The history of restaurants and gentrification

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with people and researching the reasons why I see more and more “for rent” signs everywhere, as local businesses are closing, and neighborhoods that I once loved are changing overnight.

The Corner of the Rue Bailleul and the Rue Jean Tison, 1831' is part of the ‘Discovery of Paris’ exhibition at The Wallace Collection Photo: Musee Carnavalet/Roger-Viollet via The Telegraph

I’m trying to find a solution to help NYC local small businesses to thrive and continue in business. In NYC, since the 1960s, the leading cause of small businesses closing is gentrification that brings higher rents that are unaffordable for local businesses and working-class communities to stay in a neighborhood. These communities are replaced by the middle class, the rich and chain businesses. For this week’s historical thinking assignment I decided to take a closer look at the history of restaurants and gentrification in cities.

In my research, I discovered that the idea of selling food started with the growth of cities.

It was primality for travelers and people living in poor conditions without the means to cook their own meals. As farmers and peasants started bringing their livestock and goods to sell to the urban markets, they would travel for several days at the time, and places like taverns and inns would sell them food. These places were also a place to socialize, bringing people together.

It is interesting that this concept of selling prepared food started because of travelers, but eventually and organically became a place for people to socialize.

Restaurants were not only a place to eat and drink but where social interactions would occur, as we are familiar with today. We all still do that when we are out with dates, family, and friends, but for convenience, we often order food delivery, do take-outs our buy from fast-food places to avoid human interactions. And then we hear about restaurants closing due to gentrification and high rentals. Based on the gentrification timeline below, laws are being put in place to help low-income communities, but NYC is not doing much to protect small businesses.

But we can’t just blame the government. Aren’t we also the problem?

Going to fast-food chain restaurants because is easier and faster, or ordering from delivery apps because we are too lazy or busy to leave our homes and work, while our favorite local spots pay for high fees, and they do so because they need any sales they can get to survive. Then there are stores like Amazon with no cashiers, that seems to be the future of shopping where we can scan our smartphone with the Amazon Go app at a turnstile, pick out the items we want and leave. And chain restaurants like Shake Shack that replaces cashiers with an app and kiosks. I’m not trying to make anyone reading this feel bad. I’m also guilty of all those things. I shop at Amazon and order food from Seamless and Caviar all the time.

I’m just trying to understand how technology is leading the way to make us lazy and antisocial, and we are not doing anything to stop it. I worry that the future will look like places like Shake Shack and Amazon, or worst we won’t even leave our homes because everything is delivered to us. Ok, I know I’m being too pessimistic. But the future is already here, and now it is the time for us to start thinking of other ways to interact with people that are not just via an app or a kiosk.


A Roman thermopolium in Pompeii photo by Aldo Ardetti at Italian Wikipedia

Restaurants Timeline

Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome

The first restaurants existed in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. They were called Thermopolis, a cook-shop and commercial establishment, where it was possible to buy ready-to-eat food and a place for social interactions.

Song Dynasty (11th century)

In China, there were food catering establishments that originated from teahouses and taverns that catered food for locals and travelers.

Europe (Middle Ages)

Across Europe, taverns and inns were the main places to buy prepared food. In Spain, they were called bodegas and would serve tapas.

Cafes (Middle Ages)

The first cafes existed in Constantinople in 1550. Cafes were places that sold drinks and snacks. Educated people went to share their ideas and new discoveries. Similar to cafes we know today, people would stay there for hours.

France (18th Century)

The French Revolution was pivotal to the invention of the restaurants we know today. With the fall of the monopolies, many ex-aristocratic chefs started opening places to sell prepared food. The modern restaurants began in France in the 18th century. The word restaurant is derived from the French word “restaurer” which means to restore. Their purpose was to restore a person’s strength for those who were not feeling well or hungry patrons. I thought this part was interesting. I couldn’t discover if they actually charge all customers, I wonder if they were also serving free food to the poor.

United States (18th and 19th Centuries)

Restaurants started in major metropolitan areas and were called “eating house” in New York City, “restorator” in Boston, or “victualing house” in other areas. The term restaurant started being used in the 19th century. At first, they were mainly in urban and industrialized areas and later in the suburbs.

Here is “A History of Restaurant Tech (infographic)” by Modern Restaurant Management

A History of Restaurant Tech (Infographic) by Modern Restaurant Management

Gentrification timeline

Ancient Rome and Roman Britain

It took place in Ancient Rome and Roman Britain when large villas replaced small shops.

1964

Ruth Glass used the “Gentrification” term for the first time to describe the influx of middle-class people displacing lower-class residents in urban neighborhoods to describe what happened in Islington, London:

“One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class — upper and lower … Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

NYC Gentrification

In NYC gentrification has happened in several neighborhoods since the 1960s. Here is a timeline of its history from Next City:

1970s

Robert Caro published The Power Broker, a critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal projects in New York from the 1930s to the 1960s.

1993

New York State legislators passed a law that allows NYC landlords to flip rent-stabilized apartments into market-rate apartments by gradually increasing the rent each time a tenant moves out until the rent hits a certain threshold, upon which the apartment loses rent-stabilized status.

1994

Starbucks opens its first location in Manhattan.

1997

For the first time, a Manhattan apartment sells for more than $2,000 per square foot.

2016

New York City passes its first mandatory inclusionary housing ordinance, offering private developers the chance to build taller, denser buildings than current zoning allows, in exchange for setting aside a percentage of units in those buildings as permanently affordable.

2017

New York City passes legislation to fund universal access to legal counsel in housing court for qualified tenants, based on income.