Thursday, December 25, 2014

Is "craft" beer an urban delusion, too?

Looking back at 2014 and hazarding a rough guess, I probably received "come brew with us" solicitations from economic development officials, representing Indiana towns and cities, at a rate of one or two each month. What all of them have had in common was a certainty that our/your/any brewery would help Anytown turn the corner and anchor a revival.

It may even be true, although the New Albanian Brewing Company wouldn't mean as much operating in Paoli or Vernon (note that neither of them asked). It'd be like Sierra Nevada in Asheville, for chrissakes.

In Louisville, the dining and drinking scene has become bewilderingly profuse, and is amply celebrated by tourism operatives, usually with a bourbon chaser. Even in New Albany, the level of revitalization we've managed has been driven by food and drink, and since my wife and I can walk to them from our house, we seldom eat out in Louisville.

In some way connected to the preceding ruminations, Chakrabortty's column struck a nerve with me.

Behind the restaurant boom: the urban delusion consuming our cities, by Aditya Chakrabortty (The Guardian)

... Part of how this country responds to the loss of its manufacturing base and a banking meltdown appears to be that it gets into eating. London is going through a restaurant boom. According to the website Hot Dinners, the number of restaurants born in central London has surged every year since 2011. In 2013, 196 new places opened; this year it’s 240.

This notion migrates from the capital to the hinterlands, where smaller cities are routinely starved by the politicians in London.

Meanwhile, town halls parched for investment scrabble after restaurateurs and their cash. “Every council has its own approach to regeneration, and food is a cornerstone of our strategy,” says Andrew Sissons, regeneration guru for Hackney, in east London. Coventry is turning an old shopping centre into a restaurant quarter. To lure big-name chefs, Gloucester is waving financial incentives. And samey food festivals are rolled out everywhere – so one can hike from Llangollen to Broadstairs and never go short of craft beer or organic double-chocolate-chip brownies.

It's because foodies and the creative class are synonymous.

Tastier eateries ... reflect the influence on our city authorities of Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser. Read these American urban theorists, and there is an image of the ideal postmodern city as a menagerie of apartment-dwelling “creative” freelancers who roam from start-up to eatery, clutching only a MacBook and a flat white ... it's the corollary of the delusion that what replaces old industry is a new knowledge economy – if only city leaders knew how to kindle one.

But the theorem of a dining-driven "knowledge" economy is far more tenuous in the countryside, so something familiar happens.

... when you put most of the politicians, media, and big-boy jobs in all-powerful, recession-proof London: sharp economic inequality produces gastronomic inequality, too ... London has more restaurants per head than anywhere else in the UK – 50% more than the national average, and almost twice as many per head as the East or West Midlands. 

Competing for London's cache and cash merely reinforces a loss of historic identity.

When provincial cities were sites of production, they had distinct economies and identities: Cottonopolis Manchester; Worstedopolis Bradford; Brummagen Birmingham ... now that they compete to be centres of consumption, the pecking order is sharper and harder. 

So, who is seated at all those new restaurant tables in London?

And what if you come to London, where rents are a rip-off, first-time buying is unimaginable, and freelancing in one of those creative industries beloved of Richard Florida means earning sod all? How does a twenty- or thirtysomething in those circumstances take up the lifestyle offered by the capital? By parking any idea of buying a place, starting a family and settling down. “They haven’t the money to grow up, so they go out,” suggests the Manchester University anthropologist Sean Carey. They queue for burgers, eat at concept diners and Instagram the results – perhaps it makes an unliveable settlement bearable for a while.

They INSTAGRAM THE RESULTS. How familiar is that? The author ends here:

A concept’s fine for a night out – but it’s no way to run an economy.

Because brewing very much is about making a product, the analogies between it and Chakrabortty's thoughts are not perfect. However, it's something to strain through the non-egalitarianism that has become so lamentably attached to better beer appreciation in America.

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