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Alice Waters Joins Call to Change Berkeley’s Problematic ‘Gourmet Ghetto’ Nickname

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“I have never liked it”

Chez Panisse Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The founder of California Cuisine landmark Chez Panisse is weighing in on a heated local debate over a commonly used nickname for the restaurant’s North Berkeley neighborhood. Alice Waters tells the Chronicle that she, too, objects to the ironic “gourmet ghetto” moniker for the boho North Berkeley enclave that’s also home to favorites like the Cheese Board Collective.

“I have never liked it from the very beginning, either word,” Waters reportedly told a Chronicle reporter. Finally, someone asked Alice.

The owners of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, a new neighborhood coffeeshop, recently ignited the debate when they spoke up against the term. It’s displayed on public banners and used in city meetings, but not formally designated by the city of Berkeley itself. Wrecking Ball’s Nick Cho originally voiced his criticism in an interview with Berkelyside, later expanding to Eater SF that the name carried disparaging racial connotations.

“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,” Cho told Eater. “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with respect and deference to that history here that we ask that folks consider [how] the ‘Gourmet Ghetto’ moniker [is] outdated and offensive to people who understand that the term ‘ghetto’ has been used in American culture to denigrate and marginalize black people in particular.”

Gourmet Ghetto Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

But in an op-ed rebuttal in Berkelyside, one member of the old guard defended the term against newcomers. Local food writer L. John Harris — who traces the term’s coinage to his co-worker at the Cheese Board in the ’70s — argues that the moniker is pure tongue-in-cheek fun, adding that because the word “ghetto” originally referred to a poor Jewish neighborhood in Italy, it should be up to Berkeley Jewish restaurant Saul’s Delicatessen whether or not to use the term.

But Waters, for her part, doesn’t see the humor in the term. “We are not a ghetto, we don’t want to be a ghetto,” she told the Chronicle, beginning to miss the point. “We consider ourselves very open to ideas and I think the idea of the ghetto has just been of course destroyed by World War II and there is no way to make ‘ghetto’ not really off-putting.”

In an email to Eater SF, the executive director of the North Shattuck Association acknowledged that the name has been an occasional topic of debate. That trade association promotes the term on its website, gourmetghetto.org, and paid to install neighborhood signs using the term.

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.”

“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,” Hensley explains.

Hensley has invited Cho to speak this week at a neighborhood merchants assosciation meeting — but Waters’ word on the matter could well be final. “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,” Hensley added.

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