Build Better Tables
by Nicole J. Caruth
Build Better Tables is a temporary public-art exhibition focusing on food issues to examine urban development and understand the effects of gentrification on community health and wellness. Presented by Metro Arts: Nashville Office of Arts and Culture, nine projects by local and national artists are placed at publicly accessible sites across the city, from bus stops to community centers to church lawns, advancing the aim of Metro Arts for every Nashvillian to experience a creative city. The artists’ projects include an outdoor bread oven and neighborhood hearth, a bicycle rickshaw for fresh-produce delivery and food education, seed libraries promoting community action for food sovereignty, brass-and-sugar sculptures concerning Black maternal mortality, and eating events that address the role of food in discriminatory development. Together, they prompt a critical look at the social and economic forces that influence food access and culture.
This exhibition comes at a time when Nashville is growing but cannibalizing itself. Neighborhoods are experiencing rapid gentrification: the process of building or renovating homes and businesses in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, accompanied by an influx of more affluent people. Its most common symptom is the displacement of renters and, arguably, homeowners due to increased property values. While the velocity of real-estate development has boosted Nashville’s economy, attracting up to 100 new residents daily, the gap between plenty and poverty is widening. Rental rates have risen faster than the median income, resulting in a shortage of affordable housing near the city core. Nashville is a microcosm of a global problem; in cities around the world, residents of low-income or working-class neighborhoods find themselves most vulnerable to displacement. Communities of color and immigrant communities are typically hit hardest, losing housing and small businesses in a gradual process of racial and cultural erasure. Residents who are able to stay in place may enjoy the luxuries that new investments engender, from upgrades in transit, parks, schools, and streets to new coffee shops, craft breweries, grocery stores, and farm-to-table restaurants. Or, as Nevin Cohen of CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute describes, they “may suffer the loss of place as commerce, culture, civic life, aesthetics, and the people living around them become unaffordable, unfamiliar, or unwelcoming.” Researchers are still coming to understand the health issues that stem from the social and emotional injury of losing one’s community.
Food establishments are often messengers of gentrification, signifying the economic status and consumption habits of new settlers or signaling that a neighborhood is changing, readying for the gentry. Food and housing are inextricably linked. A study by Zillow, the online real-estate database, found that “the typical home near either Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s costs more and appreciates twice as much as the median U.S. home.” Whereas many homeowners benefit from this, most renters do not. Proximity to a specialty grocer contributes to increases in rental rates, making housing unaffordable and accelerating the rate of gentrification. In contrast, fresh and affordable foods can be hard to find in neighborhoods where property values are low, an intentional gap in the food system that shapes the health of community members. In a culture where grocery stores are considered an amenity instead of a basic human right, the quality of items on their shelves are indicators of surrounding land values and, arguably, the value (or lack of it) attributed to the people occupying the land.
In recent years, food service has outpaced all other retail consumption. In an experience-driven economy, food and beverage establishments are like tourist destinations, generating traffic and spending while feeding Americans’ ongoing fetishization of food. Developers have taken notice, increasingly making space for storefront and rooftop restaurants, bars, and breweries. Years ago, a commercial development might have begun with a clothing store; now, as the chef and cultural critic Tunde Wey argues, food establishments “are often used as anchors when new people enter a community, thus operating as weapons of development.” Wey examines how restaurants take advantage of under-resourced areas, driving up prices and taxes and pushing some residents out in favor of others. This reinforces food apartheid, “a human-created system of segregations, which relegates some people to food opulence and other people to food scarcity.” Food and drink tends to engender community, but it can also be a catalyst for oppressing communities by creating zones of exclusion.
Exploring food in relation to real estate brings to light deeper truths about power and privilege in urban development. Initially, I approached this exhibition with questions about how the oft-reported gentrification of Nashville has changed the local food habits and practices. I wondered, “What might an exploration of food reveal about the changing landscape?” I was keen to explore this question with artists (a group often described as the involuntary vanguards of gentrification) and curious to see how they might respond using food as a material or subject. The nine artists and creative practitioners selected for the exhibition have realized very different projects, guided by a combination of curatorial prompts, their individual aesthetic and political concerns, and the missions or visions of their community partners. In the end, their projects reveal the complexity of gentrification: an entanglement of land rights, racial politics, economic inequality, industrial decline, and visual aesthetics that is inseparable from the legacies of redlining and Jim Crow that shaped more than a century of racist housing policies and contributed to the disinvestment of communities and set the stage for what is promoted as “urban renewal.” Art serves to illuminate these connections, bringing to light unsavory truths about American history and a vicious cycle of spatial inequality. Art also serves to soothe, creating spaces for people to gather around food, cultivate community, and share resources for the betterment of all.
The title Build Better Tables was inspired by a framed print at the entrance of the Nashville Food Project headquarters. In the image, people of different ethnic backgrounds, signified by their hair and dress, are gathered around a table filled with bowls of leafy plants, plates of fish, casseroles, and condiments. Boldface type surrounds them: “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall”—an appropriate adage for the current social climate. As cranes stack luxury condominiums, punctuating skylines with beacons of prosperity, and politicians rally to build walls between countries, inequity metastasizes in the shadow of these structures, eating away at the lives of the most vulnerable. If progress means advancing our cities and growing sustainable communities, we’d do best to build better tables.
Build Better Tables is curated by Nicole J. Caruth, an independent curator and writer based in Providence, RI.
1 George Walker IV and David Plazas, “How New Nashville is Swallowing Old Nashville,” The Tennessean, filmed 2017, posted January 19, 2018, http://www.tennessean.com/videos/opinion/2018/01/19/documentary-how-new-nashville-swallowing-old-nashville/108809622.
2 Nevin Cohen, “Feeding or Starving Gentrification: The Role of Food Policy,” CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, March 27, 2018, http://www.cunyurbanfoodpolicy.org/news/2018/3/27/feeding-or-starving-gentrification-the-role-of-food-policy.
4 Claire Hoffman, “The Whole Foods Effect: Has Whole Foods Caused Gentrification in Jamaica Plain, MA?” Tufts University, Spring 2016, https://sites.tufts.edu/gis/files/2016/01/Hoffman_Claire_GIS102_2016.pdf.
5 JLL and International Council of Shopping Centers, “The Successful Integration of Food and Beverage Within Retail Real Estate,” https://www.icsc.org/uploads/research/general/Food__Beverage_Study_US.pdf.
6 Email exchange between the curator and Tunde Wey on April 17, 2018.
7 Conversation between the curator and Tunde Wey on April 23, 2018.
8 Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, “How Do We End 'Food Apartheid' in America? With Farms Like This One,” AlterNet, June 12, 2017, https://www.alternet.org/food/how-do-we-end-food-apartheid-america-farms-one.