Why are rich modern cities so obsessed with street food?

Berlin's Markthalle Neun. Image: Getty.

In London, at some point in the 1840s, an oyster seller who had “seen better days” described her trade to journalist Henry Mayhew. Hawking from a basket on a busy street, she took home just a shilling a night (£2-3 today). Her regulars were sheepish gentlemen, prostitutes, and workers hunting a Saturday supper. In nineteenth-century London, oysters were hardly a luxury. Mayhew estimated 124m were sold every year, at four a penny.

In the same city, in mid-2016, I picked up dinner in a half-abandoned warehouse. For a few pounds entry, plus a fiver or so a dish, I wolfed down Hawaiian sushi, a Jerk-seasoned corn cob, and chewy, bright-green meringues. The vendors and bar staff were even hipper than the hip, millennial crowd, which was padded out by families and tourists.

Street food has always been an urban phenomenon. A set of historical essays, published this summer, has chapters on ancient Rome, Naples in the 1700s, and modern-day Bangkok. Until recently, rich and poor cityfolk bought most of their food, raw and cooked, from stalls or wanderers on the streets.

It’s hardly news this traditional chow has gone gourmet. Open-air markets, like Smorgasburg in Brooklyn or Kerb across London, jostle with restaurants to offer the most exciting and innovative urban grub.

But another trend could change the phenomenon, and the city space, more drastically: the fixed-site, often indoors, always open market. Street food is coming off the streets.

This autumn, Time Out unveiled plans to open a market in London during the second half of 2017. The Shoreditch site will host 17 food outlets, a cooking academy, several bars, a shop and a gallery.

“We want to offer local restaurateurs, mixologists [that is, cocktail-makers], artists the opportunity to showcase their talent in a different part of town and in a great location that reflects our brand character,” Time Out CEO Julio Bruno told me by email.

London is not the only target. In 2014, the media group opened its first market in Lisbon, taking over a 75,000 sq ft, nineteenth-century hall on the waterfront. A second Iberian market, in Porto, will start trading next year. Similar schemes in Miami and New York are “progressing well”, the company says, but have no launch dates attached.


Time Out stresses these markets are not just about street food; journalists say otherwise, drawing them into round-ups of on-the-hoof eating. I visited the Lisbon market in September and saw a dual identity. There was street-style informality: on that Saturday night, the masses fought for free chairs, drunk beer from plastic glasses, and chomped overflowing burgers and bold-flavoured ice cream from semi-permanent stalls. But there were luxury flashes: the hall was decked with polished wood and steel, and the vendors included some of the city’s best-known chefs, who crafted elegant small plates. As we walked in, passing a glass tank, we were watched by a pair of lobsters.

The market does not mirror the serendipity of street life. Time Out’s writers curate everything, with each vendor brandishing a four- or five-star review. “The best fine-dining, the best fast-casual – [the journalists] handpick all of that, whether it’s already loved by locals or up and coming,” Bruno says.

These markets are a new way to use old spaces. Markets themselves aren’t novel – they were one reason cities first sprung up, and now famous hubs like Barcelona’s La Boqueria, Berlin’s Markthalle Neun and LA’s Grand Central Market have substantial street food components – but this trend is different. These are fresh developments pulling plugged-in food lovers to quieter parts of the metropolis.

Time Out’s Lisbon market played a role in its area’s revival. The Cais do Sodré area, long distinguished by drunk sailors, brothels and sweaty clubs, has become a fashionable nightlife spot over the last decade. Having an attraction feeding 1.3m people a year in your locale can’t hurt. Unsurprisingly, it’s something Bruno is proud of. “The market played a decisive role in bringing employment and attracting visitors to this once slightly neglected part of town,” he adds.

One of Time Out’s competitors has community values up front. London Union’s internal mission statement is, “Transforming lives and communities with the awesome power of street food”. Last year, the company bought Street Feast, which runs markets in underused buildings and spaces in Canada Water, Lewisham and Shoreditch. The one I visited this summer, in Dalston Yard, has recently closed.

Its founders, backed by food world glitterati from Jamie Oliver to Yottam Ottolenghi, want to open to 20 local markets by 2020, including a vast street food mecca in the heart of the city. Their dream spot is the derelict Smithfield General Market.

Smithfield General Market. Image: JamesK1987/Wikimedia Commons.

On the phone, Jonathan Downey, one of the founders, rejects the accusation the smart and fashionable just come to make fun in poorer parts of town. As those areas become cooler, they also become more expensive, rents rise and locals might suffer.

“I am not a gentrifier; I am a hyper-local,” says Downey. He describes the varied parts of London in which he’s lived or opened bars and restaurants. “I’m not a landlord. They may then follow and reference what I’ve done, but I have actually done something that is reasonable and good value. We are about community and amenity.”

Who are these markets for? London Union says 70% per cent of its 1m annual customers are under 35; but the story of invading hipsters is not entirely fair. In Lewisham and Dalston, where 40 per cent of visitors lived within a mile, the markets became part of the neighbourhood, while in Shoreditch the crowd has more suits from the nearby City.

Street Feast’s traders, who pay a percentage of their takings as a pitch fee, hardly resemble the down-and-out hawkers of history. Downey calls most of them “passionate, second- or third-career people”. “They want to do something that they love and share it,” he says.

These warm, structured, permanent markets are a platform for young businesses. Their impact on an area probably needs careful watching, as it will vary from place to place. Rich cities with few vendors may have to worry less, though others, like New York with its several thousand legal and illegal traders, may see a threat.

But what of those defining labels – “food” and “street”? To Downey, street food means specialising in one dish, like chicken wings or tacos. It is anything eaten standing up, but not necessarily outdoors. And it requires a human connection between seller and eater. “It’s a bit like being a band on stage,” he says. “You feel your feedback.”

With the last part at least, Mayhew’s oyster maid would agree.

Charlie Taverner tweets as @charlietaverner.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.