A Minor Victory Against Gentrification in West Oakland 

Activists say they won't give up Afrika Town, the community garden they built.

A community garden in West Oakland is the latest battlefield in the war against gentrification, according to activists who built the garden and have vowed to defend it.

Constructed over a period of several months, the Afrika Town Community Garden sits in what its organizers say was a dilapidated, needle-strewn lot at the intersection of West Grand and San Pablo avenues. Since it officially launched last month, the garden has served as a neighborhood hub, where volunteers serve free community breakfasts and offer free vegetables to anyone who wants them. But according to organizers, the owner of the lot at 2311 San Pablo Avenue wants to destroy the garden so that he can sell the property to luxury condominium developers, and planned to come with bulldozers on April 3. In response, Afrika Town's supporters declared the day to be Liberation Day — a full day of music, food, and guest speakers — and vowed to stand their ground when the bulldozers arrived.

It never came down to that. By noon on Friday, the Liberation Day organizers had declared victory, saying that the property owner had agreed not to call the police or bulldoze the garden. Instead, Afrika Town was given a temporary reprieve, and it appears that owner Noel Yi has agreed to give the garden's organizers time to raise money to purchase the property if they're willing to do so. Still, the garden's long-term survival isn't a foregone conclusion: The lot currently has a $995,000 price tag.

Ultimately, the Liberation Day protest and the dispute over the future of the Afrika Town garden reflect growing worries that some community members have about gentrification in West Oakland. According to Danae Martinez, an adjunct professor of African-American Studies at Merritt College, the goal of the event was to reject an underlying message that is often sent to the Black community — "If we have money, we can just throw you away wherever we want."

Martinez explained that Afrika Town garden was born in November, when she and volunteers at Qilombo — the community center adjacent to the property — decided to clean up the empty lot, which she said was littered with discarded needles and human feces. With the help of the food justice nonprofit Planting Justice and about a hundred of Martinez's students, volunteers swept up trash and planted garden beds. On March 7, volunteers planned a second work day to expand the garden, paint a mural, and officially launch Afrika Town.

"Our idea with Afrika Town was to have a place that Black people could say is ours," said Linda Grant, a Qilombo volunteer. According to Grant, the burgeoning garden now features kale, chard, collard greens, green onions, rosemary, lavender, garlic, and three different kinds of fruit trees.

While supporters say that the neighborhood has rallied around Afrika Town, it appears that the owner of the property was less than enthusiastic. Gary Robinson, the Coldwell Banker realtor who is handling the sale of the lot, reiterated that Yi wanted the garden removed because he intended to sell the lot to condominium developers. (I reached out to Yi, but received no response as of this printing.)

The conflict came to a head on March 26, when Yi and Robinson showed up at the garden with a bulldozer and several police officers in tow. Eventually, a temporary agreement was reached: Afrika Town organizers would have until April 3 to vacate the premises, giving them time to move their plant beds. Instead of moving, though, Afrika Town organizers used the time to organize Liberation Day and to ask the City of Oakland for help.

Oakland-based civil rights lawyer Yolanda Huang wrote a letter to Oakland city officials on Afrika Town's behalf, urging the city not to use police force in what she considered to be a civil dispute — arguing that, if nothing else, the landlord ought to resolve the situation through the court system rather than "armed confrontation with the police and a bulldozer." Afrika Town volunteers also pled their case to District Three Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who eventually reached out to Robinson in an effort to de-escalate the situation. She, too, encouraged Robinson to ask Yi not to involve the police.

For his part, Robinson said that from the start he told Afrika Town's organizers that the lot was for sale, and that they could buy it if they wanted to. Now, Robinson said he's hoping he can convince Yi to offer it to them for a lower price.

Still, the prospect of coming up with nearly a million dollars is daunting, to say the least. But Martinez said she's determined not to let all of their hard work go to waste. Now, she said, the formerly blighted lot has been revitalized, and everyone has been welcomed into the garden with no judgment, including drug addicts, sex workers, and other so-called "throwaway people" — many of whom are now eating more vegetables and feeling healthier. Ultimately, Martinez said, the idea is for the entire block to be Afrika Town — a haven for people of color that, through the work of Qilombo and other grassroots organizations, already includes a bookstore, a bicycle repair shop, and yoga and meditation classes. It's something Martinez believes could be a model for other "Afrika Towns" to spring up.

"Oakland could be the one to lead the rest of the country of how to beautify and do community revitalization in a real way," Martinez said.

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