EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an adapted excerpt from chapter 10 of A Recipe for Gentrification, published by NYU Press in July 2020.
On Tuesday afternoons, North Oakland’s Driver’s Plaza is a lively place. Neighbors gather to listen to music, play chess, hang out, and share a meal. The chef is “Aunti” Frances Moore, a former Black Panther and founder of the Love Mission Self-Help Hunger Program, which has been serving a weekly meal for much of the past decade. Those gathering at Driver’s are typical of “the old Oakland,” largely but not exclusively African American, and struggling to get by in this rapidly gentrifying city. Many are visibly disabled. Most are elders, though there are also younger adults and children ranging from elementary to high school age. Some rent rooms nearby while others are homeless, crashing with friends or living in vehicles.
While many food justice activists are more privileged, formally educated, and/or white, and have to work to connect to the experiences of those dealing with food insecurity, Aunti Frances shares their traumas. “I have slept on that sidewalk. I’ve slept on the rooftops. I’ve slept in the campgrounds and the shelters,” she says, “Therefore, I know how to give. I know what you need.” What is needed, according to Aunti Frances, is a healthy, well-balanced meal and a place to spend time with your neighbors and friends. This builds a sense that “we’re in this together and have to take care of each other.” Aunti Frances pays for much of the food with her Social Security check, though there have also been donations from neighbors and even a small grant.
More recently, through a partnership with Phat Beets Produce, a local food justice organization that seeks to support farmers of color and increase access to fresh food in marginalized communities, she has also been able to incorporate locally grown produce, and volunteers have planted fruit trees and tree collards in the plaza itself.
For the past eight years, Aunti Frances has rented an apartment a few blocks away. But the triplex where it’s located was bought by Natalia Morphy and her parents in 2016, who own several other houses in the city. Oakland’s rent control laws limit how much landlords can raise the rent on existing tenants, and follow the tenants even when the building is sold. Median rents have skyrocketed in this gentrifying city and can only be raised to market rates when tenants move out. So even though Aunti Frances pays her rent on time, her new landlords want her out. Rent control also protects tenants from eviction after a building is sold, but a loophole permits new owners of duplexes and triplexes to remove tenants if they move into one of the units. Natalia claims to have done this, though Aunti Frances has never seen her at the building. If the eviction is successful, it is unlikely that Aunti Frances will be able to find affordable housing nearby, as rents in the historically Black and working-class Oakland flatlands have soared. She’ll either be forced out of the city, or back onto the streets.
Former Black Panther and Oakland resident “Aunti” Frances Moore.
Along with an array of housing rights and anti-racist organizations, Phat Beets has been working to organize an eviction defense campaign. Under the banner “You Can’t Evict Community Power,” the campaign was launched with a rally in Driver’s Plaza that drew more than one hundred supporters, who marched with Aunti Frances to her home to attempt to speak with her new landlord. The campaign’s strategies are wide ranging. One organization is representing Aunti Frances in her eviction proceedings, while others attempt to convince the city council to close loopholes in the city’s rent control ordinance. A community letter signed by more than fifty nonprofit organizations seeks to persuade the Morphys to withdraw the eviction, as a “powerful act in the face of immense gentrification” and an “act of deep compassion.” Phat Beets is supplying food at events and is also working to garner public support.
Phat Beets is in many ways typical of food justice organizations across the country — their work merges support for community-based food systems like urban farms and farmers’ markets with a commitment to racial and economic justice. Their founder, Yahya’s brother Max, like many food justice activists, is college-educated and class privileged, as were most of the organization’s early supporters. Max identifies as mixed race, but passes easily in white-dominated spaces, and most of his early colleagues were also white-identified.
In 2014, the organization became radicalized through an encounter with a local realtor, who included their farmers’ market and community garden in a video designed to entice new residents to their North Oakland neighborhood. Phat Beets responded publicly with a caustic video of their own, calling out the processes of divestment and displacement that have long occurred in their neighborhood. Privately they reflected deeply on their own unwitting role in these processes, as well as the ways they benefit from new neighbors already interested in local and organic food.
These reflections have set off major shifts in the organization. They have moved beyond the creation of alternative food systems to engage in community-building and anti-displacement activism more broadly. Food provisioning has become a lens through which to organize on these issues rather than the ultimate goal. This shift in strategy has resulted in changes in Phat Beets’s racial composition; it is now made up of predominantly people of color. And while they have fewer customers for their CSA, they have strong alliances with community-based organizations like the Self-Help Hunger Program. Indeed, the two groups are in the process of becoming a single nonprofit organization in order to more easily share resources and expertise. But whether this can help to address the displacement of the Self-Help Hunger Program or Aunti Frances herself remains to be seen.
Food Activism and the Question of Gentrification
While it is difficult to define a relatively nascent social movement like food justice — the term has only become widely used since the mid- 2000s—it can be seen as “the struggle against racism, exploitation, and oppression taking place within the food system that addresses inequality’s root causes both within and beyond the food chain.” The movement is rooted in efforts to create more environmentally and socially sustainable alternatives to industrial food systems. These alternatives, as many scholars have argued, are too often available only to affluent whites; they are more economically feasible in upscale neighborhoods, the cost of the produce they feature tends to be high and they often invoke language that, while not explicitly racialized, subtly invokes white histories and narratives. Food justice activists adapt these alternatives to address issues of racial and economic inequality, and to build political power toward food system transformation. In addition to alternative food systems, they cite roots in anti-racist movements, invoking projects such as the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative. However, despite missions to serve low-income communities of color, the degree to which individual organizations are authentically “of ” those communities is often cause for debate and, despite the existence of many well-recognized groups run by people of color, the largest and best-funded organizations are predominantly white-led.
Many food justice projects began in marginalized communities like North Oakland that are now rapidly gentrifying.
Oakland is the fourth most expensive housing market in the country, and the average rent has doubled since 2010. As in many other cities, gentrification in Oakland has built upon segregation and under-development, creating a rent gap that investors can take advantage of through the purchase of depreciated properties. As several excellent histories of the city have described, Oakland’s long-time status as a low-income, predominantly Black area was produced through a series of real estate and development decisions. Recent demographic shifts have been motivated by developers and city officials whose neighborhood-specific plans have attracted the construction of new housing and businesses. Speculation has made the purchase of existing homes or new condominiums by even middle-class residents nearly impossible, and rising rents have accompanied, and often outpaced, rising property values. Developers have lobbied to lower requirements for affordable housing, and many landlords have subverted and broken rent control regulations in pursuit of windfall profits, creating both displacement and homelessness. This process is a racialized one; the city has lost approximately one-fourth of its African American residents, while its white and Latinx populations are growing. It is also an economic one. Oakland’s supergentrification is affecting both low-income and middle-class residents, although the latter, of course, have more recourse and options. A recent study by the nonprofit Policy Link found that the number of Oakland units affordable to both minimum-wage workers and entry-level teachers is the same: zero.
Because alternative food systems are often essential to generating the kind of cityscape that attracts affluent residents and tourists, boosters draw on them to promote gentrification. As we have argued elsewhere, activists create spaces that become a part of the “authentic,” non-mainstream urban landscape that new residents seek out. Food justice organizations welcome new residents’ support for their often struggling farmers’ markets, community’s agriculture programs, and other initiatives, which depend on these more affluent consumers to create economic value for the farmers and entrepreneurs of color that the organizations seek to support. Boosters can then point to these urban farming projects as evidence of the city’s greenness, which can help to attract large-scale development. At the same time, activists like Phat Beets’s organizers are increasingly aware of the process of green gentrification and struggle to maintain their commitment to long-term residents.
Saying No to NOBE
In the spring of 2014, a real estate agent released a video that she hoped would increase interest in what she called NOBE. An acronym for North Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, and encompassing both Aunti Frances’s home and most of Phat Beets’s projects, the neologism echoes other trendy designations like San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) or New York’s DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).
Simultaneously, it allows urban boosters to elide the connotations of crime and blackness often associated with Oakland. In the video, the realtor highlighted attributes like walkability, “affordable homes” (at the time, just under a half million dollars, now much more), “new cool bars” and “great restaurants and cafes”—all evidence of what she called a “revitalization.” A moment later, she added, “We’re super psyched that there’s a community garden across the street. That’s definitely a bonus to this block!” The camera then panned to one of Phat Beets’s gardens, casting it not as a resource for the neighborhood’s many low-income, food-insecure residents, but as a selling point for the growing number of affluent buyers who threaten to displace them. This video was not an anomaly. Urban farms and farmers’ markets are regularly featured on real estate blogs like Movoto and The Matador Network as reasons, in the words of the latter, that “Everyone Cool and Creative Is Moving to Oakland.”