The celebrity chef trying to fix Los Angeles’ food desert problem

Roy Choi at Aspen Food & Wine Fest 2010. Image: Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr/creative commons.

Wilmington and 103rd Street, Watts: if there were a list of intersections in Los Angeles where you’re least likely to spot a celebrity, this would definitely make the top ten. Residents here don’t have to worry about being swamped by celebrity tour buses or rabid TMZ reporters, as do their counterparts in the Hollywood Hills. They have other issues to worry about – like the dire lack of healthy food options in the neighbourhood.

But this year, the once god-forsaken patch of Los Angeles has unexpectedly found itself in the spotlight, thanks to the efforts of a native son: Roy Choi. Choi is one of those rare Angelenos who, after making a name for himself, instead of making a break for the richer parts of town, decided to tackle a pressing issue facing one of the less celebrity-friendly parts of town.

Choi is a different breed of LA celeb. You’re not likely to see him in the acting credits of a major motion picture any time soon (though he has racked up a few noteworthy credits behind the camera, including a co-producer credit on the Jon Favreau film Chef).

But, if you live in LA, you’ve probably seen his ubiquitous Kogi food truck rumbling around the city’s streets, popping up at important events around town. Choi cemented his celebrity status with his very west coast signature dish: the Korean taco.

And though he may not have the ubiquity of George Clooney, his respect locally has helped him build up a cult following. And in January of this year, he channelled that following into his latest pursuit: Locol, a new restaurant, located at this very troubled corner of Watts. On its opening day, the restaurant succeeded in putting an end to the area’s celebrity drought, pulling in such big names as Choi’s collaborator Favreau, Lena Dunham, and LA’s mayor Eric Garcetti.

But while Choi does not shy away from the celebrity set, his goal with Locol is to make sure its reach extends beyond the red carpet and into the rest of the neighbourhood, in the hope of helping bring an end to its status as a “food desert”.

Watts going on

Watts wasn’t always a food desert. Located eight miles south of Downtown Los Angeles, the area initially developed as a centre for manufacturing, capitalising on the multiple railroads that passed through the area. The area became a favourite destination for African Americans moving to Los Angeles, many escaping the segregated south, and drawn to plentiful employment with the railroads and local industries. The neighbourhood was never glamorous; but residents could at least count on local food suppliers to be able to provide them with a decent meal.

But this would change. By the early 1960s, railroad companies were beginning to downsize their operations in Watts. Other industries soon followed suit, and economic opportunities dried up. The area was the site of a devastating riot in 1965, and in the decades that followed, the notorious Bloods and Cripps street gangs formed to meet skyrocketing demand for illegal drugs nearby.

Watts as mapped by the Los Angeles Times. The X, added by CityMetric, is the corner where Locol is located. Image: Los Angeles Times/Wikimedia Commons.

The area quickly gained a reputation as a no go area. Aspiring drug dealers engaged in seemingly endless turf wars, and police seemed more concerned with dispensing needless violence than effectively maintaining order and strengthening the community. This led to an environment where running a small business, to provide food or other necessary services to the community, became both unprofitable and unsafe.

Thus, Watts found itself in a situation faced by many underprivileged communities across the US: it had become a food desert.

The concept of the food desert originated in England in the 1990s: in many areas, the exodus to the suburbs had made retaining local markets economically unfeasible. This factor was at play in the US as well, but it was compounded by racial segregation and the more car-centric layout of America’s cities.

In food deserts, residents either have no easy access to food at all, or can only easily and affordably access food that is considered to be unhealthy. On many of the street corners in Watts, for instance, the only places to get a bite to eat are either fast food restaurants or liquor stores where cashiers sit behind thick panes of bullet proof glass.

Thinking Locol

And it was exactly this food desert status in Watts that Choi took aim at with his new outfit, Locol. “What we decided was to go right next to McDonald’s, go right next to Burger King, right next to Taco Bell,” he said at the restaurant’s opening. “Let’s feed the neighborhood, let’s do what we possibly can as chefs,” he said, drawing cheers from the enthusiastic crowd.

Choi’s goal is to tackle two different problems in Watts: the lack of healthy food, and the lack of food that is affordable. The items on sale are all under $6, with most under $4.

Locol is not alone. New outlets in Watts are seeking to address the area’s chronic lack of healthy food options, led not by celebrity chefs but local residents. Since 2007, the Watts heathy Farmers Market, an event held every week run by the group SEE-LA, has brought fresh produce to the area while offering residents the option to pay for produce via EBT. Another project, Mudtown Farms, seeks to provide another source of fresh produce for Watts residents via a new urban farm.

Not all the efforts to cure Watts’s nutritional troubles have been successful. At about the same time Choi’s Locol opened, an effort to build a sustainable grocery store at 95th Street and Broadway, only a couple miles from Locol, was officially abandoned. In that case, city officials had gone to great lengths to secure construction of a new market on an abandoned lot, providing tax incentives and leveraging federal funds. Nevertheless, the market’s owner balked at community input and pulled out of the deal.

And there’s some chance Locol may one day fall victim to its own success. Though Watts is still far from being gentrified, it’s not impossible to imagine that over the coming decades, if efforts to combat Watts’s chronic lack of food prove successful, that current residents may eventually find themselves priced out of the area. Currently gentrifying areas such as Echo Park and Highland Park seemed a far cry from gentrification material only a few decades ago.

Time will tell if efforts by Choi and others to end the food deserts in Watts cam make a difference – but for now, locals seem receptive. Their neighborhood may still be a world away from the celebrity-saturated Westside, but at least there’s something good to eat.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.