Gourmet Ghetto business owner requests name change for historic area

Ruby Sapia/Staff

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Nicholas Cho, owner of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, which recently opened its doors in North Berkeley’s historic Gourmet Ghetto district, made an official request Sept. 12 to the North Shattuck Association to rename the business district.

While Cho said he recognizes the significance of the area and the businesses it houses, he believes the term “ghetto” does not serve the Berkeley community and instead “pokes fun” at the history of the word. Heather Hensley, executive director of the North Shattuck Association, said the association will host a meeting Thursday to present community feedback and create a space for business owners to voice their thoughts.

“For the name ‘Gourmet Ghetto’ to have the word ‘ghetto,’ which has been used as a slang term to refer to places where Black and Brown people live — to use it as a jokey and kind of ironic name is problematic,” Cho said. “I think there’s a fear that a lot of people have that by changing (the name), it’s like admitting that it is a problem and anyone who liked the name is a racist.”

As a Korean American immigrant and restaurant owner, Cho said he values diversity and inclusion. Cho added that 90 percent of Wrecking Ball’s employees are non-white and that the name Gourmet Ghetto became an issue that “stared at them in the face” as they looked up at banners near the business.

According to Isaac Bleaman, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, the term “ghetto” is associated with densely populated neighborhoods that primarily house low-income ethnic minority groups — especially those of Black people — as a result of housing segregation and discrimination. Bleaman added that the etymology of the word is also associated with segregated Jewish neighborhoods, most infamously prevalent during the Holocaust.

“Whether the term ‘Gourmet Ghetto’ is offensive is only indirectly related to the origins of the two words and the way that they are juxtaposed,” Bleaman said in an email. “Ultimately it is people who are the arbiters of offensiveness.”

Lisa Tana, owner of A Priori in the Gourmet Ghetto, has always seen the name in a “humorous” and “ironic” way. According to Tana, while the name is “potentially offensive,” she had never seen anyone interpreting it that way before Wrecking Ball opened in Berkeley.

Tana added that businesses would not benefit from a possible name change since the name is well known throughout the Bay Area. According to Tana, she believes the discussion over the name does not benefit the issue of diversity and inclusion for Berkeley business owners because there are “better ways” to address these concerns.

“Although I don’t love the name Gourmet Ghetto, I wish Berkeley would focus less on words and more on actions,” Tana said in an email. “I think we have become a joke to other communities because we are so concerned with political correctness that we often create issues where none really exist.”

Clara Rodas is the lead race and diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ClaraRodas10.