Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The life and death and rebirth of fried chicken in American cities.
So, white restaurant owners wanted to open a “‘90s-hip-hop-themed fried chicken restaurant” called The Coop in a mostly black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, as reported in the local blog GoodFoodPittsburgh on May 6. What could possibly be wrong with that?
“We want to make a fast, casual, fried chicken spot,” said owner Adam Kucenic in the post. “It will be an urban, street-style type of place.”
It was a loaded statement, to say the least, and one that set off a torrent of objections from a bunch of Pittsburghers. The terms “cultural appropriation” and “gentrification” greeted the fried hip-hop chicken proposal on social media. And yet, those terms don’t quite get to the heart of why this proposal triggered such a gag reflex around the city.
hi Adam, cc: @MUDDYWATERSPGH -- a hip hop themed, "urban" fried chicken spot? thats tone deaf as fuck. its corny. culture vulture 101. stop.— huny. (@huny) May 9, 2017
Kucenic ended up changing his plans after the uproar. He dropped the hip-hop theme—he tells CityLab that that was never the main theme anyway, and he misspoke to the food blogger—and is changing the name to Lil’ Chunky’s Chicken Shack. “The problem was the way we described it, using terms like ‘urban street-style,’ which was offensive for a white man to say,” says Kucenic. “We’re not trying to culturally appropriate anything, and I apologize if we offended anyone.”
As an African-American connoisseur of fried chicken and hip hop, I gotta say— I wasn’t personally offended when I first read about this fast-casual food concept. I did have some slight feels, though, that something might be wrong with this, but I had a hard time coming to terms with what exactly that wrong was.
The inimitable writer Damon Young made a valiant attempt at explaining it over at VSB:
Those feelings exist because you’re aware of that historical connection between Black people and fried chicken. And you’re also aware of the salmagundi of racially, culturally, and politically charged feelings that exist whenever Black residents and businesses are displaced or priced out of historically Black neighborhoods. And that context allowed you to immediately instinctively recognize that the concept behind that restaurant in that specific location is a terribly insensitive idea.
Yes! Right! But—I don’t know.
When I lived in D.C., I rode past a spot (a few spots, actually) called Hip Hop Fish & Chicken, a lot. And I may have even eaten something from there once. Or twice. I have no idea what the race of the owner was, but I can’t promise you that I would not have stopped there if I knew the owner was white. I also recently ate at a fried chicken spot in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg called Sweet Chick that, if I recall correctly, played mostly, if not all, hip-hop music. Sweet Chick is run by mostly white people and has more than its fair share of white patrons, but it also seems popular with black people I know across Brooklyn.
So why did I feel so conflicted about a similar Pittsburgh venture?
But then I remembered that one time in D.C. when a restaurant called Graffiato attempted a “Biggie & Tupac Tribute Dinner” complete with “Thug Rice” and salads with “Wu-Tangy Dressing,” causing people to go apoplectic, myself included. Graffiato took the menu down and never dared such a thing again. I also realize that while Sweet Chick is ostensibly run by white folks, it is also partially owned by rapper Nas, which literally makes it the most illmatic restaurant in the world. Apparently, authenticity counts when it comes to fried chicken.
And so does history, as Young pointed out. To understand why hip-hop fried chicken seems like such a bad idea, one must understand the history of fried chicken. (For a legit history of fried-chicken-shaming, read Gene Demby’s excellent chronicling in CodeSwitch.) We don’t really have the space for that, so I’ll provide my own abbreviated people’s history of fried chicken here:
Black Pittsburghers are acutely aware of this crisis, especially in the neighborhood of East Liberty, where Kucenic elected to locate his fried chicken business. The history of East Liberty, like that of fried chicken, seesaws back and forth between race, shame, and pride.
At one point in the early 20th century, East Liberty was one of the largest commercial corridors in the Allegheny Valley region—a third downtown for Pittsburgh. Then urban planners got all bright-eyed and decided to experiment with the street layout and ended up choking East Liberty off from the rest of the city, killing most of its commercial enterprises off in the process.
At the 21st century’s turn, a pioneering young entrepreneur named Justin Strong—who knew Millennials before Millennials knew they were Millennials—came along in 2000 and converted one of those hollowed out buildings into The Shadow Lounge, a popular coffee-lounge-slash-Studio 54 that pumped energy back into the neighborhood and ultimately became the Gemeinschaft of Pittsburgh. At least until it closed in 2013, for a number of reasons, not least of which were noise complaints from new neighbors who had moved to East Liberty to capitalize off of all the razzle-dazzle that Strong’s Shadow Lounge had attracted.
Kucenic’s fried chicken restaurant will be located on the same block that Shadow Lounge once occupied—actually by the former Ava, a nightclub extension Strong helped create with local artist Tim Guthrie* when the Shadow Lounge started getting stretched beyond legal capacity. Kucenic already owns a Southern-themed oyster bar called Muddy Waters on the same block. When I called up Strong and asked him about this, he expressed no bitterness or animosity about the fried chicken caper.
“I don’t like to segregate opportunity in any kind of way,” says Strong. “If I want to open an Irish pub in Homewood [a black community in Pittsburgh], I don’t want people to say I can’t do it. If you don’t like it, just don’t spend your money there.”
But he’s gotta feel some kind of way about white people cashing in on an area he made go pop, right?
“At the end of day, yes, it’s unfair,” he says. “But after slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, crack, the CIA, the war on drugs—I think something like this is very low on the totem pole.”
In other words, African Americans’ reparations won’t be paid in fried chicken. We have bigger fish to fry.
Strong said he may even be helping Kucenic out with his new venture. Strong is a founder of The Good Peoples Group, a company in Pittsburgh that “specializes in self-realization and accountability through a deep identity navigation process and cultural understanding,” as co-founder Liana Maneese explains it to me. Essentially, it helps white people check themselves, especially when opening up businesses or starting projects in spaces claimed by people of color. When shit got thick with the original hip-hop chicken joint announcement, Kucenic reached out to Good Peoples for a meeting.
“We get many calls when situations like this happen,” says Maneese. “However, when faced with choosing to be responsible personally and professionally, white folks fall off. Like many of us, we fail to take full responsibility for our actions because that means change, and change scares people. But it’s what we need to change the world. Ideally the people who reach out to us should be in PR and marketing. Things like this should never get this far. Nothing is forgotten and everything comes full circle, especially with gentrification and the mass displacement of not just an assumed culture but of a people."
Ah, I left things out. The problems in East Liberty extend far beyond this one restaurant, or what happened to the Shadow Lounge. East Liberty has become a massive campus for what many people call gentrification—it's flooded with swanky restaurants and upscale condo developments where studios can run for close to $2,000 in a neighborhood that still has large pockets of low-income households. The real-estate market there is catering more to the incoming rocket scientists who work for Uber and Google, while service-industry black workers are getting left in the dust of new construction. A successful resistance movement recently caused the local zoning board to reject a new Whole Foods proposal for East Liberty. For many people there, Kucenic’s fried chicken franchise was just the latest in a long series of insults.
But Kucenic heard these objections; he says this is why he’s changed directions with the business plans. “I’m not here to disagree or argue with it. That’s just the way it is,” says Kucenic. “I thought it would be a place that everyone could enjoy, and would be welcoming and affordable for people in the community. We’re not trying to offend anybody. We just want to sell chicken.”
But the outrage was never really about the chicken.
“Black people don’t own the rights to fried chicken, and they definitely don’t own hip hop either—at least not these days,” says Strong. “That said, from a business perspective, somebody in their inner circle should’ve pulled them to the side and told them to consider the optics of this.”
*CORRECTION: Justin Strong was not the sole owner/founder of Ava nightclub as originally stated in the piece.