Tunde Wey
Stacey Irvin

An ambitious public area project in Nashville examines the connection between foodways, urban development, and community health.

Sarah Baird
August 30, 2018

When artist and curator Nicole Caruth visits a new city for the first time, she always makes sure to notice the neighborhood grocery stores—or lack thereof.

“One of the things I’ve learned to do is drive around and look at what grocery stores are where," she says. "If I’m driving down the street and see a Whole Foods, that tells me a lot about the neighborhood and its income bracket; if I don’t see [a grocery store] at all, that tells me something, too. Food reveals all sorts of things about how people live, and I quickly became interested in what food could tell us about gentrification and a changing urban landscape.”

This curiosity lead Caruth to launch , a temporary public art exhibition in Nashville that examined the connection between food issues, gentrification, and community health. Working in tandem with the , Caruth collaborated with nine artists over the course of three months to create a range of works that not only bring attention to the intersection of food insecurity and urban development, but also take tangible steps towards finding ways to repair the fractures of gentrification.

Perhaps the most talked-about project within Build Better Tables was , a dinner series to end gentrification led by chef and cultural critic Tunde Wey. The three-day pop-up restaurant sold one thing—Nigerian-style hot chicken—which was offered in exchange for either cash or property. (Diners could buy tickets redeemable for one piece of chicken at $100, up to a whole bird and sides for a property donation.) All funds raised were put towards purchasing or rehabbing North Nashville spaces in partnership with a non-profit which, in turn, would permanently own the land on which the purchased or donated housing units sit. This makes the structures themselves more affordable for community members and, ultimately, helps to push back against the crush of gentrification.

A well-known agent for facilitating challenging, necessary conversations using food as a vehicle, Wey’s project was nothing short of ambitious—and that’s just the way he likes it.

“Once I started talking to people, I realized the [gentrification] problem here is huge, so it’s even more important to have any sort of gesture be sustainable,” Wey says. “What I’m doing is still a gesture, though, because we’re talking about a projected affordable housing gap of 33,000 rental units that over the next seven years. So, if [H*t Chicken S**t] even helped get 100 properties, that’s not even a fraction the folks who are going to be impacted.”

Build Better Tables event
Stacey Irvin



Even the name and singular dish of the project reflects a culinary touchstone in the Nashville African-American community—hot chicken—which, in recent years, has been rapidly appropriated across the city, region, and country.

“The hot chicken phenomenon is something that has been very controversial here because of the hot chicken’s history and appropriation,” says Metro Art’s Tre Hardin, who helped coordinate BBT. “I remember being in college, and KFC had this hot chicken on the menu for a while. One of my friends mentioned it to me and I was like, ‘Oh no, that’s not really hot chicken.’”

The  installations, which ran the length of the summer, were as diverse as they were impactful. Artists Courtney Adiar Johnson and Tattfoo Tan created kiosks full of free seeds in eight neighborhoods across the city as an “.” Each component of the seed libraries—from planting guides to seed packet design—were crafted in conjunction with and input from the community. During a monthly art crawl, North Nashville local Thaxton Waters’ interactive, mixed-media project, Sitting at the Welcome Table, traced the history of Black culinary traditions and wellness over the past 100-plus years through a combination of paintings, food tastings, and interactive discussions. And at a local public health center, Andrea Chung’s sculpture—a brass mobile shaped like Interstate 40 which dangled with baby items (rattles, bottles) cast in salt, sugar and lard—served as “,” particularly on pregnant women and mothers. (When constructed in 1968, Interstate 40 sliced through the historically African-American neighborhood of North Nashville, not only displacing families and breaking up communities, but also hindering access to grocery stores and fresh foods.)

“When I sat back and looked at all [nine] projects, I realized that while many of them had gentrification as a starting point, so many came back to the history of urban ‘renewal’ and red lining and the legacy of Jim Crow,” Caruth says. “And while the conversations are really about the present, how these projects weave together is also very much rooted in the past.”

Caruth is now working on taking the BBT model to other cities, in hopes of sparking similar kinds of art-meets-food-based action to tackle deeply-rooted economical, social, and racial issues.

“The intersection of art and food has been a constant theme in my work, because food emerged for me as one of the things that’s truly universal: It’s something every human being needs and comes into with daily,” she says. “Sitting in the room with the [Nasvhille] projects, it’s clear that people want to talk about the issues, like gentrification, facing their city. The instillations become platforms for doing so.”

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