Restrictions on Asian Supermarket Highlight Diversity in San Gabriel

By Sean Telles

 

By Sean Telles

San Gabriel, Ca -When the new 168 Market on Las Tunas Drive opens it will be a “crossover market,” which is defined by the San Gabriel Community Development Department as “a grocery market that devotes no less than 25% of its floor space to mainstream grocery products that primarily appeal to all shoppers, as opposed to foods that primarily appeal to ethnic groups.” San Gabriel is a city with a Chinatown dating back to before 1886 and was recently highlighted by a USC study as one of the fastest increasing Asian populations in Southern California. Hence, the definition of “mainstream” should be a topic of debate.  Some see this rule as xenophobia, remnant of the English Only Signage controversy which took place in Monterey Park in the 1980s. Others say it has more to do with maintaining diversity and community planning.

At stake in this 2.6 million dollar shopping center renovation is a $400,000 no interest loan to be paid back over 15 years in sales taxes. For the owner of the shopping center, Lucky Center LLC, to obtain and maintain this loan, they must lease its site to a full-service market that will comply with the 25% or higher stipulation. According to Jennifer Davis, San Gabriel’s Community Development Director, this decision “was mutually agreed upon between the shopping center owner and the City and Redevelopment Agency.” As far as I understand, there was no community input.  The San Gabriel’s Economic Development Manager, Robin Scheer, will monitor the terms and conditions of the loan, including the requirement that the market operate as a “crossover market” – although it is still unclear how this will specifically work. For example, will rice and tofu be defined as “mainstream” or “ethnic?”

In June 2008, the Los Angeles Times wrote a story about the San Gabriel Valley entitled, “Close to L.A. but closer to Beijing” in which the eastern San Gabriel Valley is said to have “more in common with Taipei, Beijing or Shanghai than it does with neighboring Los Angeles.” On March 1, 2012, USC released a study on twenty years of census data in Southern California entitled “Racially Balanced Cities in Southern California.” Of all major cities in Southern California, San Gabriel was ranked the third-fastest decreasing Latino population growth (Rosemead was number 2, El Monte number 4, Temple City number 9, South El Monte number 10) and third fastest increasing Asian and Pacific Islander population growth (Temple City was number 1, Arcadia number 2, Rosemead number 4, El Monte number 18). As of 2010, according to US Census data, Asians currently make up 60.7% of San Gabriel.  According to the Official City Website that number is at 56.5%, and according to an undated Mission District Specific Economic Plan, that number is at 50%.

One local interviewed about the supermarket stipulation said she was glad to hear about the new rule because every time a house comes up for sale, an Asian person buys it and they are “taking over” and “won’t stop until they have a pagoda on the mission.” Another local thinks this rule is a form of racism and prejudice. Another community member, a mother with a small child, is excited about having a supermarket she can walk to that meets her needs. Still another local laughed at the idea of the 25% rule, saying all Asian supermarkets already have Western goods in order to be polite, and the boxes are always expired because no one buys them.

At a time when most shoppers are looking for one-stop experiences, one can’t help but wonder if an already small supermarket can attract clientele with only 25% “mainstream” items or 75% “ethnic” goods. One potential shopper I spoke to said she would not be shopping there even though she lives close by, because she would rather go to one supermarket and get everything she needs than have to make two trips.

This month, BBC World News published a story on the power of Asian American dollar entitled, “Why Asian American spending power catches advertisers,” where it says Asian Americans “are more educated and wealthy than any other racial group in the US” and “are the fastest-growing minority group…and brands have found a new interest in this valuable consumer group.” Cities, such as Pasadena, are beginning to take notice by customizing community events to cultural experiences, such as the recently inaugurated street market, “626 Asian Night Market.” Street markets are popular in Asian countries, operate at night, and are generally, dedicated to leisurely strolling, shopping, and eating.

Currently, San Gabriel – with its restaurants and supermarkets – has become a hot spot for food lovers. One woman interviewed regularly drives from West Hollywood to San Gabriel to eat and shop due to the prices and freshness of its specialty restaurants and markets. To her, there are great differences between each Asian supermarket. When asked if she will shop at the new 168 Market, her response was that it depends on the prices.

Some wonder why the free market can’t decide what gets stocked on the shelves of the new 168 Market. According to Jennifer Davis, Community Development Director, the 25% minimum was mutually agreed upon. “The Economic Development staff, the shopping center’s owner and real estate broker and the city attorney were parties to the discussions.  The decisions were based on years of professional experience in legal contracts, economic development, and shopping center ownership. Altogether probably well over 100 years of experience.”

Other community developers I have spoken to have echoed similar ideas about creating spaces that then give life to other stores and economic growth through diversity. However, the rapidly changing demographics in the San Gabriel Valley might be an arena where the old rules don’t apply. Time will tell if Applebee’s in Temple City will remain open long enough to repay its loan to the city. Medium Rare Steakhouse in Alhambra recently closed even with the help of $100,000 in development money, and Tony Roma’s Ribs is no more. Then again, Starbucks is popular as ever.

In the 1990s, a similar convergence of cultures centered on a shopping center in Monterey Park called The Atlantic Square. USC professor Leland Saito describes these happenings in his book, “Race and Politics: Asians, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb.” In a city that was experiencing a boom in Asian population combined with a decreasing Latino and Anglo population, Saito states “White and Latino residents expressed concern” over what he sees as “the material and symbolic control of public spaces,” and the feeling of becoming “economically marginalized” by stores uninterested in accommodating to meet their needs.  According to Saito, Anglo and Latino residents had concerns that the “small-town feeling of the area were disappearing as the city experienced rapid development fuelled by Chinese immigrant capital” and that “Chinese immigrants display little interest in their [established residents’] history and concerns.” A community group formed, led mostly by long-term residents, pushed for the shopping center to be designed in a Mediterranean style – based on Spanish and Mexican branches. Ultimately, the structure was built in a generic stucco and tile fashion, lacking local history or culture, but pleasing commercial restaurants such as I-Hop.

Saito believes that San Gabriel’s shopping center marks a change in development, perhaps allowing Asian and Asian Americans an equal chance at government funded development. However, 168 Market was not the Redevelopment Agency’s first choice.  According to the March 8 staff report, Fifty-five markets were analyzed by Epsteen & Associates, including major chains such as Vons and Ralphs and specialty markets such as Trader Joes and Sprouts.  None of the “mainstream” markets expressed interest in the location. The redevelopment agency then requested that Lucky Center contact 99 Cent Stores to request a proposal for a “higher quality store concept” with a “farmers market feel”  but 99 Cents Only only wanted to rent half the space.

Beyond ethnicity, San Gabriel faces an additional challenge in that there is a wide gap between those current residents who are raised in San Gabriel – of all ethnicities – and those who are new to it.  With cultural and language barriers and with very few city sponsored community events – such as concerts in the park – new residents often have more in common with each other and have created their own newcomers’ community. Thus, divisions in San Gabriel have arisen that are based both in ethnicity and/or in immigration.  But a “crossover” market as the solution is yet to be seen.

Beyond serving an increasing population and economic opportunities, socially, some fear these supermarket rules are perpetuating a stereotype that Asian means outside the American mainstream. History paints a different picture. In an 1887 Los Angeles Times article mentions a San Gabriel Chinatown as well as inadvertently showing the historic diversity in San Gabriel by mentioning a Chinese washhouse adjacent to the house of Mrs. Valenzuela and close to home of William Sutton.  A 1902 Los Angeles Times article mentions a long-term foreman, Lum Yek, at the San Gabriel Fay Fruit Company in San Gabriel.

Perhaps the often forgotten Asian American history can be attributed to the marginalization of Chinatowns to urban centers that can be “left behind” and “confined.” Saito suggests once Asian culture began to “penetrate the suburbs and become part of everyday life,” they were no longer accepted. However, in a city like San Gabriel where the Fire Department has a regular order at Luscious Dumplings, terms like “mainstream” and “everyday life” are wonderfully different than most other cities.

One can only hope that the city government and community can find a way to face the economic and social challenges and opportunities happening in San Gabriel – a city that is loved by its residents – and that the narrative of San Gabriel continues to be honest about its history and present day needs. Most importantly, children growing up in San Gabriel should feel part of the mainstream, no matter what their mother packs in their lunch. In the meantime, the new, beautiful shopping center will open soon, thanks to the hard work of many people; this last project of the now dissolved redevelopment agency.

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