Eating Space: Food in the Open

I’ve always wondered why street food was not as popular in the US. And then I started trying to understand health codes, land use policy, business permits, tax laws, risk management briefs, and sidewalk obstruction ordinances. I soon lost my appetite. The confusion was enough to make me give up on ever enjoying hot rice cakes while sitting on a plastic stool leaned up against a park wall or discovering the best roasted yams ever at the entrance to a post office.

Farmers’ markets also face similar difficulties in getting started. While some neighbors relish the thought of fresh mesclun within walking distance, others fear backed-up traffic, loss of what little parking they already have, trash littering their yards, and rodents gathering for weekly food fests. Public parks, natural places for impromptu booths, end up having conflicts in mission and charter with profitable enterprise. Market management, like any other business or nonprofit, has its own risks and rewards and crazy ways of doing things. And finally, farmers have enough to keep them busy in their fields without having to face a long drive into the city. Not many can make a living for their families by standing around selling a few carrots here or some organic apples there, while their thin profit margins preclude hiring retail staff.

In many other countries, people figure out how to make use of every bit of space, material and time. While I understand the need for protecting the public, I’d love to see us loosen up just a little bit and support more micro-businesses, more diversity in the food market, and more openness and curiosity in place of fear and nimbyness.

A couple of months ago, my next-door neighbor decided that he didn’t like the shape of my waist-high rosemary bush, the one I tended in that tiny patch of soil cut into the sidewalk in front of my building. So, without asking me, he cut it down to a stub of three inches and then poured so-called river stones over the space. A few weeks later, “someone” planted a begonia where my rosemary bush used to be. Not even a scented begonia, thank you very much. When pressed, my neighbor mentioned words like “property value” and “attractive landscaping.” He’s a new home-owner; I’m one of the last renters still toughing it out on my block. A sprawling, eight-year-old rosemary bush apparently does not have a place in my changing neighborhood.

Fortunately, another old neighbor realized how sad I was and planted a small, three-sprigged sprout of a baby rosemary plant next to the useless begonia. I look forward to watching it grow, and I hope that we both–my rugged herb and I–will still have a place to flourish on this shined-up street.

Author: Thy Tran

San Francisco-based writer specializing in history and culture of food.

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