Oakland’s Jack London District: A Food Desert For The Wealthy?

| July 17, 2013 | 4 Comments
  • 4 Comments
Design for upcoming Portside Community Market. Image courtesy of Portside Community Market

Design for upcoming Portside Community Market. Image courtesy of Portside Community Market

The Jack London District might finally get something it’s been lacking since its booming development: a real grocery store.

After decades of growth and restructuring, a number of notable restaurants like Haven, Forge, and smaller artisans like Miette opened their doors on Jack London Square’s waterfront and within the surrounding residential areas. Even so, the district remains a food desert meaning that access to fresh produce is limited. Aside from a farmers’ market, which happens only once a week, the closest grocery store to the Jack London District is in Chinatown.

A startup team decided that it was time to shake things up. Tommaso Boggia and La Wanda Knox are co-founders of Portside Community Market, a soon-to-be cooperative whose mission will be to provide residents in the Jack London District with fresh, local and organic produce. The team plans to build a 5000-square-foot community market.

The hip neighborhood has attracted investors, restaurants and festivals but Boggia says this type of business development doesn’t necessarily reflect the residents’ wishes.

“I have been working with a neighborhood association for over a year, researching how Jack London residents, visitors, employees and business owners would like to see the neighborhood improve,” Boggia explains. “Over and over again, the number one concern is having more residential amenities and more specifically, a grocery store.”

Boggia is from Italy. He moved to the U.S. nine years ago and was shocked by the lack of access to fresh food.

“I was not able to walk to a place to get fresh and healthy food,” he says. “And I lived in Santa Cruz!”

For over year, Tommaso Boggia conducted research asking residents how they would like to see Jack London Square improve. Photo: Lauren Benichou

For over year, Tommaso Boggia conducted research asking residents how they would like to see Jack London Square improve. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind Portside Community Market’s business strategy.

“I come from Bayview in San Francisco,” she says. “It’s what you would call another food desert.”

Knox believes the market is an opportunity to build wealth and support the local economy. It is also an opportunity for her to grow professionally. Her stint as a corporate consultant left her feeling frustrated and she hopes that a cooperative business will offer a better working environment.

“I have worked in the corporate world and it is not friendly to African American women,” she says. “I always plateaued.”

Brahm Ahmadi from People’s Grocery inspired her. Ahmadi and his team are undertaking a similar venture in West Oakland called the People’s Community Market. Ahmadi is currently fundraising for his West Oakland project. After meeting with Ahmadi, she gained a better understanding of the challenges ahead, like the lack of “real” support from the City of Oakland.

“The city of Oakland says it supports the concept but at the same time officials haven’t put anything behind it,” she says.

La Wanda Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind the business strategy of Portside Community Market. Photo: Lauren Benichou

La Wanda Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind the business strategy of Portside Community Market. Photo: Lauren Benichou

But let’s be honest, Jack London Square brings massive revenue to the city of Oakland and residents aren’t living in poverty. Jack London’s 2000 residents do not have the same “needs” as West Oakland’s 25,000 residents, half of whom do not own a car, which makes walking 1.5 miles to the nearest grocery store a real challenge. So, I ask, why Jack London?

“I was not going go to a community of need and impose something on a community that is not my own,” Boggia says while Knox nods in approval. “This is the community that I know, that I live in and that’s why I wanted to start it here. From the beginning our idea was to create a replicable model whether through franchise or just though creating a way to support a sister cooperative in a community that is more in need but it will be driven from the people of that community,” he says.

Jack London: A Food Desert and Vacant Buildings

The district of Jack London is home to more than 2000 residents and workers but it is also a harbor of vacant buildings. Since the 1970s, numerous developers attempted to redesign Jack London Square only to leave behind empty spaces. In the 1970s, European-style pathways and storefronts popped up but the project never succeeded in exciting the masses. Barnes and Noble, which open in the 1980s, closed in 2010 and the building has been vacant ever since. That same year, Jack London Square Ventures LLC, a partnership between Ellis LLC and Divco West, envisioned a ferry-building-style market and built a six-story glass building composed of office and retail space. 90 percent of the office space is now leased to restaurants like Haven or Bocanova but the 72,000 square feet of retail space is still market-less.

Vacant buildings are a common sight in Jack London. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Vacant buildings are a common sight in Jack London. Photo: Lauren Benichou

What’s Next?

“The next step is figuring out our fundraising logistics and as soon as we are incorporated, we can start finalizing the location,” Boggia says.

“We are looking at visibility, parking, square footage and proximity to residential areas,” Knox adds.

Boggia's favorite location is on Broadway and 4th street. It's been unoccupied for years. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Boggia’s favorite location is on Broadway and 4th street. It’s been unoccupied for years. Photo: Lauren Benichou

But that’s easier said than done. Boggia says that some of the major challenges the team faces have been plaguing the district for years: property owners’ lack of strategy or unrealistic goals. He says that some of them, like Jack London Partners, are waiting for big box grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, to lease or buy their properties.

“That’s never going to happen,” he says. “There isn’t the residential density for it and even then they keep telling us that they don’t want something smaller.”

This location on Alice and 3rd is Knox's preference. "It has character," she says. Photo: Lauren Benichou

This location on Alice and 3rd is Knox’s preference. “It has character,” she says. Photo: Lauren Benichou

The team has recently launched a survey asking what residents would like their grocery store to look like. Boggia is convinced that the Portside Community Market will thrive even with competitors like Whole Foods because the project is truly community-oriented.

“We’ll reflect the neighborhood’s character, we are adaptable and we are worker-owned,” he says smiling.

More Information

Portside Community Market
Facebook: Portside Community Market

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Category: bay area, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, economy and food costs, health and nutrition, local food businesses, politics, activism, food safety

About the Author ()

Lauren Bénichou is a freelance multimedia reporter and producer from France and who has been living in the Bay Area for the past 8 years. Her true passion is sound and storytelling but when it comes to talking about food, food justice, or social justice, any medium will do. This nerdy audiophile also loves capoeira, sci-fi, fantasy, graphic novels an of course, zombies.
  • Information Chef

    Wow. It takes a special kind of privilege to call a tiny neighborhood with 3 farmer’s markets per week, one of the largest vegetable distribution hubs in CA, a huge variety of inexpensive markets in chinatown 5 blocks away, and 2 wholesale-priced open to the public grocery stores a “Food Desert”. smh.

  • Nick Lee

    Engaging the community and helping to give people healthy options for their lives…I love to see it and can’t wait to watch it cultivate.

  • Lauren Benichou

    Hey there! The post is addressing the urban planning issue. The city of Oakland attempted to build a “neighborhood” without including basic amenities for residents. I understand that the term “food desert” may seem out of place. Indeed, there are existing resources in this neighborhood that aren’t available in underprivileged communities. Nevertheless, I do define the term “food desert” as having a limited accessibility to fresh produce. According to many Jack London residents, access to fresh produce is in fact limited as well as access to basic products like household goods etc… This article is pointing out the discrepancy between the massive development of residential buildings and the lack of residential amenities.

  • Tommaso Boggia

    ‘Information Chef’,

    We are conducting a survey of area residents and frequent visitors to the neighborhood and the results so far are pretty conclusive (you can take it too at http://portsidemarket.wordpress.com/survey. People are driving 20-30 minutes, sometimes to neighboring cities, just to get groceries. We might have one farmers’ market and proximity to Chinatown, but they are not providing the accessible, quality products that residents require.

    ‘Food desert’ is a culturally defined term, it doesn’t mean the same in Manhattan as it does in West Oakland. Loren accurately described, we are working on this in Jack London because it’s the community I’m from, but we want to be able to create a replicable product that can be adapted to the culture of other neighborhoods, under leadership of their residents.

    Thanks for your comment and I hope you will take the survey, all feedback is welcome.

    Tommaso