I’d like to welcome Nick Cho and Wrecking Ball Coffee to our notoriously epicurean North Berkeley neighborhood — known as the Gourmet Ghetto. As TV’s Mr. Rogers used to say, “Won’t you be mine?”

I’m sure I speak for everyone in the ghetto when I wish Mr. Cho the best of luck in the old Philz Coffee space on Shattuck Avenue near Cedar Street. As with good food and wine, good coffee and Berkeley are synonymous, and Mr. Cho, I trust, will help keep that connection alive and well.

Mr. Cho should feel right at home in our gastro-linguistically rich ‘hood. But apparently he does not. According to a recent article in Berkeleyside, he intends to bring a “Wrecking Ball” to our “Gourmet Ghetto” moniker. Among other things, he’s uncomfortable with the “racially charged connotation of the word ‘ghetto’,” according to Berkeleyside’s Sarah Han. Cho says he will lobby the city of Berkeley to eliminate it as soon as he “settles in” to the neighborhood. Settles in or takes over?

His mission for Wrecking Ball Coffee is, it appears, a mix of sincere ideological conviction and a somewhat, um, murky marketing strategy (his first “third wave” coffee shop, Murky Coffee, is now closed due to some legal and tax problems). Cho heralds Wrecking Ball’s products and workforce as a fourth-wave coffee realignment stressing gender and racial diversity.

Berkeley is used to — no, celebrates — such grandiosity and welcomes all revolutions, food-focused or otherwise. I remember when I launched “The Garlic Revolution” in Berkeley in the 1970s (The Book of Garlic, 1974), the city went nuts, or should I say “cloves.” But that was “clove in cheek” grandiosity. Cho’s is the serious kind.

Fine, but let’s be clear: Whatever you think of the term Gourmet Ghetto, it’s got a rock-solid provenance and institutional (Berkeley city) approval that will be hard to reverse. But even more than de facto acceptance, the term follows a deep cultural pattern for the naming of many geographical locales and towns (Hell’s Kitchen, New York or Nothing, Arizona, for example) — these terms often begin as slurs or jokes.

Hell’s Kitchen in the Lower West Side of Manhattan has a colorful, perhaps apocryphal provenance: A rookie policemen in the 1880s who thought the crime-ridden neighborhood was (I paraphrase) “hot like hell” was corrected by his superior — “It’s hotter than hell, it’s hell’s kitchen.” Efforts to change the name are ongoing and one proposed alternate is Clinton, after a former governor of New York (not our recent president). Another is North Chelsea (no relation to Chelsea Clinton). Folks with conflicting needs and motives (real estate agents, residents, store owners, business district promoters) make their case and the designations establish themselves organically over time, sometimes concurrently.

It’s curious that Cho’s ire seems directed only at the ghetto side of the Gourmet Ghetto equation. Yes, “ghetto” comes, according to one theory, from the Venetian word getto that references the area of 16th-century Venice associated with the slag bi-products from iron smelting factories. Jews were forced to live in this horrible, polluted area. Cho, in Han’s article, does not mention this original Jewish connection, only the later racially charged use of the term to describe poor Black American neighborhoods.

I would have thought that Cho would also take offense at the word “gourmet,” a stodgy term that has largely been replaced today by “foodie.” Many locals have challenged the association with the old-fashioned gourmet, but they live with it. Most of my culinary cohort, who Cho refers to as “old guard” and “fancy people” prefer gourmet to the nouvelle term foodie and its taint of fetishistic consumerism. I acknowledge now, after years of resistance, that foodie is a sufficiently ironic Anglo companion to, if not a replacement for, the French gourmet that has described food-forward types for centuries. But don’t call me a foodie! Pre-foodie is acceptable.

The popularity of the term Gourmet Ghetto can be attributed to its playful irony and pleasant alliteration — the juxtaposition of the lowly ghetto with the uppity gourmet. I was right there, a clerk behind the counter at the Cheese Board, when the term emerged in the mid-1970s. The real story is not what you read in Wikipedia or even the Cheese Board’s book, Cheese Board: Collective Works. The journalist Alice Kahn, now retired, has frequently  received credit for coining the term, but at a recent dinner party with mutual friends she graciously denied authorship. (She is understandably proud of the term “yuppie” which she did in fact coin in one of her articles in the 1980s, but seemed surprised to learn from me that she had been endorsed by the Cheese Board and Wikipedia as the creator of Gourmet Ghetto.)

In fact, my fellow Cheese Board clerk, the comedian Darryl Henriques, launched the moniker as part of his almost daily shtick about the downward spiral of the neighborhood after Victoria Wise added her Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie to the area’s Holy Trinity in 1973: Peet’s, Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board. I’m guessing that Kahn, a veteran Cheese Board customer, heard it from Henriques.

If two’s company and three’s a crowd, surely four’s a ghetto. Henriques had us howling — clerks and customers alike — about the absurd success and growing pretentiousness of our “gourmet ghetto.” The rest is history.

The Berkeley of the ’60s and ’70s identified with European gastronomy because that’s where Western food and wine achieved its elevated status as art. We tasted and wanted that art in our lives and some of us even wanted to make it here at home. James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David and TV’s Galloping Gourmet himself, Graham Kerr — these were some of the celebrated cooks and writers who brought European gourmet consciousness to the U.S. in the post-war ’40s through the ’70s. All the highest profile food pros who have come out of Berkeley and the Bay Area over the last 50 years — Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Narsai David, Marion Cunningham, Ruth Reichl, Michael Wild, Paul Bertolli, Bruce Aidells, Joyce Goldstein, Alice Medrich to name just a few I have known — are the children of those Gourmet Gods of Gourmandise.

Let’s be fair to Nick Cho. There are other monikers that can be considered for the ‘hood, and like the alternative names for Hell’s Kitchen in New York, we can try out the best of them. Karen Adelman, co-owner of Saul’s Delicatessen, certainly would have good reason to resent the word “ghetto” and its historical association with antisemitism. But she tolerates it and takes the long view: “A new name will emerge in its own time.” So far, none have.

Here’s my own shortlist of candidates:

Gourmet Gulch: Been there done that. This term was actually used in the 1990s before Gourmet Ghetto took hold. Problem is it has little charm or edginess despite its mildly alliterative punch.

North Shattuck: Boring! Like efforts to re-name Hell’s Kitchen Midtown West.

Alice Town or Cheese Burg: As graduates of Alice’s kitchen fill up vacancies in the ‘hood (Local Butcher, Fava), one can make this argument. The tapas bar César has Chez provenance, too. Even Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul’s, was a cook at Chez Panisse. Cheese Burg works as the Cheese Board slowly devours the west side of Shattuck between Vine and Cedar.

Gastroville: Ironic and funny and has some California cuisine cred—e.g. Castroville, “The Artichoke Center of the World.”

Borghetto-by-the-Bay: The Italian name for a small borough or hamlet (no connection with ham omelet) is borghetto. It’s also, according to etymologists, a candidate for the origin of our word ghetto.

Garlic Gulch or Garlic Gulag: I would not complain about either of these for obvious reasons. Garlic addiction in the Ghetto must rival Korea’s, the acknowledged world leader in per capita garlic consumption. Would Cho approve? Or Garlic Gulag, an ironic place where stinky old-guard survivors of Berkeley’s Garlic Revolution are forced to live out their days in hermetic isolation. All kidding aside, I’m sticking with Gourmet Ghetto, at least for now.

I’m happy to be part of the debate about our neighborhood’s identity. It’s a healthy one, and a fun one, or at least it should be. As a long-time Gourmet Ghetto resident and husband of a current Cheese Board member put it to me when I described Cho’s mission, “I’d like to hear the arguments on both sides and then I’ll make up my mind.” No worries, as young folks say today. We have time. I would, however, advise Nick Cho, if he’s listening, to be cautious. No matter how sincere and politically correct the vision for his company, the coffee trade and his new neighborhood, if he presents it like, well, a wrecking ball, he may find himself behind the proverbial eight ball.

L. John Harris is a writer and artist living and working in the Gourmet Ghetto. His new book, ‘Café French: A Flâneur’s Guide to the Language, Lore and Food of the Paris Café,’ has just been released. He is working on a history of Berkeley’s food revolution and has established The Gourmet Ghetto Oral History Project.
L. John Harris is a writer and artist living and working in the Gourmet Ghetto. His new book, ‘Café French: A Flâneur’s Guide to the Language, Lore and Food of the Paris Café,’ has just been released. He is working on a history of Berkeley’s food revolution and has established The Gourmet Ghetto Oral History Project.