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When Neighborhoods Are Like Wonder Bread

I once had a dear friend and mentor tell me that low-income folks he knew growing up craved Wonder Bread, that pre-packaged, consistently soft and “fresh” bread, made so by preservatives and artificial additives. This was the heyday of pre-packaged foods: canned goods and TV dinners and then the microwave. So Wonder Bread was top-of-the-line, eaten mostly by rich (and, I should note, white) people.

In recent years, though, as consumers have become more health conscious and artisan goods have become more available, whole grains and multi-grains have become the bread du jour, to the exclusion of all that refined flour and corn syrup and soy lecithin and glycerides and sulfates and so on and so on (you’ve seen the ingredient lists). While the more enriched social classes snatch up the “natural” and non-enriched bread, the spongy, sugary breads have become more affordable for all. Poorer households subside on yesterday’s baked goods.

I’ve thought of this lesson in Wonder Bread over the last few months, since I learned about the Biophilic Cities movement, a network of cities, organizations, and individuals working to integrate cities more holistically with nature.

The movement celebrates city planning and building construction that enables biodiversity – more trees and more grass, rain gardens, skyscrapers with green roofs and such. Some researchers have questioned, though, whether certain green development strategies might lead to gentrification, especially big-ticket projects. The benefits of adding significant green space to a neighborhood can seem obvious and inarguable, and these benefits have in fact been proven: more physical activity, better emotional and mental health, even better pollution control. But paradoxically, say researchers, large-scale park and beautification projects can actually increase property values and housing costs, thereby nudging out low-income households over time, especially renters. So this greening would, in the end, serve the interests of those who already have resources, those who likely already benefit from access to green spaces. It’s been determined that richer and whiter neighborhoods tend to have more green space; gentrification that embraces large-scale greening while displacing the marginalized exacerbates this.

The rich decide they want a new kind of bread, a healthier, more enriched bread, and the market responds to their interests. Meanwhile, this staple remains less available to the less resourced.

Some see this as an environmental justice issue. They’re calling for right-sized projects that benefit the neighborhood, while not disrupting the local market and way of life so much as to lead to upheaval. A study on these issues can be found here in a 2014 issue of Landscape and Urban Planning.


Regarding the splendor of white, store-bought bread, I recently had the following conversation with my 9-year-old son (mind you, this has nothing directly to do with green projects and gentrification… but I'm sure there's some relevant metaphor to be teased out):

While eating a sandwich one morning, this child, who’s half my size, but has, pound for pound, double the emotional intensity, said, “I hate this bread. Why does mom use this bread? Why does she have to make this bread and why do I have to eat it? I hate this bread.

Why can’t we just use normal bread?”

Silly adult that I am, I interjected, “Who’s to say what’s normal?”

“I mean the stuff we buy. The homemade stuff, it’s just flat. I like the fluffy stuff, where when you press it down, it fluffs back up all nice and soft. I like that. Homemade bread doesn’t do that. I hate that bread. I’m not going to eat it.”

Wow, I thought to myself, silly adult that I am, Cynthia (loving mother that she is…) even took the time to cut the crusts off that bread! But outwardly I said, “Sometimes you need to be flexible on this kind of stuff. I get that it’s not your favorite. But not everything can be your favorite.”

My son was – I kid you not – now in tears: “I’m not eating it. Why do I have to be trapped in a world where I have to eat this bread?!”

So, our day began.


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