In 2012, Linnette Edwards, a Bay Area real-estate agent, produced a video promotingNOBE, a name conjured up by developers for an area covering parts of Oakland, Berkeley, and the town of Emeryville. She posted it on NOBE Neighborhood, a Web site she created to drum up buzz among potential home buyers. The video includes interviews with enthusiastic young residents, a local cupcake maker, a bartender at a new watering hole, and with Edwards herself. It also features a local, volunteer-run enterprise called the Golden Gate Community Garden. “We’re super psyched that there’s a community garden across the street—it’s definitely a bonus to this block,” a new homeowner says, over footage of greenery. “The fabulous edible garden movement is in full swing,” the NOBEWeb site notes. “It’s not uncommon to find neighbors crop swapping their homegrown edibles and frequenting the local Farmer’s Markets.” The site listed several neighborhood community-gardening programs, including one run by a nonprofit called Phat Beets Produce.
NOBE is a fiction. It lumps together several longstanding neighborhoods that, since the fifties, have been largely inhabited by low- and middle-income African-Americans. The rebrand was designed to attract mostly young, upper-middle-class transplants who were fleeing high prices in neighboring San Francisco. When volunteers at Phat Beets saw Edwards’s video, and her Web site listing their programs, they were livid. The Golden Gate Community Garden is run by the city of Oakland, but many people involved in Phat Beets also used the space. “Our work wasn’t the cause of gentrification, but our programs and our aesthetics were being used to sell land and help displace people,” Max Cadji, a Phat Beets volunteer, told me. In December, 2012, Phat Beets created a caustic parody video on its own Web site, repurposing the term “NOBE” to stand for Neighbors Outing Blatant Exploitation. Phat Beets launched a campaign against the video, demanding that Edwards remove Phat Beets’s market from the NOBE Web site.
Edwards understands the criticism, and is sympathetic to those forced out of their communities, but she believes that promoting local gardens and markets benefits longtime residents as well as newcomers. “The energy of community gardens helps curb crime,” she said. “Having a new park in the area creates a hub of community and conversation.” She went on, “First, there’s a community garden. Then what we hope will follow is a café, and a little market that might pop up, providing organic food. These all draw people to an area.” As an agent, Edwards represents both buyers and sellers. “The way that these community gardens translate into home prices is self-evident,” she said. “It impacts resale value.” She told me that she didn’t know of any real-estate agents actually funding community gardens, “but maybe they should.”
Before the NOBE rebrand, it was hard to find grocery stores in the area; for years, there was an abundance of liquor stores and bodegas but a scarcity of healthy, affordable food. Such neighborhoods have been the focus of community organizations like Phat Beets, which strive to provide access to low-cost, high-nutrition food in low-income communities. Initiatives like theirs typically have an anti-commercial ethos: we don’t need to buy our food from big chain stores at a high markup, or rely on government handouts, because we can grow our own.
But for house buyers, these community gardens simply have aesthetic appeal, contributing to a kind of rustic, down-home vibe that makes nearby real estate more attractive. And it hasn’t taken long for real-estate agents and developers to take advantage of that commercial potential. “It’s not uncommon for real-estate agents to stage veggie beds in the back yard,” Edwards told me. She often uses this strategy herself. (When my boyfriend and I attended an open house in West Berkeley, I noticed a small bed of vegetable sprouts in the backyard. It was obviously a gimmick, but—kale!—I was sold.) “It’s a life style that buyers buy into,” Edwards said. “The life style of growing food. Which they may or may not do, but they’re buying into that food culture.”
The “blighted” lots suitable for urban agriculture are often found in lower-income neighborhoods like NOBE, as well as in post-industrial neighborhoods like West Oakland and West Berkeley. These also happen to be neighborhoods that developers see as ripe for construction. For decades, the overgrown grass across the street from Jeff DeMartini’s commercial property in West Berkeley (formerly his grandfather’s cabinet factory) had been giving him trouble: weeds encroaching on the sidewalk, phallic graffiti, dead trees that occasionally came crashing down. Last year, a community-agriculture organization called Urban Adamah acquired the space, and announced plans to install a small farm—chickens, goats, and all. At first, DeMartini worried that the animals might degrade the site even further. “I thought, Will it smell?” But, within a matter of weeks, interest in his property spiked, and prospective renters came calling.
One of the signs of a so-called ‘quality’ neighborhood is open space and green space,” Gopal Dayaneni, a member of Movement Generation, an advocacy organization, said. But quality, in real-estate terms, means higher prices. Many community gardens are started with the intention of supporting lower-income communities, Tiny Gray Garcia, an activist and journalist, said. But once they are built, she added, “the real-estate companies come in and start to reassess the land and use the property value to displace poor people of color. The community-gardening people may be well meaning, but they don’t always understand that they’re pawns in the game.”
Ideological tensions can emerge even when relationships between developers and farming nonprofits are strong…
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