The Great American Cooking Story: The Role of Gentrification and Food

Clara is an associate producer at Green Buzz Agency, a video production company in the Washington DC metro area.

Gentrification, the process of urban renewal of lower-class neighborhoods, has been occurring all across the United States in different cities large and small. Often, but not always, gentrification has been associated with the displacement of the locals. This is not just their living situations, but their jobs, and even local hangouts. They have been displaced for the trendy and shiny. Their homes have been invaded by new faces, sometimes of different races, but mostly of a different socioeconomic class. I recently had the chance to chat over lunch with Clara Ritger, a Notre Dame Alum, and former journalist turned filmmaker, who is now an associate producer at Green Buzz Agency. She took on a project to explore revitalized communities with a unique focus on restaurants.   

Clara’s project, The Great American Cooking Story, is a documentary series about the role of restaurants in gentrified neighborhoods. This project started because she became aware of something. Hip and trendy restaurants weren’t opening in places you would expect, like the expensive downtown areas. No, in fact, they were opening in upcoming transforming formally low-income minority communities. So she started to ask herself, “What is it about these neighborhoods that is proving the recipe for success for these restaurants?” As she begins to formulate the idea of what would become The Great American Cooking Story, she continues her question with, “Or is it vice versa? Is it that the restaurants are coming into these neighborhoods drawing people who don’t live in those neighborhoods, and that is creating the change?”    

Clara isn’t naive; she understands the narrative of gentrification, which is usually “change is good for some but not for all.” On her 10-day train trip that started in Los Angeles, and took her across the U.S. South to the cities of Austin, San Antonio, New Orleans, Atlanta, and finally Washington DC, she interviewed several restaurant owners to see if that the change that only benefits some could benefit all. “I think that it’s very inherent to the whole restaurant model to bring diverse communities together.” Clara explores if instead of new restaurants default association with so-called changes that alienate locals, could instead these restaurants be the force that brings the newcomers and locals together. These owners are now a vital part of the new community, and they have more to offer than just food. Clara says, “What I think the series does a good job at, is capturing the conversation as it is today with the restaurants owners and the chefs.”

Clara began crowdfunding her series in January and was halfway to her goal of $5,000 when Tyson’s Chicken offered to fund the rest of the project. She has nothing but praise for the corporation, who not only offered monetary support but made sure to spread the word of her project via their social media avenues.

The project also included a multitude of research, which she only had three months to conduct. And in her words “sounds like a lot of time, but really isn’t” especially with a full-time job. Nevertheless, in all of her free time, she conducted research that included staying informed of local trends in the cities she planned to visit and researching census demographics, specifically changes in populations. Once she narrowed down the communities in the cities, she contacted the restaurant’s owners and chefs.

Should you expect a black and white answer about the role of gentrification? Specifically, are there some places in which the changes are benefiting both locals and newcomers? Clara doesn’t think so, but she recognizes some places are trying. While citing examples from her project, she speaks about a particular owner who offers a “Budget Breakfast” special. She paraphrases the owner, “You can scrap a couple dollars panhandling on the street and you can afford this Budget Breakfast.” Clara explains that the restaurant is communal seating, and so the owner of the restaurant has witnessed two people of vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds sit next to each other and become friends. If nothing else these owners have taken their role in the community to heart and are committed to the idea of bringing people together.

“The thing I really come away with is hope. It’s not perfect; it’s not definitely going to stop gentrification.” Clara admits she doesn’t know what the future will hold for these communities, “I captured of a snapshot of what they looked like in May of 2015, but I am hopeful that the answer will lie in these restaurants.” If nothing else, The Great American Cooking Story lends another voice to the conversation about gentrification. Hopefully, the right people will see the web series and be more mindful of the impact their arrival has on these changing communities.

The Great American Cook Story will arrive on December 2nd, and will be releasing over the next six weeks on Wednesdays except Christmas week. I encourage you to visit Clara’s website here, or subscribe to her YouTube here and never miss an episode.

Watch the first episode below:

Orlando is a Staff Writer for the Daily Runner.


Orlando Suazo

Orlando is an MFA screenwriting student at Regent. Originally, from New York City he recently moved to Northen Virgina just outside of Washington DC. While also being a full-time student, he is also a full-time video professional and works as a video editor at Green Buzz Agency. Orlando has been married for two years, and he and his wife, Kristen, have 1 child.