“A Desert is Full of Life”: Food, Fugitivity, and Futurity in the Flatlands of Los Angeles

Above: Pop-Up Mexican Barbecue Restaurant in Vermont-Slauson Neighborhood. Photo by Julio Angel Alicea

Julio Angel Alicea

Written off by architectural explorer Reynam Banham (1971) as “the only parts of Los Angeles flat enough and boring enough to compare with the cities of the Middle West,” (p. 173), South Central Los Angeles has been stung by the same racist disgust suffered by many low income, communities of color. A quick online search of “top” restaurants at which to eat in Los Angeles (even if searching for so-called ethnic cuisine) rarely generates mention of any food establishments in South Central. Instead, it is perpetually written off as a food desert, a place lacking in all that is good: good food, good eating habits, good people. Drawing on the sociology of foodscapes (MacKendrick, 2014) and racial geographies (Hunter & Robinson, 2018; Lipsitz, 2011), I present insights from my research that understands food as a fugitive technology, as creative tools for everyday practices of flight and refusal (Campt, 2014), essential to the promotion of Black and Latinx futurities in communities like South Central. Stated differently, food is conceptualized as a primary mechanism by which such communities not only achieve survival, but survivance (Vizenor, 2009) in the face of structural desertion.

In my larger ethnographic project regarding the politics of race and place in South Central, food has become an important insight shared with me by my fellow residents. At different moments, food and foodscapes have surfaced as: (1) a point of critique consistent with food desert discourse, (2) celebrated examples of racially diverse, convivial spaces (Anderson, 2011) and (3) physical markers in the built environment of the demographic turnover from majority Black to majority Latinx. These emergent findings proved consistent with literature regarding the critical roles of food (Reese, 2019) and place (Hunter & Robinson, 2018) in the futures of communities of color. By engaging food as a central object of inquiry, my larger research project took on an added sensory dimension, not unlike the kind promoted by canonical sociologist Georg Simmel (1997) and more recent scholars (Borer, 2013; Mason & Davies, 2009) who have noted the importance of decentering the hegemony of sight in urban sociology. I took inspirations from these scholars as part of my efforts to also decenter the White gaze internalized by sociologists trained in the academy (Rios, 2015). In attending to food, I was able to unearth forms of history, placemaking, and folkloric wisdom (Hunter & Robinson, 2018) overlooked by majoritarian views of the city (e.g. Reynar Banham).

Through a combination of spatial ethnography, interviews, and archival work, I consumed the food narratives of countless flatlanders who eat and live in the “area below the ten” (KCRW, n.d.). In an effort to achieve some diversity of taste and tradition, I spent time with folks in four areas of the Flatlands:

Over the course of several visits to these areas, I was treated to the company of Black and Latinx street vendors, grocers, café chefs, community gardeners, as well as a Black farmers’ market manager. Time and again, it was clear that these food actors were not just simply eating and selling food. They were creating community around local, culturally sustaining foods while refusing what Mike Davis (1990) called the “retail recolonization” of South Central by big brands (p. 134). In doing so, they created and deployed a fugitive technology (food) vital to the imagining and enacting of Black and Latinx futurities. Futurity is about continued, collective existence in the future time, but it is also, as Black Feminist scholar Tina Campt (2014) reminds us, a “performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.” Food, then, is an instrument in that performance.

Fully aware of the ways in which people of color have transformed kitchen scraps into culinary staples and how such staples have aided oppressed folks in turning “segregation into congregation” (Lipsitz, 2011, p. 19), the Black farmers’ market manager I interviewed took great issue with food desert discourse:

“Food deserts are a natural phenomenon, and they’re full of life. A desert is full of life. It’s got plants that grow there, it’s got animals that live there…there are people who live in and off of the desert, and they have for millennia.”

Here, the farmers’ market manager powerfully notes the dehumanizing erasure of peoples and traditions accomplished by food desert discourse. In doing so, she anticipates the writing of Black food geographer Ashanté Reese (2019) who argues that the term is anti-Black because “When people hear the term, they imagine a barren, empty place […] [which] has far-reaching implications for Black communities because of social science legacies of writing about them as static, unchanging, and without agency” (p. 6).

I argue that the foods encountered in spaces like the Crenshaw farmers’ market constitute a fugitive technology because they are tools of subaltern traditions run counter to, or are otherwise apart from, the state. In the settler colonial city of inmates that is Los Angeles (Hernandez, 2017), both Black and Latinx food actors experience distinct versions of fugitive existence. Black food actors, like Black folks everywhere, face the constant threat of anti-Black state terror that comes with being seen as less than human (McKittrick, 2011) and therefore not worthy of constitutional protections, let alone positive Yelp reviews of their food. Latinx food actors are on the run too, as many live in fear of ICE (immigration and customs enforcement) and border patrol agents disappearing them out of the country and away from their families. Moreover, both Black and Latinx food actors are on the run from the gentrifying forces of dispossession, as infusions of capital usher in heightened policing and accelerate the destruction of affordable housing (Shedd, 2015).

When food is incorporated into the ethnography of South Central, the community can be re-narrativized from a flat and boring “service area feeding and supplying the foothills and beaches” (Banham, 1971, p. 173) to a layered and self-reliant foodscape (Reese, 2019), complete with its own rich history and food futures. Importantly, what to Banham’s (1971) eye was not worth consuming, visually or gastronomically, emerges as a resilient and resourceful food community. By examining the foodscape in its varied communal forms (such as the small grocery store, the farmers market, the pop-up street restaurant, and the emplaced café), I arrive at a multi-sensory account of food with rich sociological insights about race, place, and the state. When served up with understandings of racial geographies, food is revealed to be intimately tied to the fugitive practices of unlearning anti-Black thinking, unleashing joy in the face of despair, and in due time, unsettling the state altogether.

Julio Alicea is an urban sociologist interested in the politics of race and place. A former public school teacher, he is completing his PhD in Urban Schooling at UCLA while conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the community of South Central Los Angeles. He holds an M.A.T. in Social Studies from Brown University and a B.A. in Sociology & Anthropology from Swarthmore College.


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