Will Cupcakes Save Cleveland/Detroit/Youngstown?

I wrote on Twitter recently that cupcakes are a metaphor for everything that’s happening in modern cities. I was only half serious, but it still sorta worries me.

I have to admit, I love cupcakes. The cake in a cup store in Tremont is like my personal version of the siren singers. Just the same, I can’t help but feel a twinge of middle-class guilt every time I step inside.

Of course, there are many reasons to love cupcakes. They are delicious. They are sold by local small business people in walkable, urban locations. They add vibrancy to once downtrodden neighborhoods. In that sense, these stores have a psychic significance in the community that goes beyond its (no doubt minuscule) economic impact.

A $4 cupcake is a luxury and a small one. People like to treat themselves. And I am no different. It’s not really the expense or the calories that get me.

I think it has a lot to do location of these stores and how they have become inseparable from the issue of class. Recently, an undergraduate at UC Berkeley plotted the location of cupcake stores in San Francisco against the location of gang shootings. Wouldn’t you know it? It was a match.

That’s because cupcake stores were being located in rough “gentrifying” neighborhoods. I want to be very clear that I don’t think gentrification is really a problem in Cleveland or Detroit or Youngstown. The problem in these cities is concentrated poverty and vacancy. And middle-class people and their dollars should be welcomed in these cities unconditionally.

Still, I feel a little guilty. It seems the go-to recipe for neighborhood revitalization in so many of our cities is these types of enterprises: boutiques, food trucks, fancy restaurants. These types of businesses have the effect of making very poor neighborhoods the sites of very conspicuous consumption.

So while I’m having a $15 brunch (which I don’t do very often) in Tremont, I see kids walking by from the neighborhood and I can’t help but wonder if they have enough to eat at all. Meanwhile, everyone inside the restaurant sweats over whether every ingredient is locally grown and organic. Again, I think the business is important. Then again, I have to ask myself, when’s the last time I donated $15 to charity? Or spent my Sunday morning doing something to help people less fortunate than me?

My other concern is that these types of “yuppie-serving” businesses don’t hire people from the neighborhood. And as a result, have a limited impact in ameliorating the neighborhood’s troubles. These neighborhoods need businesses that will hire young, black men, whose unemployment rate is inexcusably high in Cleveland and Detroit and Youngstown. But they almost never do hire black men. You know who does? McDonalds, Rite Aid, Family Dollar. The very businesses that many in the community development world might oppose (not without good reason, of course).

Also, one of the things I sort of like about the Rust Belt is that there is still some authenticity to the cities. Some grit. I don’t really want to live in a city that’s all places you can get a $65 hair cut and mimosas on Sundays. That’s why I don’t live in Williamsburg.

Anyway, the whole cupcake situation, I guess just illustrates how divided our cities remain, even as they get more economically diverse. Sometimes I wish there was the same level of enthusiasm for businesses that would contribute more to economic and social inclusion. For some sad reason, I’m having a hard time even imaging what that business would look like.

-A.S.