The proprietors of a newly opened Berkeley cafe have high hopes to change their recently adopted neighborhood for the better — starting, perhaps, with a common nickname for the business corridor, the “Gourmet Ghetto.”
That ironic moniker for the upscale strip, home to culinary institutions like Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board Collective, has been embraced for decades by the local business community. It’s displayed prominently on neighborhood banners along Shattuck Avenue, though not designated in an official, municipal capacity. “The North Shattuck area has been popularly known as the ‘Gourmet Ghetto’ since the 1970s because of its concentration of innovative restaurateurs,” the North Shattuck Association writes on their website, gourmetghetto.org.
But Trish Rothgeb and Nick Cho of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters are pointing to the problematic, disparaging nature of the name. Cho originally voiced his criticism in an interview with Berkelyside, and now, he’s asking that the North Shattuck Association take steps to eliminate the term from official usage and remove those “Gourmet Ghetto” banners from neighborhood installations.
“We’re proud and honored to open our community cafe on the stretch of north Shattuck Avenue that has been so influential to how and what we eat and drink, in the Bay Area and in America,” said Cho, whose original cafe is located in San Francisco. “It’s with respect and deference to that history here that we ask that folks consider [how] the ‘Gourmet Ghetto’ moniker [is] outdated and offensive to people who understand that the term ‘ghetto’ has been used in American culture to denigrate and marginalize black people in particular.”
Since Cho voiced his concerns to Berkeleyside, “we’ve been approached by 100 people either through comments or messages coming in, saying that they’ve been bothered by [the name] for a long, long time,” Cho tells Eater SF.
In liberal Berkeley — a city whose legislature recently voted to rewrite municipal codes without gendered terms, changing the word “manhole” to “maintenance hole” — it’s particularly surprising that the “Gourmet Ghetto” nickname has avoided scrutiny. More broadly, restaurants and chefs have been forced to reckon with similarly insensitive names: Christina Tosi’s popular chain, Milk Bar, recently changed the name of its signature dessert under pressure from critics. The item was previously known as “Crack Pie” — a joking reference to the pie’s popularity at the expense of an epidemic that disproportionately impacted poor, primarily black communities.
In response to recent criticism of the Gourmet Ghetto term, some longtime Berkeley residents have sprung to its defense. In a Berkeleyside op-ed, local food writer L. John Harris says he’s open to a new nickname, but happy with the old one.
“Whatever you think of the term Gourmet Ghetto, it’s got a rock-solid provenance and institutional (Berkeley city) approval that will be hard to reverse,” Harris writes. In fact, he claims to know that provenance precisely — it was coined by a Cheese Board clerk in the ‘70s, Harris writes.
The popularity of the term Gourmet Ghetto can be attributed to its playful irony and pleasant alliteration — the juxtaposition of the lowly ghetto with the uppity gourmet. I was right there, a clerk behind the counter at the Cheese Board, when the term emerged in the mid-1970s. The real story is not what you read in Wikipedia or even the Cheese Board’s book, Cheese Board: Collective Works. The journalist Alice Kahn, now retired, has frequently received credit for coining the term, but at a recent dinner party with mutual friends she graciously denied authorship....in fact, my fellow Cheese Board clerk, the comedian Darryl Henriques, launched the moniker as part of his almost daily shtick about the downward spiral of the neighborhood after Victoria Wise added her Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie to the area’s Holy Trinity in 1973: Peet’s, Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board. I’m guessing that Kahn, a veteran Cheese Board customer, heard it from Henriques.
Also looking to history, Cho points to the North Berkeley neighborhood’s legacy of racial exclusion. According to neighborhood statistics, it’s still less than one percent African American. “Our neighborhood in Berkeley was one that historically excluded black people from living here through systemic housing discrimination programs known as redlining,” says Cho. “We believe that this fact should further embolden folks who truly value diversity and inclusion to support moving on from the name.”
Update, September 13: In an email to Eater SF, the executive director of the North Shattuck Association, which goes by the Gourmet Ghetto, acknowledges that the name has been an occasional topic of debate. It’s a “longstanding issue that area merchants and the North Shattuck Association have really grappled with over the years,” writes director Heather Hensley. “It can be viewed as denigrating or as a fun, quirky tongue-in-cheek reference to the neighborhood’s history.”
Hensley has agreed to meet with Cho and others to discuss the topic. But she doesn’t sound optimistic.
In the 1990’s the merchants group tried to rename the area North Shattuck Village, and even installed banners with the name, but it did not stick. After the association was formed in 2001, we debated for years whether to use it, but as we began to market the area on the web and social media, and planning for the most recent banners five years ago, we chose to embrace the name as it continued to be used by the community and media. We certainly are aware and supportive of efforts to make our society anti-classist and anti-racist. We are open to the discussion and will survey the merchants and residents over the next few months to get their opinions on use of the moniker, and any suggestions for a new tag line for our marketing efforts. Unfortunately, even if we drop the moniker, it may still be used popularly beyond our control.