Frequently on my morning walk to work I pass the imposing figure of Jimmy Nigretti as he leans low and long into his laden pushcart to plod along the one-mile journey to his claimed spot in front of the New Haven City Hall. Like predators on the Serengeti Jimmy’s is one of many food carts that stake out territory with unwritten but clearly perceived boundaries diffusely throughout downtown. With no rent, cardboard signage to “Pimp Your Dog,” thumping boom box, and colorful personality, Jimmy is a happy entrepreneur whose only boss is the weather, which he watches like a hawk.
Jimmy and his cart are what most of us conjure up when we think of urban food carts. They add bits of character here and there, a narrow range of inexpensive hunger cure, and sometimes the ire of adjacent restaurateurs whose financial and regulatory obligations put them at unfair disadvantage in attracting customers. To some, food carts are just one shade above panhandling, offering a sniff of respectability and something in return for your spare change.
But throw away those conjurings when you venture to Portland, Oregon. Food carts in Portland are a whole different ball game. To begin, they’re not carts at all. Rather, they’re large trailers or customized RVs requiring motorized transport to move around. Second, they don’t move around. They stay in one place, most often on an off-street parking spot. Third, they pay rent, offer some of the most varied, best-rated, and healthiest “slow food” in the country, and under the same regulations and semi-annual surprise inspections as their “brick and mortar” counterparts. And finally, they’re not spaced diffusely by Serengeti-style boundaries. They clump together in “pods” so tightly packed you can’t tell where one food cart ends and another begins. The pods act like walled Petri dishes where thick layers of rich organic life spill out into the streets.
To be sure, less than a decade ago Portland food carts were no different from the semi-sanitary pushcart variations you’d find anywhere. But something powerful, and oddly unplanned for a city that prides itself on micromanaging every square inch of its forward progress, launched a flagrantly free form of capitalism the last few years. A wholly new and bold form of food carts blossomed, financed with micro-loans from sources like Mercy Corps, even as they came under the regulatory thumb of Multnomah County that licenses all Portland eateries. So fast was this transitioning phenomenon (there are now hundreds of carts throughout the city, and burgeoning every week) that Portland Monthly contributor Zach Dundas labels it, “kudzu capitalism.”
Typically the increased size of Portland food carts forced them to abandon sidewalks where pushcarts dwell and to take up position a few feet back on surface parking lots, where they rent the perimeter spaces abutting sidewalks and leave interior spaces for cars. With each new cart that nestled in, prosperity increased for all. Word spread and “kudzu capitalism” soon transformed the perimeters of downtown parking lots one after the other into thickly settled epicurean enclaves — the “pod” designation derives from the discontinuous randomness of parking lot locations.
Portland urban planning consultant Kelly Rogers is quoted inPortland Monthly: “The carts are fabulous in how they activate the streets,” she says, “but what’s most interesting is how they’ve signaled a shift to a more micro-scale economy that makes it easier for small entrepreneurs to get a start.” The unintended consequence has been the surprisingly effortless regeneration of healthy urbanization of formerly dysfunctional streets. Whereas years of requiring first-floor retail in mixed-use buildings aspired toward similar results, legendary retail allergies to risk showed prickly resistance to germination. By contrast, food carts enjoy rapid success with relatively low investment, healing the “gapped teeth” of parking lots that hobbled downtowns since 1960s urban renewal. Food carts’ success has been so infectious that they’ve become the favored tool of local planners to pioneer urban repair. In fact, during a sprawl repair public workshop in the Hollywood section of Portland in which I participated as part of the recent Rail~Volution Conference, I noted that whenever the workgroup ran into a snag, a chorus rang out in unison from neighborhood participants: “Food Carts!” Everyone seems to love them.
During this recent trip something else caught my attention about Portland food carts, which I hadn’t noticed during previous visits. Many of the food carts had evolved into more complicated structures than pop-up window retro Airstreams. Though not yet to the extent of their brick and mortar counterparts, beehives of improvements such as added porches, garden seating, bar stool counters, even dining rooms were evident everywhere. In some cases, the original trailer is completely hidden beneath the patron conveniences added on, suggesting brick and mortar might not be far away.
Urban settlement is replete with examples of architectural maturations. In Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, 1850s religious revival camp tent platforms evolved into Carpenter Gothic cottages as returning participants improved their lots, constructing more permanent dwellings. The small footprint and tight proximity of the tent platforms together with the Victorian period in which the transformations occurred made for tiny and charming perpendicular structures that created a strong street edge and bustling communal activity.
With evidence of food cart constructions already ramping up, it made me wonder if the natural maturation of food cart architecture might be toward mixed-use buildings of the brick and mortar type where purveyors live over their shops. Historical evidence would suggest that purveyors then add an apartment above their own to augment income. Such architectural maturation would manifest in the same human-scaled and sustainable 4-5-story building types that so well defined city streets for centuries before the oil era ushered in the urban value killers of sprawl and dehumanizing mega block monstrosities. Should this desirable form of maturation transpire, it might be good to confirm that the underlying regulations allow it, and perhaps even alter regulations, infrastructure and financing models to encourage it. The proven regenerative powers of these small culinary enterprises could become just the grist needed to redefine streets as public domain, promoting discourse and human interaction and rekindling that dusty old project, civilization. Let’s speed it along.
Robert Orr is principal in Robert Orr & Associates LLC, an architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism firm in New Haven, Connecticut.