In part thanks to placemaking guru Jesse Baerkahn, a new urban planning phenomenon has surfaced in Boston. In a city of communities, neighborhoods are being defined for the first time not by geographies, institutions, or ethnicities, but by food.
A decade ago, local developers asked Baerkahn and his colleague David Downing to bring a “retail and restaurant vibe” to Kendall Square’s barren and lifeless streets. Today, the neighborhood is the thriving home of local cuisine, French pastry shops, sushi bars, and more. Baerkahn is the founder of the sought-after urban-placemaking firm Graffito SP (Special Projects). The secret to his success? Food.
Baerkahn has toppled conventional retail thinking by building community through taste buds and shared food experiences. “I think that there’s a community within every restaurant, and a community that surrounds each restaurant,” he said during a recent conversation at Fat Baby, South Boston’s newest sushi bar. A passionate advocate for food and community, Baerkahn has an intuitive sense of what makes a place interesting and authentic. He uses food to both celebrate and define neighborhoods.
In an era when restaurants are replacing retail at an almost startling rate, Baerkahn is a resounding proponent for the creation of food communities. According to Baerkahn, the key to picking the right restaurant for a neighborhood—new or old—is finding an entrepreneur or restaurateur who understands and wants to work with the local community. The cuisine and restaurant design, he says, can follow. “I think those restaurants that are doing really well are those that understand their communities.”
Equally, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are looking for landlords who want to be involved in the food communities they are creating. The more revenue a restaurant can make, the more rent they are willing to pay; if landlords and developers believe in building a better neighborhood, Baerkahn says, “they become engaged in [restaurant deals] in a way that’s really meaningful because they’re trying their best to set somebody up for success.”
This in turn sets the neighborhood up for success. Baerkahn says activating a neighborhood means creating a human scale and a walkable, enlivened street edge. “There are few things that do that better than a café or a restaurant.” Restaurants also bring light and life into a neighborhood after dark.
“There’s no doubt the desirability of neighborhoods has to do with their quality and quantity of food and beverage options,” he says.
So what’s next in Boston? Baerkahn cites urban food manufacturing: tap rooms combined with breweries, coffee roasters with cafés, and commissaries with bakeries.
This trend fits well with his observation that the modern diner wants to have a new, exciting food experience every week. He notes, though, that today’s social media madness makes this a hard mark for restaurants to meet: “The challenge is that we’re all seeing something first on social media and forming an impression before we walk in the door... . However, there is real power to being surprised and to experiencing real hospitality without preconceived notions.”
Such hospitality is exactly what Baerkahn and his team are working to inspire by placing small, local food businesses in interesting new homes throughout the city. Boston’s neighborhoods are collectively home to more than 2,900 food establishments today, so he worries this might be too much of a good thing. Still, done right, restaurants create food communities that help complete the placemaking puzzle.