Are you hungry? Because there are plenty of places to eat. They are replacing retail establishments everywhere. I have noted the disappearance of retail from and the conversion of stores into restaurants and bars in many of America’s downtowns before, but the change really hit me late one evening, when I was in a cab cruising uptown in Manhattan, all the way from the Lower to the Upper East Side, and counted an average of three to four restaurants, bars, or fast food establishments of some sort in every single block. If you have money, you will not have to crawl for more than a few feet in Manhattan to feed yourself.
I noted the same density of food forums when I was at LaGuardia Airport, heading home to Cincinnati the next day. In the Delta terminal, the lone retail establishment remaining is a small outlet for electronics. The Brooks Brothers, newsstands, and tchotchke stores have all turned into various portals for victuals, with a magazine or two thrown in to give you something to do while you chow down.
Are we seeing the results of the migration of our buying activities to the web, leaving only that which is most directly and necessarily related to the body out there in meatspace? Perhaps, but the percentage of online sales in relationship to what we buy in stores is still much too small to account for this shift in our urban landscape. The spread of eating-places undoubtedly has a corollary with our own bodies’ sprawl, as we simply eat more. In addition, we prepare a great deal less: Cooking has for many of us become a luxury, or a ritual in which we engage when we have the time. (I think I am down to cooking dinner about twice a week.) Finally, we no longer are content to accept just a few choices when we eat. We want both Greek- and American-style yogurt, Northern and Southern Mexican food, fat-free and reduced-fat treats, and as many different toppings on anything as possible. In short, we want more food and more food made for us.
As sprawl itself spreads, downtown areas become magnets for social activities, rather than for work, living, or shopping, and the bar or restaurant is the anchor of many such interactions. The landscape I see from the cab window is a middle-class and upper-middle-class one. Its corollary is the food desert that has blossomed in many of our disadvantaged neighborhoods. To come downtown from the better-off suburbs for dinner is to leave behind the wasteland of sprawl. The people who live in the wrong parts of the city may not have the means for better options.
Before too long, our downtown areas, as well as those hubs of activities, from sports stadia to airports, will become food jungles, the luxuriant growth of food vending choking out any other activity at ground level, allowing the high-rises for wealthy living or white collar work to rise out of that base of bars and restaurants, while elsewhere, gasoline-guzzling beasts go hunting for something to eat—and still others starve at home. A spatial politics governs whether you order seared tuna at your favorite downtown boite or travel to the city for StarKist in a can.