy ending, and the second story a sad one, the people who actually relied on the trucks to make a living had little say in what happened. Only the most cynical observer would call this democratic. Food trucks have always been seen as somehow equalizing because they’re cheap. That’s not an equation works. If food trucks actually become increasingly successful, which, with the downturn in the economy, they might they will not only attract small money, middle class people that are suddenly out of the job, but big money, franchised food. There’s nothing to stop McDonalds, or, at the higher end, Chipotle and T.G.I. Friday’s, from recreating their foods in a truck, especially when “Fast food…is an impulse buy” as Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation. Of course I would love to see food trucks come to Boston in a free and equitable way. But until all society can be organized more fairly, promoting fair food truck laws and practices will just be delaying the inevitability of corporate control.