Signs promoting the “Gourmet Ghetto” neighborhood were put up in 2014 as a branding for commerce in the area. Photo: Cirrus Wood

This story was updated on Sept. 27 with a statement from the North Shattuck Association.

After a ruckus erupted recently over the term “Gourmet Ghetto,” a name used to describe a culinary-rich neighborhood in North Berkeley, the local merchants’ association has voted to discontinue using the nickname in its branding. However tensions ran high at a community meeting held Thursday to discuss the issue, making it clear that it may not yet be resolved.

The North Shattuck Association, which represents local businesses, decided to take down banners that promoted the name, and to stop using the designation when its members met last week to discuss the controversy. The convening was prompted by a story on Berkeleyside, in which Nick Cho, co-owner of Wrecking Ball Coffee, newly opened in the North Shattuck neighborhood, said the name should be changed because of the racially charged connotation of the word “ghetto.” Heather Hensley, the association’s executive director, said they would come back to discussing a new name down the road, but for now, the consensus was it needed to go. “In this day and age, it’s seeming a little tone-deaf [to continue to use it],” she said.

“In this day and age, it’s seeming a little tone-deaf.” — Heather Hensley, executive director of North Shattuck Association

On Thursday morning, the association hosted a community feedback meeting to discuss the neighborhood nickname. The meeting was prompted by a request from Cho to open up the issue for wider discussion.

Thursday’s gathering was attended by a small group of area business owners and Berkeley city staff, including Councilwoman Sophie Hahn and a representative from the office of Councilwoman Kate Harrison. Hensley, who led the meeting, explained the discussion originated from a request from Wrecking Ball submitted on Sept. 16, but that it became a “pressure cooker” issue after the media picked up on Cho’s statements about wanting to change the “Gourmet Ghetto” name, as first reported by Berkeleyside on Aug. 22. Hensley said the association began to receive feedback “weighing in from all over” about the name, responses that were evenly split among people who felt the name should change and those who felt it should remain.

Talking about the context for the controversial moniker, Hensley said although the North Shattuck Association, which was founded in 2001, did not coin the Gourmet Ghetto name, it has used it in branding that the organization chose to use for the neighborhood. Starting around 2012, the association made the decision to pursue a rebranding effort about the neighborhood due to the rise of social media. Hensley said association members considered other names, including NoSh (for “North Shattuck”), but that after hearing feedback that the area was already strongly identified with the Gourmet Ghetto name, the board decided to go forward with using it. “We chose to embrace the history of it and use it,” Hensley said. In 2014, the North Shattuck Association put up banners on Shattuck Avenue, between Rose Street and Hearst Avenue, with the name. Its website and social media handles also referenced the nickname.

Massage therapist Jordan Rothstein, whose business is based on Shattuck Avenue, spoke at the meeting in favor of keeping the name. “I like it as it is, frankly. It’s kind of cozy, actually,” he said. “I’m not offended by it. To me, it has a connotation of you’re in something kind of only a small number of people know about. It’s cozy.”

Michelle Caabay-Brokstein, the events and marketing manager at cooking school Kitchen on Fire, said she felt the Gourmet Ghetto brand was not inclusive and wondered if there was any purpose to even have a name for the area. “I say North Berkeley, on a grander scale people don’t know Gourmet Ghetto,” she said.

Others were at the meeting to speak out against how the matter was being handled by the association. Grégoire and Tara Jacquet — co-owners of Grégoire, a takeout French restaurant on Cedar Street — felt like the decision to change the name “happened in the wrong way.” Tara Jacquet felt the organization was basing its decisions solely on what Cho had to say, rather than the community at large. “He made a big fuss,” Jacquet said about Cho, who said she was disappointed that the issue was “bullied through.” Grégoire Jacquet voiced his frustration that the association would be dropping the name without discussion, saying, “We worked really hard to make this neighborhood what it is.”

Councilwoman Hahn suggested that the association consider bringing in an outside branding consultant for the process to “be more intentional” and make sure the organization was not responding in a “reactive way, but a holistic way.” Hensley said she wasn’t sure if they would go that route, as the association does not have the funds to pay for a branding campaign.

“We worked really hard to make this neighborhood what it is.” — Grégoire Jacquet, owner of Grégoire

Several attendees at the meeting, including Kirk McCarthy, president of the board of directors at ACCI Gallery on Shattuck Avenue and the treasurer of the North Shattuck Association, said they felt Cho was wrong to bring up his issue with the Gourmet Ghetto name by talking to the media first, instead of the association.

Cho defended himself. “This isn’t about me. I hope you understand and believe this is what we brought up reluctantly,” he said. Cho said his staff, which he says is “90% non-white” and an average age of 25, were “beyond unanimous” that the Gourmet Ghetto name was upsetting, confusing and “didn’t make sense.”

He said that although it was a “bullet point” that he brought up with media outlets that interviewed him before Wrecking Ball’s opening, it was only Berkeleyside that decided to highlight this point. Cho said that when he saw Berkeleyside had used his assertion about the Gourmet Ghetto name in its headline, “my heart sank,” calling it a distraction. “This is not what we want to be known for.”

Still, Cho said that he felt compelled to speak up because it was a “moral and ethical issue.”

“The word ‘ghetto’ is one that is a racially charged word for the past many decades that pertains to black and brown people.” Cho said that when he spoke with African American people in the neighborhood and asked them about what they thought of the name “they’d give me a look when I asked about it. There was this feeling of ‘I’m not happy to be the target of that.'”

Gourmet Ghetto is not an official city neighborhood designation, but a nickname that was coined in the 1970s. Although there is some debate about the origins of the phrase, local writer L. John Harris identified Darryl Henriques as its originator. In an op-ed published by Berkeleyside, Harris wrote, “… 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.”

Berkeleyside contacted Henriques, who now lives in Los Angeles, who confirmed that he coined the phrase and used it on stage during his comedy performances. Henriques said at the time he made up the name that it was a “satirical statement,” but that “it wasn’t meant in any kind of derogatory way.”

But what started as a tongue-in-cheek name eventually took hold in the local lexicon and became accepted and used by many, from locals to people outside of Berkeley. The name became shorthand for an area known as a culinary haven for some of Berkeley’s best restaurants and food businesses, but also the birthplace of a progressive food movement that changed how and what people in America eat. Peet’s, which opened in 1966, introduced freshly ground and brewed coffee as an alternative to the canned and freeze-dried coffee that Americans were used to drinking. Chez Panisse launched the concept of California cuisine, by championing sustainable sourcing and cooking with the freshest and best ingredients. And the Cheese Board and Juice Bar collectives were two of the area’s earliest worker-owned businesses. Before even those three businesses opened, the Berkeley Co-op, a cooperative-run grocery store, had opened on Shattuck Avenue — where Safeway Community Markets now stands — in the early 1960s.

The name really took root, though, when realtors, media outlets and some residents in the area started to use it to market the area. In her 1983 essay “Berkeley Explained,” humorist writer Alice Kahn, who lived in the neighborhood for many years, wrote that articles about the area were already published in The New York Times, Newsweek and The Nation.

“I don’t think we said, ‘We’re going to the Gourmet Ghetto.’ We would say ‘I’m going to North Berkeley, the Coop or the Cheese Board.” — Alice Kahn

Earlier this week, Berkeleyside spoke with Kahn on the phone who said that she may have helped popularized the nickname, but she didn’t actually use it herself. “I don’t think we said, ‘We’re going to the Gourmet Ghetto.’ We would say ‘I’m going to North Berkeley, the Coop or the Cheese Board.”

As for Henriques, who said he’s astounded by the response his satirical statement has caused, he has a suggestion should the North Shattuck Association decide to consider new names for the area: “The neighborhood formerly known as the Gourmet Ghetto.”

On Thursday afternoon, North Shattuck Association President Cathy Goldsmith told Berkeleyside that the banners would be coming down soon.

On Friday, the association issued a statement about its decision to drop the name. In the statement, Hensley wrote, “We want all members of the larger community to feel invited and wanted in our neighborhood. In keep with the reflection, and with respect to those who feel a strong connection to the spirit of the ‘gourmet ghetto’ name, we support dropping the moniker from our marketing and district identity banners. We hope this will start an organic evolution to a new nickname, but in the meantime will revert back to on the web, and @noshaberkeley on Instagram and Twitter.”

Whether that means people will stop referring to the area by its former nickname is another question.

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Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...