Welcome To Pittsburgh, Where White People Open “90’s Style Hip-Hop Fried Chicken” Spots In The Gentrified Hood
If this weren’t a real thing that was really actually happening, the concept of a 90’s style hip-hop fried chicken restaurant created by White people in the hood would make for a cute and clever Chappelle or Key & Peele skit.
The owners would be the type of overzealous 90’s hip-hop fans who still rock oversized clocks and Kangols and FUBU and say things like “Studying 120 right now. Call me back at the God hour.” You’d walk in and the entire wait staff would be past-their-prime rappers. Lady of Rage and Bahamadia would be the hostesses, Redman, U-God, and Black Rob the servers, Spliff Star, Grand Puba, and Amil the cooks, and Raekwon the Chef would be the actual head chef. The menu would be filled with nods to that era. Perhaps you might be in the mood for the Ol’ Dirty Rice Bowl. Or maybe the Master Peas and Gravy. If really hungry, you could even get the What’s Roast Beef? with your DMXtra Spicy Wing Dings.
The skit wouldn’t actually air on TV. After filming it, they’d realize its one of those instances where the idea behind the skit is better than the actual skit, and would cut it from the episode. But it would find a life on that season’s DVD box set; included with other bits that didn’t make the cut.
Of course, White people seem intent on proving they’re able to create realities far more absurd and ridiculous than any fiction. Which is why East Liberty — which used to be a Black Pittsburgh cultural nexus but is rapidly morphing into Yinzer Williamsburg — will soon be home to “The Coop,” which promises to be an “urban, street style type of place” serving fast casual fried chicken, according to Adam Kucenic (the owner). It will sit next to Muddy Waters, an oyster bar created by the same owner. And on Muddy Waters’ other side will soon be another Kucenic creation: “The Big Kahuna” — a poke bowl restaurant with a distinctly Hawaiian feel.
That said, this is a free-ish country. (For the time being at least.) And there’s nothing inherently wrong with a White person launching a fried chicken spot in a still mostly Black neighborhood. Plus, fried chicken’s stereotypical connection to Black people has never not been the most peculiar stereotype ever because 1) loving fried chicken isn’t a bad thing and 2) everyone loves fried chicken because 3) fried chicken is fucking awesome. If aliens ever discovered and landed on Earth, I’m one hundred percent certain their first Earth meal would be an extra crispy three piece and a biscuit. And then they’d forget about their whole interplanetary domination and colonization plan and just leave Earth and take all of our chickens with them.
But remember way back when? When you first read the title of this piece, and said “Wait. Um…WTF?” And then read some more just to make sure that the sheer absurdity of the title reflected a thing that was actually happening? Those feelings exist because you’re aware of that historical connection between Black people and fried chicken. And you’re also aware of the salmagundi of racially, culturally, and politically charged feelings that exist whenever Black residents and businesses are displaced or priced out of historically Black neighborhoods. And that context allowed you to immediately instinctively recognize that the concept behind that restaurant in that specific location is a terribly insensitive idea.
“Why” you probably thought to yourself “would anyone think that was cool?”
That thought was likely followed by another thought:
“There was no friend or partner or whatever of the owner who heard about the idea and told him that maybe he should reconsider? That, even if his intentions where good, the optics and the reaction to those optics wouldn’t be worth it? No one???”
Whenever something like this happens, there’s a tendency to dismiss the act as tone deaf. This is perhaps the most optimistic way of assessing these situations, as it implies that the person’s heart was in the right place, but they’re just oblivious to the factors and histories making their decision a gauche one. It’s understandable why that would be the first reaction, as it’s easier to regard people as ignorant and in need of an education instead of intentionally reckless. It just reflects a less dire feeling about humanity.
This concept was addressed on the University of Maryland panel Panama and I were on a couple weeks ago. The infamous #PepsiLivesMatter commercial was brought up. And while the conversation started with us collectively regarding it as tone deaf, someone (I forgot who) asked if this happening was more due to ignorance or arrogance. And the more we talked about it, the more we started leaning arrogance. That the type of people behind Pepsi’s misfire know that what they’re doing is vulturizing the culture, but just don’t give a fuck.
This conversation came to mind yesterday, while reading a Facebook thread discussing this restaurant. In it, in was revealed that the owner’s girlfriend — a woman named Diana Strekalovskaya (who also might have some ownership stake) — reacted to the pushback by telling those upset to “do something good for the community you live in” instead of complaining. She also apparently shared a link to her own Facebook page Monday on the “liberal fantasy of cultural appropriation.” Of course, it can be unwise to attempt to approximate a person’s cultural sensitivities and conscience solely based on two days worth of social media activity. Maybe, between sharing subtly racist statuses, she’s in the lab attempting to cure sickle cell or something. But there’s nothing here to suggest that the owners should be given any benefit of the doubt. Hawking hipster hip-hop fried chicken in the gentrified hood isn’t a clueless misstep but an intentional and shameless cash grab.
Until, of course, they’ve made enough money off of the hood, and decide to go full Miley and bounce. Which is totally, definitely, absolutely going to happen. I just hope they leave the chickens behind.