Why Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto Is a Problem (For Some)

11 min
The original Peet's Coffee, located in a North Berkeley neighborhood formerly known as the "Gourmet Ghetto."  (Calton/Wikipedia)

In 2019, words matter.

So it's not surprising that a North Berkeley business group has decided to stop using the name "Gourmet Ghetto" to brand the now-iconic neighborhood.

The moniker, for decades, has been used to identify a short stretch along Shattuck Avenue and nearby streets that’s home to several legendary food and drink establishments, including the original Peet’s Coffee, the Cheese Board Collective and Chez Panisse, a restaurant co-founded in the early 1970s by chef Alice Waters and considered a pioneer of California cuisine.

But, as detailed in a recent Berkeleyside article, a group of residents and business owners have successfully pushed to scrap the name, one they consider antiquated and culturally insensitive.

The word ghetto has long been associated with segregating specific groups of people. Its roots can be traced back to at least the 16th century, when Italian Jews were forced to live in restricted areas of Venice. In its more contemporary American context, ghetto is used as a pejorative to describe African American culture.

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Nick Cho, who recently opened Wrecking Ball Coffee in the neighborhood, led the effort to scrap the name.

"One of the first things he said to me was, 'As soon as I get settled in, I'm going to lobby the city to change the name Gourmet Ghetto," said Sarah Han, who wrote the Berkeleyside article.

It’s not just the word ghetto that some have a problem with. Han points out that Alice Waters, whose name carries a lot of weight in the community, has said she believes the word "gourmet" is elitist.

"She felt like it was an exclusive term," said Han, who also interviewed Waters. "That people who are described as 'gourmet' are people who are of a certain socioeconomic background."

Although there are competing theories as to how the neighborhood got its title, Han said it's most commonly attributed to a comedian named Darryl Henriques, who in the 1970s worked at the Cheese Board and performed in a local comedy troupe. He purportedly used the term "gourmet ghetto" in a skit poking fun at the neighborhood's emerging upscale food establishments.

The effort to change the name follows others like it across the country and in the Bay Area, where community members have been challenging names of streets, schools, parks and other public places, often because they represent some aspect of the legacy of white supremacy in America.

At a public meeting last Thursday, hosted by the North Shattuck Association — the neighborhood's business group — some residents were upset at the decision to remove the name from branding going forward, said Han.

But, she added, a number of her readers have also commented that, until now, they had never really considered that some might find the name offensive.

"I think it's about admitting that you said it, you know why it's wrong, and then not using it anymore" Han said.

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