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Global Cuisine and a Surprise “New” Urbanism

Mary Newsom / May 25 2012

For Release Friday, May 25, 2012
Citiwire.net

Mary NewsomWhat does “urban” mean in 21st-century America? I’ve been having a debate with a local historian over what’s the most “urban” part of the city we share.

Tom Hanchett, historian at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South, contends the city’s most urban corner is Central Avenue at Rosehaven Drive, along an auto-focused commercial strip of tattered, 1970s-era Americana 5 miles from downtown. By any standard of urban design or city form, it is in no way urban.

But early in May, as Hanchett led 20 people on a “munching tour” of stores and restaurants near his pinpointed corner, I started to understand his version of “urban.” Am I convinced? Read on.

Hanchett is a bespectacled Ph.D. historian whose middle-aged paunch hints at one of his avocations: he’s an avid chowhound who scouts ethnic eateries all over this Sun Belt boomtown of 730,000. I had asked him to lead Charlotte’s first Jane Jacobs Walk as a promotional event for a new website I direct, PlanCharlotte.org. It was one of dozens of similar walks in some 30 U.S. cities to mark the May 4, 1916, birth of famed urban writer Jane Jacobs, all a project of the Utah-based nonprofit Center for the Living City.

I wanted to hear Hanchett try to defend his assertion that this slice of bedraggled suburbia could illustrate Jacobs’ urban theories. In her 1960s books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and The Economy of Cities, Jacobs championed the vigor and regenerative qualities of cities, and mourned the ravages of urban renewal and grandiose projects. Hanchett was convinced Jacobs would recognize the “urban” in our outing.

We all met at Ben Thanh, a popular but by no means luxurious Vietnamese restaurant housed in a 1977 building whose age is not easily disguised, with a parking lot cratered by potholes.

Hanchett himself admits the area, built from the 1950s to the 1980s, is a “landscape of unremarkable suburban sprawl.” Maybe I hang out with too many urban designers, because when I see unkempt strip shopping centers with oceanic parking lots, I think “suburban retrofit.” Do we need all those lots? Can we tuck some newer buildings closer to the street? Can housing move closer to stores and fill empty spaces? After all, Jacobs wrote of the need for cities to have many different things close together.

Our tour group didn’t talk urban design. Instead, we ate fresh summer rolls, got to know each other and listened to Hanchett talk about Jane Jacobs. He read aloud:

“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation — although these make fine ingredients — but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.”

We moved next door to Cedar Plaza, a downscale strip built in 1988. Hanchett noted a Vietnamese restaurant, a Latino grocery and a Lebanese store and restaurant. A jumbled bulletin board beside the tienda held notices in Spanish, Vietnamese and English. We explored the stores then walked about 300 feet — past a Salvadoran restaurant and an Asian grocery — to Jamile’s International Cuisine, in another aging strip center, vintage 1974. I recognized it as having housed, 30 years back, the city’s best deep-dish pizza restaurant. That spot now holds the restaurant and grocery of Somali refugees Jamile Shiekh, her husband, Sadak Dini, and partner Hamsa Hashi.

Hanchett ordered for us — a tasty Somali stew called chicken suqaar. (Perhaps thinking the group too squeamish, he did not order the goat meat option.) The food arrived with Jamile’s fresh canjeera flatbread and a banana which, we learned, accompanies most Somali meals.

We shared observations then headed to the Salvadoran restaurant for tres leches cake and flan. Owner Henry Chirinos is Honduran and his wife is Salvadoran; they sell dishes from both countries plus Mexico.

What would Jane Jacobs say about all this? Would she find the area too suburban for a respectable city? Or would she, like Hanchett, see a small but important piece of a city economy? In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs dissects how city wealth grows, how innovation builds on older innovation, and new work builds on existing work. This happens in cities because innovators and entrepreneurs come from all over, and then find each other, learn and do business together. That closeness is one of a city’s most valuable qualities.

Cities, Hanchett pointed out, welcome newcomers, some of whom start businesses. Central and Rosehaven isn’t Greenwich Village, but there is steady foot traffic along busy Central Avenue. You see people from all over the world. And you see entrepreneurial energy.

None of the restaurants we visited were founded with Small Business Administration loans or big bank financing. Cuong Duont of Ben Thanh told me their business used family money to launch. Jamile’s husband, Sadak Dini, said they used their own money, saved over 16 years of working in a Charlotte factory. Chirinos also used his own money to launch his restaurant after nine years at a Long Island country club.

What Hanchett sees is how this unattractive part of an evolving city has adapted to changes and newcomers. “It took me a long time to see the resilience of these neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s important to look at and cherish these landscapes that don’t get much respect.”

Jane Jacobs, I concluded, would have understood. This corner is on the ground floor of a vast city economy. Here, and at other corners like it, our city is absorbing newcomers, creating businesses and blending different cultures into a tasty urban suqaar — available to all who care to look for it.


Mary Newsom is associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute where she directs PlanCharlotte.org, a website offering news and analysis about urban growth issues in the 14-county Charlotte region. Views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted May 27, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Yes it’s urban(ization) but just not the form we favor. I would venture that the urban forms Jacobs brought to light were reviled by her generation to the same extent. The savior of the burbs may not be the same, nor is the problem. It’s just demise that we perceive and the anxiety of not having a solution thats similar. Cuisine, restaurants, whatever spring up anywhere and evrywhere and are a hallmark of our “eat food fast” culture, not really the subject at hand.

  2. Kevin Armstrong
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    It would seem to me that a large factor at work here is simply the lower rents available in what are now less expensive strip centers and roadside buildings. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, as I believe I remember Jacobs making the point that a variety of rents were necessary to support the variety of uses that she championed in her favored urban spaces. At the same time, I’m not sure that Jacobs would look fondly on the ‚Äúlandscape of unremarkable suburban sprawl,” despite the apparent variety of successful businesses. Urban form was certainly paramount in her observation and analysis of the city, even if she didn’t quite address the same space that “urban design” does today.

  3. Jesse Hagen
    Posted May 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Kevin, you have it exactly right. It seems like the author is just trying to justify their built environment (look, suburbs can be diverse too!).

    Really, proximity/location are what spur entreprenurial & economic growth in this context. After reading the description of the area & from 800 miles away, this special breed of forgotton suburb has just enough density. However, in 30 years time we’ll have another concentric rung of suburbs hollowing out, will there be people willing to invest or will they just find another metro area that does?

  4. Jake Wegmann
    Posted May 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I always appreciate Ms. Newsom’s writings.

    In this particular case, I applaud her open-mindedness, and her willingness to challenge her preconceived notions and to share the results with her readers.

    I think that Tom Hanchett is onto something. Urban neighborhoods that look like Greenwich Village but that are as affordable as the Village was in the early 1960′s have almost disappeared. If we’re going to eliminate all strip malls, we need to think very, very carefully about the small business ecosystems that would be disrupted, just like what happened in devalued city neighborhoods during the urban renewal era.

    I don’t think Ms. Newsom has the right answer for what should or shouldn’t be done, and nor do I, but I really appreciate her bringing up this issue in its full complexity.

  5. Posted May 31, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Jake, for the nice words. I also think Kevin, Allen and Jesse all have good points. Indeed, these businesses are where they are because the rents are low, because the buildings aren’t very desirable. Which doesn’t mean the area’s form is one to applaud, only that in a very suburban city such as Charlotte – and many other Sun Belt boomtowns – the supply of buildings that are both old enough to be cheap AND urban in form is minuscule.

    As Allen says, we don’t have a solution that really applies, and it makes people anxious. If you look only at urban form, you’d rebuild areas like this. But that would force the low-rent ethnic businesses to the next ring of suburban decline. But do we really want to be looking at this same “unremarkable suburban sprawl” 50 years from now? I don’t think so.

  6. Posted May 31, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Fear not 50 years hence! In the late 50′s and 60′s, before a generation understood Jane J, feelings about “inner city” were just as bad. An important difference is the social context, another is the physical form. So today the suburban plight is in physical form, not social, the flip side in both respects. In a way, suburbia is richer in prospects (in land) while urbanity is unaffordable (for most). So over the next fifty years, history may favor urbanity for the wealthy but opportunty may still be moving to surburbia for the rest.

  7. Posted June 3, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Diversity and low prices can be found in the urban core of most US cities. Look at the diversification of south central LA. To suggest theat ethnic restaurants in a first tier suburb are emblematic of Jacobs is wishful thinking. Form IS important and generates the culture. You can mimic the diversity in the sububs, but not the sidewalk culture Jacobs touted. Maybe replicating Jacobs’ world should not be the goal, but rather to create a new urban/suburban dynamic?