Food and cities are designed to bring people together. Just as there are rules for behavior at mealtime—who gets served first, what is eaten when—there are rules for city life—standing to the right on subway escalators, leaving just the right amount of room on the park bench. So when food and cities come together there are new sets of rules and new opportunities for conflict and cooperation.
You expect to pay dearly for a glass of lemonade in Venice’s Piazza San Marco because you’re renting one of Europe’s most spectacular seats as well as buying a drink. When a Greek opens a café, seating areas on public property—the sidewalk or plaza—come with it, and no one worries when the waiter maneuvers his tray across a busy street. Asian street food is an integral part of daily life, whether from carts or corralled into a food cart mall.
Food trucks are a growing trend in U.S. cities, with impacts and benefits for both gourmandism and urbanism, and they are generating new rules from the health department to Twitter. Food trucks have a creditable history in American cities. Dating to 1893, Haven Brothers in Providence, Rhode Island is the granddaddy of them all. It’s described online as: “An aluminum pick-up truck masquerading as a diner that serves the greasiest food imaginable to Providence’s wastoids, insomniacs and street walkers.” Aaah, city life. But by virtue of mayoral protection, media attention, and sheer longevity, the rolling aluminum diner has achieved unofficial landmark status.
Other communities have recognized that food carts can add economic and social vitality to their streets. Los Angeles is setting up a mobile food court and the trucks are part of city events like Art Walk, film festivals, and flea markets. The city has established the Vendy Awards where judges choose among pork belly adobo, Thai coconut iced tea, and deep-fried green rice tofu balls. The City of Portland’s study, Food Cartology, Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places (available online as a PDF) is a typological study of food carts and their effect on neighborhood livability and street vitality. The report found that food trucks can foster social interactions, provide interim uses for vacant land, and provide economic gateway businesses.
City planners take it for granted that we all know and value street life, but in our minivan-to-the-mall communities, we have forgotten what life as a pedestrian on the sidewalk can be like. Planners view street life as a way to create safety—with lots of people, there are lots of witnesses to bad behavior. It’s also a way to create economic vitality—if you’re walking, it’s easier to stop in a shop and the next shop and spend money. And if it’s nice to walk on the street, you’ll come to a place just to do that. The view of history, architecture, and other people is why we are willing to pay $15 for a Piazza San Marco lemonade. The City of Portland’s zoning requirement to make food vendor space available in parking lots and garages may not create a piazza San Marco but will carve out space for people among the cars.
Washington D.C. is undertaking its own effort to improve street cart food—recognizing that though half smokes may be a D.C. tradition, they are not a full reflection of the city’s culture. The city also recognizes the opportunity to create jobs and an active street life. Carts that Twitter their location can draw a happy following. Low start-up costs can provide access to businesspeople who can handle a wok more easily than a loan application. In some cities, even established restaurants are using food carts to draw new customers.
In 2004, the District set up a downtown demonstration zone to test new carts, but is still updating regulations to allow more variety in the size and location of carts, as well as the depots where they are parked at night (and where they are pressured to buy their ingredients—usually limited to hot dogs and chicken). It’s interesting that the health department issues are usually easier to work out than the land use issues. Americans seem to be more conflicted about what makes a healthy urban environment than healthy sanitary conditions.
By contrast, the suburbs are less comfortable with low overhead. The Ali Baba Kebab cart at the Bethesda Farm Women’s Market has had ongoing negotiations with the Montgomery County Building Department over power supply and patios and each time the owner is expected to pay thousands of dollars to remedy non-problems. The Clayboys Shave Ice Cart is a Bethesda tradition, beloved among local children but vigorous enforcement of a County ordinance would have required the cart to move regularly, even when serving customers. In the suburbs, food carts, corner vendors, itinerant knife sharpeners, and roadside farm stands are suspect. But from mild disorder comes vitality and possibly success.
Fueled by technology, increasingly diverse vendors, and increasingly demanding customers, a do-it-yourself ethic, the end of expense accounts, and a willingness to rethink policy, food trucks are becoming the caterers of urban life.