Somerville, Gentrification, and Chocolate

Union Square, Somerville has experienced growth over the last decade as trendy stores and restaurants have sprung up along its main streets and young professionals have moved into the neighborhood. It sits in that perfect nexus of affordable and cool, offering coffee shops that serve fair trade pour overs and apartments cheap enough that you can fit that pour over into your budget. Union Square’s changing scene has recently caught the notice of the rest of Boston. In 2014, The Boston Globe ran an article titled “Union Square is Hipster Central.”  This article describes the neighborhood using the following phrases: skinny jeans, millennial, fixed-gear bike,”house-made bitters,” artisanal, and “classic ’90s hip hop.” Vocabulary like this can only point to one thing: gentrification.

Somerville has been home to shifting communities for a long time. A Boston.com article from 2014, right in the same time frame there was a flurry of articles and op-eds about how Somerville was changing into a hipster’s paradise, points out that this group is the second to gentrify the area. The article explains that there are waves to gentrification. The hipsters (have to take an aside and say I’m adverse to that word because of it’s overuse and implication of obnoxious pretension and because maybe I feel some self hatred about being a little bit of a hipster myself. But I am going to keep using it in this post because it provides a clear way to talk about a group of people.) So, as I was saying, the hipsters who are moving in now are pushing out the first group that gentrified Unions Square: starving artists and broke graduate students. Before this group moved in Somerville was predominantly home to a large immigrant community. Many of these immigrants came from Brazil to learn English and make money and in the process they ended up making Union Square their home. This community has not been entirely displaced through the generations of gentrification. It lives on actively in certain pockets of the neighborhood. One of these safeholds is Mineirão One Stop Market.

market.jpg
My phone camera is responsible for the fogginess of this picture. If you want to see what Mineirao looks like behind this haze you can venture down to 57 Union Square, Somerville.

Mineirão is a small Brazilian grocery store and cafe. When you walk in the front door, plastered with want ads and concert posters written out in Portuguese, you’ll see in front of you about five rows of groceries: aisles of cans and cookies and dried spices. The very back wall is a small refrigerated and frozen section that stocks Brazilian sodas, ice creams, and fruit. If you turn to your left you’ll see the small cafe area. You can buy cheese-filled pastries like coxinhas and pastels or pile up a place with rice and fried plantains and sit at one of the little round tables that seem to function as hang out spots for the local Brazilian community to sit and gossip.

This small cafe serves Brazilian desserts, including chocolate truffles and cakes, and if you move over to the market side you can find a wide variety of chocolate bars. Aside from Nestle, the brands differed from what you could find at CVS or Stop and Shop. Their labels are in Portuguese and Spanish. They all look unfamiliar to me. You can see that Mineirão is catering to the Brazilian community that has a long history in Union Square. Amidst the new specialty stores that have popped up around it selling trendy donuts and $60 bottle openers, clearly catering to the new hipster crowd, Mineirão serves as a store that still caters to the existent immigrant population.

It’s important that Mineirão fill this niche. With construction underway on the Green Line extension into this area of Somerville, the immigrant community’s concerns about being entirely displaced by new development and a shifting cultural scene are higher than ever. A group of business owners, including representatives of immigrant communities, came together to address the issue of development without displacement. The coalition is called Union United, and they aim to preserve the community that fostered and nurtured Union Square from the beginning so that they can partake in everything the neighborhood has become. Organizations like these are helping to preserve the community that lives on in Union Square.

Now let’s get to the chocolate!

I asked the young girl working the cash register what her favorite chocolate was. She walked me over to the aisle where all the tempting bars were laid out and, to my disappointment, pointed to one white chocolate bar and another that was half milk, half white chocolate. I like dark, rich candy. But I trusted that she knew best so picked up the half and half bar, called Suflair from Nestle, to try later at home.

nestle brazil
The Nestle products.

Some quick research told me that this product is known as an Aero bar in other parts of the world. When I ate it it was sweet and milky and full of porous bubbles that dissolved pleasantly on my tongue. She had led me in the right direction, I liked it! Nestle chocolate is definitely not upscale, and that was reflected in the price. It was $2.99 for the 110g bar.

All of the chocolate bars fit into a similar price range. None of the bars showed the trappings of higher priced chocolates. They were not fair trade or organic, their labels weren’t elegantly designed or made of expensive materials, and there was no mention anyways about these chocolates being artisanal. Chocolate like that is available in the newer stores that have opened in Union Square. And the lack of them in this long-standing market suggests that the Brazilian immigrant community has different priorities, food-wise, than the hipsters of Somerville and Cambridge.

Without assuming that this applies to every person in this community, it seems like a reason for the lack of higher priced chocolate could have to do with greater concern about saving money, about not spending in excess on luxury goods. In a paper on the Brazilian immigrant population in Somerville, researcher Daniel Becker writes:

Fausto da Rocha related the motivation behind his migration experience to that of other immigrants, asserting, “I came, like everyone else, to work. At the beginning, I always thought about going back. After four or five years, I’d save up enough to go back and start up my own business, buy some land, or a store.” (Becker, 41)

In a class lecture we discussed how higher priced chocolates that bear socially conscious labels sometimes benefit the consumer more than they do the producer. And maybe this immigrant community that is getting priced out of their neighborhood, that is concerned with their displacement, is not as pressingly concerned with the satisfaction that comes along with buying a fair trade chocolate bar.

Mineirão offers many Brazilian candies, but I didn’t have the stomach to try them all. I bought a chocolate covered cashew butter truffle called Serenata de Amor by Garoto, and it was nutty, crunchy and sweet. I would recommend it! I’ve included below pictures of all the tasty-looking treats Mineirão sells that I hope to return and buy someday soon.

lactagarotoouro branco

ovomaltinepaodimel

In addition to selling candies and cookies made with the cacao bean, Mineirão sells bags of frozen cacao pulp.

cacao pulp.jpg
frozen cacao fruit

This is indicative of the clientele they cater to. Many North American consumers are unfamiliar with cacao pulp. Until I took this class I had no idea what a cacao pod looked like, and actually had a half-formed idea that chocolate grew in berry clusters. Not to get too tangential about this, but I had a drawing of tropical fruits as my computer background for long time, and it was only midway through a lecture for this class that something clicked and I realized that the drawing included cacao pods, and that I had been staring at this fruit for about a year without having any idea that it was related to chocolate.

The cultural understanding of cacao differs in Brazil. According to the International Cacao Organization, Brazil is both a large producer and consumer of cacao products. Those who live in a country that grows great quantities of cacao are going to be more familiar with the plant. The presence of this cacao pulp in Mineirão’s freezer section substantiates the idea that the market is not here to cater to the hipsters and artists who have newly moved into the neighborhood, but for those who already call it home.

Union Square has long been home to a thriving Brazilian community. It’s in places like Mineirão One Stop Market that, even in the face of gentrification and impending development because of the Green Line Extension, that this community is preserved.

Works Cited

Becker, Daniel Brasil. “The Brazilian Immigrant Experience: A Study on the Evolution of a Brazilian Community in Somerville and the Greater Boston Area.” 2006. Web. 11 May 2016. <https://dca.lib.tufts.edu/features/urban/MS083.005.024.00003.pdf&gt;.

Simon, Clea. “Union Square Is Hipster Central.” BostonGlobe.com. The Boston Globe, 30 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.

“Our Story.” Union United. Web. 12 May 2016.

“The World Cocoa Economy: Past and Present.” International Cocoa Organization. 26 July 2012. Web. 12 May 2016.

Vaccaro, Adam. “Cafe Closes, and It’s Wave 2 of Gentrification in Somerville’s Union Square.” Boston.com. The New York Times, 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 May 2016.

 

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