Food has always been one of the firmest definers of place. Cheese-steak sandwiches, pit beef, and deep-dish pizza are edible shorthand for Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago. Iowa is about corn and Maine is about lobster. But food has subtler and more complex connections to place. It can be a part of rituals that hallow a location. It evokes memories that are closely tied to where it was consumed. Its presence in the urban environment, in a restaurant, food truck, or street fair, or growing in an urban garden, comforts and energizes.

Public artists are exploring and using these kinds of connections in their efforts to help revitalize neighborhoods and celebrate communities.

In the three stories that follow, food is a major ingredient in artist-led or artist-aided projects that have helped specific urban places become more vital. It’s acted as enticement, icon, and talking point. It’s helped bridge the familiar artist–public divide, since just about everybody needs and likes to eat, whether they dress in black or not. And it has helped the projects make their communities more conscious of themselves and the world around them.

Pittsburgh: The Waffle Shop and Conflict Kitchen

Many a hungry Pittsburgher has entered The Waffle Shop, in the East Liberty neighborhood, expecting to simply sit down, order waffles, and eat them—end of story. But once you’re inside, cognitive dissonance sets in. You order your food, it arrives, you dig in. But you notice that there’s a stage toward the back upon which a ragtag live talk show is going on and being videoed.