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Food Trucks, Flea Markets and Urbanism

There seems to be a whole lot of 'food truck trackers' in DC these days. Personally, I've never eaten at one of these fast-food restaurants-on-wheels, but they seem sufficiently popular among the white-collar professional crowd.

(from Flickr user Mr. T in DC)

When I lived in Dallas, Texas a few years ago, I remember seeing lunch trucks stocking up on daily supplies every morning at the 'Supermercado' across the street from my apartment. For the most part, these trucks filled a specific void in the lunch market - delivering fast, cheap food in mostly ethnic neighborhoods that lacked good neighborhood restaurants.

DC's lunch trucks seem different. They serve a diverse variety of food, from pizza to cupcakes to Vietnamese sandwiches. They park on streets where office workers are concentrated, mostly downtown. They cater to people who don't necessarily lack lunch options.

From an ubranist perspective, these trucks are interesting. I'm sure the cost of obtaining the appropriate permit is probably quite high and requires tons of politicking, but once it's in the possession of a lunch truck, they have the ability to set-up shop on a highly desirable block during peak eating hours, and when the day is over, the can go and park in some cheap parking space on the outskirts of the city.

A similar phenomenon happens every weekend when flea markets pop up all over. These events bring retail to a neighborhood during the time of week when the highest number of people are theoretically out shopping. Given the high retail rents in many parts of DC, these types of businesses probably couldn't survive if they had to operate out of a regular brick-and-mortar store. But given the right circumstances and they can and do exist.

All of this raises the question of whether it's OK for an urban neighborhood to go without a ton of specialty stores and restaurants, so long as the neighborhood retains those merchants in a more modest form?

One complaint about gentrification is that businesses that have been around forever get forced out so that a bunch of 'yuppie' stuff can come in. I'm sympathetic to this concern, but I've also seen neighborhoods so devestated by vacancy that you couldn't pay any business to move in. We live in a reality that will never be perfect, so if there's a way to produce neighborhood vibrancy without destroying historic charm, it seems seriously worth looking into.


John Morris said…
Have you ever read Jane Jacob's Death and Life of Great American cities?

Most of the book is about how and why functional neighborhoods and streets work and how they evolve.

Late in the book she suggests some ideas to fix the damaged divided landscapes that make upthe bulk of most cities now. I think ideas like activating dead spaces with temporary markets, vendors and food trucks was high on the list.

In many ways one is fixing or filling in the peak load issues caused by single use zoning. A huge overload of dead office buildings will have an overflow lunch crowd and zero business the rest of time. At least food trucks can fill that gap untill better balance is restored.

Likewise the same trend is going on at malls, with people trying out business ideas with a stand and expanding to a storefront if things are working. Many businesses are just too seasonal to support a full time space.

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