In this month’s Consume This!, I present a short essay based on my current, ongoing project on the plight of small cities in the twenty-first century. This piece focuses on the role consumption plays in shaping how people experience gentrification. Understudied in the gentrification literature, I hope to give consumption a more central role in this analysis.
— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)
Consume This! The Meanings of $4 Croissants
By Richard E. Ocejo
Grace is a 24-year-old black transwoman who has lived in Newburgh for 85% of her life. She left for a time to attend high school in Poughkeepsie, another small city in New York’s Hudson River Valley. She had to, she says, because of family reasons, and no one knew who she was in Poughkeepsie. Grace could find herself and transition there. She tells this story, and about what it was like growing up in Newburgh, an impoverished, post-industrial city of 30,000 people, and what it was like coming back. On this latter subject, she talks about how the city is getting “gentrified up,” and croissants.
“On Liberty Street there’s a bakery that just opened up. A thing—what’s the name of it?—it was $4! It was like a little pastry thing, whatever it was. Four dollars! For that! Who is spending $4 on that? Who the hell? One macaroon a dollar-fifty. I can get a 50-cent juice and two bag of chips, like—and not saying that that’s a healthier choice or anything like that, but it’s just like just where people’s mindset is here that they can spend more on the new shit that you bringin’ in. And you got to spend so much on it. For what reason? We don’t need all that.”
Chef Mike grew up in Cornwall, a small town near Newburgh, and worked in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Thomas Keller in New York City after attending the Culinary Institute of America. That’s typically a career path to cooking stardom, but he wanted to return home, where he wouldn’t have to live the harried lifestyle of a big-city chef. Gentrifying Newburgh proved to be the best fit for his French-influenced restaurant, Liberty Street Bistro. From the jump he was frustrated that he couldn’t get good bread nearby, and saw an opportunity to open a high-end bakery, in a convenient location down the street from his restaurant. Along with a variety of breads, Flour Shop offers high-quality baked goods, like croissants and pain au chocolat (Mike bristles when people call them chocolate croissants), made in artisanal ways. People started lining up outside the door before 7 a.m. the day of its grand opening. The croissants quickly sold out.
Some people can defend the cost of a $4 croissant or a $1.50 macaroon, if they know the type of ingredients and labor that go into them. They should and have to cost that much, or the owner will lose money. Simple. Others just see the cost attached to the product: $4 for one item—where’s the value in that? Baked good are normally larger, come in plastic, and cost $1.
A lot about the gentrification experience, and of how people make sense of urban change more generally, is filtered through the lens of consumption. Housing costs are foremost in the discussion, and rightfully so. Cost of everyday living—new stores offering expensive products, new restaurants with unusual cuisines, “free” events with high-priced art—tend to get less attention, but offer their own harms. Call it “gentrification without displacement”: even low-income people who remain in their homes or neighborhoods feel as if they are displaced, as the new stuff is neither marketed to them, nor of any benefit to them. Rising rents are gentrification’s injury, new amenities the insults.
Small cities like Newburgh were once microcosms of the urban industrial era: productive, successful, middle-class with a blue-collar ethos—just smaller, often more niche. While they declined in all the ways large ones did—deindustrialization, white flight, brain drain, suburbanization—they have recovered more slowly in the twenty-first century, if they’ve recovered at all. They lack most of the tools that large cities have used to grow today: no cutting edge industries or jobs in the “new economy” to attract an educated workforce, few cultural institutions or amenities, few global connections or networks, less diversity.
But Newburgh is in luck, in a way: it happens to be located near enough to New York City, which happens to be rather expensive to live in.
“I just saw the writing on the wall: the financial and emotional unsustainability of being a working artist in New York City,” says David, a 29-year-old blues guitarist. “And trying to find spaces where I could do the work that I’m interested in and feel a sense of community and all of that, and be in a place for a long term, not for a two-year apartment, and it just got so frustrating. I saw that as a possibility here.”
Newburgh also happens to resemble many areas in New York City: old brick buildings, warehouses and factories, gridded streets, and in general a gritty urban industrial texture that the middle class started falling in love with in the 1980s. “It reminds me of [fill in whichever gentrifying neighborhood in New York City they’re most familiar with] from X years ago,” is a common statement. The city’s proximity to the big high-priced metropolis, its built environment, and its affordable historic houses have drawn a good number of urban middle class residents to resettle there. Like David above, newcomers cite being an actual stakeholder in a community —an integral member and producer—as a goal upon their arrival. And once they arrive, the city’s expanding social infrastructure—the restaurants, cafes, the bakery, and the hangout-friendly retail stores—offers the spatial foundation they need to feel and perpetuate that sense of community.
In typical examples of gentrifying neighborhoods, the “pioneering” businesses often open on shoestring budgets or without much concern for the quality of the products. Newcomers need a bar or café to hang out in—just serve whatever you got. Those days are over, and Newburgh is a perfect example. Its pioneering businesses have started out with the tastes of the discerning urban middle class consumer in mind: craft beers, artisanal foods, handmade soaps and candles, natural wines, third wave coffee shops (the craft distillery is opening soon). At the center of their experience of Newburgh and social project of constructing community are these spaces of high-end consumption.
For existing residents like Grace, it has been a sudden and rapid transition: five years or so of watching a section of the city completely transform after decades of neglect. These residents often speak about appreciating the new developments, and welcoming improvement to their city. But a lack of consumer options—not being able to afford the products, let alone the housing—shape their experiences of these changes. For newcomers, however, being able to buy their homes and go to businesses offering products and services that seem tailor made for them, all in an actually authentic-looking city (just small), is a dream come true.
About the Author
Richard E. Ocejo—associate professor of sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY), John Jay College and the Graduate Center.