For dinner this evening, I ate two burritos in what used to be an abandoned parking lot and commercial space six months ago. What used to be an eyesore has been converted into a place to walk, talk, eat, and spend.
The way in which it has been converted is idiosyncratically Portland. The parking lot is now a collection of eight or so food carts, and the commercial space inside houses a bar, several micro-restaurants, two micro-stores, and a coffee corner. If you’ve never seen one of these spaces, imagine a mall food court in the size of what would normally be one restaurant or garage. To top it off, it’s a Latin-themed commercial center, so every one of the units features a different kind of food or taste from Central and South America.
Yes, you read “food carts” correctly. Food carts are quite popular and common in Portland and some of them produce the best food in Portland. Our food cart pods allow for a wide variety of cuisines at the same time that they give some of the chefs who graduate from our culinary schools a place to perfect their craft. Some of the cart owners decide to stay in carts rather than open restaurants because they want to make and serve great food rather than be restaurateurs, which means that some people go a long way out of their way to go to a particular cart because that chef makes an incomparably delightful item that you just can’t get anywhere else.
But for food carts to work, you need a community that will make conscious choices to buy food from carts rather than stop by a fast food joint or go to a local restaurant. Because Portlandians will do precisely that, there’s an outlet for food carts, and because there are so many wonderful and well-placed food cart pods, Portlandians will frequent them. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Food cart pods turn underused or unproductive spaces into community culinary hubs. They keep money in the community, rather than sending it to multinational corporations, and they increase economic diversity. They’re so much more than a place to walk to for your Sunday evening burrito fix.
While I think food carts present an interesting way to look at community economic development, there are broader lessons about personal development we can learn from them:
- We each have abandoned parking lots of projects, ideas, or false starts that we could reclaim for something productive.
- One really powerful way we can show up for people is to actively support them when they’re setting up their metaphorical food carts.
- We can create a community of friends and supporters who actively encourage — but don’t pressure — people to reclaim their under-used spaces by reminding them that we want and need what they have. #2 above is about individual action, whereas this one is about group support.
We each have a part we can play in the co-creation of vibrant, diverse, and beautiful people and communities. Every old abandoned parking lot has the seeds to be something we want to love and claim as part of our neighborhood.
What are you going to reclaim or support today?