BY: Victoria Heath
Jeffrey Almonte is only 19 years old, but he’s already amassed fame on YouTube and Facebook. A native of East Harlem, Almonte has posted plenty of viral witty and humorous videos on his social media pages, but it was his most recent video that had magazines clamoring to interview him.
In early June, Almonte posted an epic rant in response to INSIDER Food’s segment titled, “This is New York City’s answer to the Philly Cheesesteak.” In the segment, a young woman named Sarah eagerly travels to Harlem to showcase her newest foodie discovery–the chopped cheese sandwich. After oozing compliments about the sandwich, Sarah then exclaims that it’s a steal at only $4 from a local store called Hajjis, and that most New Yorkers have no idea it even exists.
Via: Screenshot from Insiderfood/Facebook
After finding the video, Almonte posted a response that is a perfect example of local residents’ frustrations with gentrification, and the “Christopher Columbus Syndrome.” Almonte argued that the sandwich has been a staple in the historically lower-income neighborhoods of Harlem, the Bronx, and Queens for years–places that apparently “New Yorkers” don’t inhabit, if Insider Food’s segment is correct. It was the “steal” comment that really enraged Almonte however. In response he argued, “as if this was some treasure chest waiting for upper class folk to come take advantage of and take by the dozen…It’s not $4 because it’s some shopping sale. It’s $4 because that’s our standard of living.”
Via: Screenshot from TheJeffreyAlmonte / Facebook
Mainstreaming the ‘Christopher Columbus Syndrome’ debate.
In order to fully appreciate Almonte’s rant, you need to watch the entire video. However, before you do that, I want to draw your attention to a specific term he references that is in dire need of becoming mainstream knowledge. At one point in his rant, Almonte speaks directly to what he considers the stereotypical, predominantly white, hipster foodie, saying, “Y’all motherfucker have Columbus syndrome and shit, wanna be exploring and discovering shit.”
What he’s referring to is the term Christopher Columbus Syndrome, which was coined by Spike Lee during his own epic rant back in February 2014, at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. While speaking about gentrification in his neighborhood of Fort Greene, Lee stated”
Then comes the motherfucker Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfucker’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud….Nah. You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfucker’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans…You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.
Via: Wikimedia Commons
Following Lee’s rant, several articles were published analyzing the term he coined, and how it fits in with issues such as gentrification and cultural appropriation. One of the best definitions of this term however, comes from Urban Dictionary, which defines it as “a mental defect that makes you think you have discovered a place that already has people living there.” This definition can also be expanded to include not just places, but food, clothing, shops, music, etc. These are all things that are “discovered” by non-locals.
Of course, it’s not necessarily bad when these things are shared among different people and places. For example, I recently wrote a piece about Pakistani music, which I was introduced to through close friends who are from Pakistan. In this instance, they encouraged me to write the article in order to help alter perceptions about their country in Western media by showcasing their country’s musical talent.
Those that criticize the Christopher Columbus Syndrome however, like Almonte and Lee, take issue with the language and actions taken by people who appear to “trumpet” their discoveries without taking into account the people and history from which that discovery emerged. If I would’ve written my piece about Pakistani music as if it was some treasure that I saved from the depths of the unknown with my abilities as a writer (with a Western audience), I’m not so sure my friends would’ve been so keen to help me.
Essentially, that’s what Almonte argues in his video. For him, chopped cheese sandwiches aren’t something to be “discovered by non-locals, like Insider Food, to find a new hot spot to bring in other non-locals. They’re a local favourite because of local circumstances, one of which includes poverty. Hence why they’re $4. That’s never mentioned in Insider Food’s segment, however. Almonte argues that if shows like Insider Food really love to talk about food trends from difference cultures, then “they would get an actual local from the neighborhood they’re in to host the show depending on where they are,” or at least acknowledge the locals who have been eating it for years.
For Almonte, Sarah’s statement that most New Yorkers have no idea the chopped cheese sandwich exists was an ignorant slap in the face to all of the New Yorkers from his neighborhood, many of whom know too well the feeling of being forgotten.