Letters for the Week of September 11

Readers sound off on gentrification in Oakland, police corruption, and our use of the word eponymous.

“Grease Box, Phat Beets, and the ‘G’ Word,”
What the Fork, 8/28

Phat Beets Responds

Phat Beets would like to address some of the confusion and misinformation surrounding our relationship with Grease Box, specifically regarding Grease Box’s entirely false allegations against Phat Beets, as well as the biased Express article written about us. We would also like to provide a platform for some of the voices of vendors who were displaced because of the sale of Crossroads to Grease Box to emerge from this process.

First of all, Phat Beets Produce is a social justice organization, not a for-profit business, and our mission is to connect small-scale farmers of color to urban communities through the creation of free and affordable farm stands, clinic-based farmers markets, incubator farms and kitchens, and youth gardens. Unfortunately, Phat Beets and many of its programs and vendors are currently being displaced by a new business, Grease Box, at what was formerly referred to as Crossroads. As we tell our side of the story and do our best to clear up misinformation, we also want to open the discussion around how this example of Grease Box ending up in a position to control and profit from what was once a community cafe is connected to the larger issue of gentrification and its effect on the North Oakland community.

A little context and history:

Contrary to the narrative of the Express article, Crossroads Cooperative was very successful in terms of garnering community support. But for Michele Lee — who does deserve a lot of credit for getting the place started and operating — the inability for Crossroads to turn a profit immediately was cause to sell the community kitchen opportunity out from underneath vendors who had invested thousands of dollars to build community patronage over the long haul but weren’t producing revenue fast enough. It was an awful and complex situation for everyone to be in, and Phat Beets was by no means perfect throughout these events. But we carried our own weight with efforts like throwing a fundraiser with People’s Kitchen and donating half of the proceeds back to the Crossroads Co-op and Lee, in addition to consistently paying for flyers and doing outreach for the cafe, building garden seating in the back of the space, and much more.

Phat Beets and several vendors also tried numerous times to buy the cafe and take over the role of leaseholder. Lee was only interested in selling her share of the cafe to the highest bidder — in this case Lizzy Boelter, owner of Grease Box — who then subsequently took complete control of the community kitchen that we had a previous agreement to use, making it impossible for us to operate our programming out of the space.

None of the members of Crossroads Co-op (Phat Beets being one member) were informed about the sale to Grease Box. Given the cooperative structure of Crossroads, Lee’s right to “sell” her share without approval from the rest of the co-op is highly questionable. Furthermore, the specifics of the deal with Grease Box have yet to be disclosed to Crossroads co-op members, so no one knows what rights Grease Box even has in the space; and finally, Lee and one other co-op member are the only members to receive any money from the sale, leaving out Phat Beets and other Crossroads vendors.

Unfortunately, this history seemed to set the stage for a doomed relationship between Phat Beets and Grease Box from the beginning. Contrary to the narrative espoused in the article, we initially attempted to work with and cooperate with Boelter and did hold several negotiations. The first meetings were hopeful, with promises of compromises by both sides, but as time passed, it became clear that Boelter had erased all intentions of sharing the space and decision-making power.

For example, as soon as Grease Box moved in, Boelter demanded that the kitchen become gluten-free. We recognize the need to provide gluten-free options for people, but we feel there are ways we can do so without compromising the cultural food practices of the vendors who had been cooking and selling in the kitchen long before Grease Box arrived. Not allowing our vendors to use gluten has also undermined Phat Beets’ ability to run our Kitchen Incubator Program.

The Kitchen Incubator Program helps low-income vendors start healthful-food-related businesses in order to create their own jobs and build economic justice. The program is, despite claims in the recent Express article and on the Grease Box website, permitted by the Alameda County Health Department. In fact, we have been told by Rebecca Carnahan, Alameda County Environmental Health Department Food Safety Inspector, that Phat Beets is permitted to use the kitchen as long as Grease Box agrees and signs a commissary agreement with Phat Beets. Boelter has not responded to the health department’s request for a signed copy of this agreement. This proves that, contrary to Grease Box’s statement, it is Boelter, not the health department, that has been preventing Phat Beets from using the kitchen all along.

In addition to providing inaccurate information, we feel the Express article is complicit in constructing a biased narrative of the space that unfairly benefits Grease Box. Phat Beets’ representation in the article is one-sided and mischaracterized, even down to the images used; where was the photo of Phat Beets vendors to balance out the photo of Grease Box staff? Why wasn’t the story of Misako Kashima and Ikumi Ogasawara presented? Misako is a Japanese vendor, an original Crossroads member and a participant of our Kitchen Incubator Program who has been serving her delicious and healthful cuisine out of the space since the beginning of this year but has been denied permission to continue cooking her food since the appearance of Grease Box.

Unfortunately, this was never explored by the article, and any mention of Misako’s displacement from the kitchen she helped build out was conveniently left out, along with the narratives of countless other vendors pushed out by Lee and Grease Box (just visit the comments section of the Express article to read more testimonies from former vendors.) Here’s what Misako has said in regards to no longer being able to cook in the cafe:

“We are waiting for working together with Phat Beets and other vendors again hopefully soon.  The Phat Beets Market was the only affordable farmer’s market to join for start-up food entrepreneurs with not enough funds (ironically we spent all our hard-earned money to invest to build the co-op kitchen).  The reality of food business is that if you don’t have enough money nor good support and connections, there is no chance even for the great cooks and workers. There are too many costs (licensing, kitchen rental, insurance) for small businesses.  So small vendors need organizations like Phat Beets who can support and offer the marketplace which we can sell to the public.”

Phat Beets spoke with another vendor, Naimah Matthews, and her family in this video account about what happened in their last few days as vendors at Crossroads before Grease Box moved in. Days after Grease Box arrived, Matthews and her family were forced to pack up their stuff and leave. Grease Box even went so far as to say that “the vendors that were ‘displaced’ are doing just fine elsewhere.” In Naimah’s own words:

“For [Boelter] to tell anyone that everybody is fine is a blatant lie because you didn’t bother to check! … She didn’t care. We were told to immediately get our stuff [after the sale] … and the whole restaurant looked totally different. … A lot of the stuff she sent me back to get wasn’t there! … It was like we weren’t important. … How do you just sell something out from underneath us? Handling it the way they did, it hurt A LOT of people. … This was our dream!”

Just to be clear, Phat Beets Produce has never called for a boycott of Grease Box, though we do inform our supporters of the history of the space and the ongoing conflict. Boelter has told Phat Beets members they “are not allowed in the cafe anymore,” she has called the police on members, and has threatened Phat Beets staff with restraining orders and slander lawsuits, making our own work space a hostile environment and forcing us to work from home. No one from Phat Beets has ever advocated for or used any sort of violence toward Boelter or any of her staff.  The Phat Beets Collective, vendors, former Crossroads members, as well as our supporters, allies, and neighbors, will continue to speak out against these injustices.

Ken Shandy, lifelong North Oakland resident, father, former Crossroads Kitchen Overseer, and owner of Brother’s Kitchen in West Oakland, sent us his thoughts about Grease Box and what this business means for North Oakland:

“I have lived in the North Oakland area all my life, [and] I would like to speak about 942 Stanford Ave and how the space has affected me and my community, and I had the pleasure of working with the Crossroads cooperative and Phat Beets. I was excited to see a great synergy and team pulling together to create dreams for individuals in our local community. Unfortunately, due to a faulty leader with other motives not in line with the core group, our community is now forced to settle with the likes of the Grease Trap. I’m sorry but I had hoped to see more diversity in the space, with more of a community feel. Not just another gentrify hot spot. This is not in the best interest of our community. Changing the culture of a community without regards of what the people want and need. STOP IT!!!!!!”

The Express article did not seek out the narratives of Shandy and those vendors that were displaced, but rather only highlighted the perspective of Grease Box, which evidences the gentrification process itself, as the stories of historic residents are erased by the prevalence of newer, more affluent and more visible residents with greater access to media.

Not many folks want to talk about gentrification, which is why these injustices still fester and persist, hushed and squashed by irresponsible phrases like the “G word” that try to conceal the violence of displacement. This is precisely why Phat Beets highlights the injustices of gentrification taking place not only at Crossroads, but all over North Oakland, including by the Real Estate company Better Homes and Gardens and its NOBE campaign.

Phat Beets defines gentrification as “the displacement of historic residents of a neighborhood as a result of rising housing costs because of the moving-in of newer, more affluent residents and businesses.” Just to be clear, many members of the Phat Beets Produce Collective are not historic residents of North Oakland, but we do spend a great deal of time and energy in organizing with and supporting the interests and leadership of North Oakland residents in building a just food system and healthy economic opportunities for everyone. Because of the programming we operate and the background of our staff, Phat Beets is also implicated in gentrification, as many of us are not historically from Oakland and bring with us some degree of privilege to the formerly working class neighborhood of North Oakland. But there’s a difference between acknowledging that we are part of the gentrification process and fighting for healthy food and economic opportunities for historic North Oakland residents, versus profiting by using gentrification to start a business that caters to new residents with more money.

In fact, Phat Beets must raise money and write grants in order to keep healthful, fresh, organic produce at our farmers markets affordable to North Oakland residents, as well as to fund the jobs of historic residents who staff the market itself. These jobs are now being compromised, as are the economic opportunities of the farmers we support. The food justice approach we take in working in North Oakland, and the approach of Grease Box, whose food costs don’t take into consideration historic residents, are drastically different. Unfortunately, Grease Box isn’t the first such business that is symptomatic of a troubling gentrification pattern, and the North Oakland community can no longer afford to ignore it or merely refer to this process as the “G word.”

Finally, we must remember that Phat Beets has no interest in fighting with Grease Box. It is merely a distraction for the food justice work we do and an obstacle for the North Oakland community-building, self-determination, and access to healthful food. We have been informed that our sublease will not be renewed by Grease Box and Lee, which means that the North Oakland Farmers Market will be moving. We heavily rely on the community’s grassroots support to continue our work, so please make a donation to help us find a new space and continue our food justice work in Oakland for as long as it takes.

Support Healthy Food for All by supporting Phat Beets! Peace!

Josh Cadji, Susan Park, Kate Hubbell, Marika Iyer, Max Cadji, Amman Desai, Heather Leu, Brett Benner, Mickey Martin,
and The Phat Beets Crew

Luke Tsai Responds

In the course of researching my story, I made multiple attempts to reach out to members of Phat Beets Produce. Their initial response was to send me a list of demands that would have to be met in order for them to speak with me: in particular, that members of the collective be granted anonymity and that they be allowed to see my story before publication (which the Express prohibits). Many of the issues mentioned in their rebuttal were brought up during a conversation that a Phat Beets collective member was only willing to have on condition of anonymity (which the Express ultimately did not think was warranted). In the end, the quotes presented in my story represent nearly the entirety of what Phat Beets members were willing to say on the record. I was asked specifically not to mention anything that was said during the earlier, anonymous interview.

I also did speak to Misako Kashima, an original collective member and one of the food vendors whose story Phat Beets has accused me of omitting (though I did, in fact, mention her unhappiness with Grease Box owner Lizzy Boelter’s lack of communication with the building’s other tenants). For the record, Kashima confirmed that she had already left the Crossroads Collective in March, well in advance of Grease Box’s arrival. Finally, regarding Phat Beets members’ assertion that the health department has given them the green light to restart their kitchen incubator program, I was unable to get anyone at the health department to confirm or deny this claim.

Fair Play

As one of the initial organizers of the Cafe/Kitchen/Farmer’s Market Collective (later named the Crossroads Café) at 942 Stanford Ave, as well as part of the community, I would like to acknowledge the positive contributions that Phat Beets has made to our neighborhood. I question the hand that beats the anti-gentrification drum, but I experience their presence here as unequivocally healthy.

And although I was disappointed to see the Grease Box’s prices catering to a very selective clientele, I do not blame Ms. Boelter for starting a business in my neighborhood.

My partnership with Michele Lee, Leon, Phat Beets, and the other collective members, however, was not a healthy one and I see a bit of this mess as a continuation of those early dynamics. For example, requests to make the financial accounting transparent were given the runaround. Verbal agreements to sign a cooperative agreement were never met. The delegation of responsibilities was not respected. Decisions were made unilaterally with the familiar refrains, “I am the leaseholder” and the ace in hole, “I am a black woman,” as justification.

When presented with the offer that I would find a replacement leaseholder to relieve her of the liability exposure, Michele declined. At its inception, it was clearly a shifty foundation for any business to build upon, much less a “collective” or “cooperative” vision. I stepped out. There is certainly nothing wrong with hustling, doing what you gotta do, feeding your family, or bringing your ex-husband into the membership of a budding cooperative. As a father, I partner with my child’s mother in the struggle to make ends meet.

But fair play is fair play and beyond the broken agreements, it is the leveraging of people’s social trust and ideals for personal gain that left me unfazed to learn that Michele and Leon had slid out of the Crossroads Kitchen/Cafe Collective and left a discordant Lizzy Boelter and Phat Beets Produce in their wake and, despite the rhetoric, left the neighborhood without an inclusive, affordable, healthful food option. The Saturday market is a godsend, I hope that all of the parties involved can work it out and the cafe is able to provide a menu that serves healthful and affordable food to the neighborhood every day of the week.

Shan Masuda, Oakland

Not a True Collective

Phat Beets is still there on Saturdays and the vendors are still there on Saturday. The vendors left because they didn’t want to pay what was needed for the space. Their rent paid for the rent of the space only and it didn’t always pay for all of the rent and did not pay for the utilities, maintenance, permits, and everything else that goes along with running a restaurant. That place has been closed down for more than twenty years. I’ve been living in North Oakland since 1976 and it has been closed ever since I’ve been here. The positive effect is that the space is open and not blighted. Stop complaining and be truthful about what people are speaking. It will set you free. Crossroads was never really a collective. Everyone came in with these grandiose ideas, but most didn’t step up to make it happen. Who went down to get the permits and build the space out? How can you have a true collective when most of the weight falls on one or two people? Stop complaining and be truthful about what people are speaking. The truth will set you free.  

Asual Kwahuumba, Oakland

“Oakland’s Surveillance Contractor Has a History of Fraud,” News, 8/28

Oakland’s Self-Serving Politicians

Jean Quan and the city council strike again. It isn’t clear if they are simply dimwits or venal, but the result is the same. More pain for Oakland, more tax dollars being wasted, and a governance road less well traveled. It’s a shame Oakland can’t seem to shake its bad karma or its self-serving politicians who seem oblivious to the problems that plague the city.

Steve Redmond, Berkeley

Endless Articles on Police

The endless Express articles covering police brutality, police state, police abuse, police surveillance, police this, and police that, have become as relevant as the never-ending protests in downtown Oakland.

After a while you start wondering: What were we protesting again? Thank god for the “What the Fork” blog in this newspaper, otherwise I would no longer know what to read with my morning coffee.

Ivan Gasparini, Oakland

“Oakland’s Tennis Revolutionary,” Feature, 8/28

Budge Couldn’t Be Beat

My dad played junior singles against Don Budge. He never beat him and went over to doubles. He was Pacific Coast Doubles Champion when Budge was singles.

He also went to Cal and played with Budge on the Cal tennis team. Needless to say, he never beat him there either.

Phil Brown, Oakland

“When Cops Lie,” News, 8/28

Misguided Labor Solidarity

You barely touch on the role played by the binding arbitration that the Oakland charter guarantees for all personnel matters of firefighters and police officers. That statute both protects bad cops from getting fired and makes it nearly impossible to lower the compensation of police and firefighters so that we can afford to hire more good cops. Repealing that statute is opposed by all the city unions out of some misguided labor solidarity.

Leonard Raphael, Oakland

Who Is the Bigger Liar?

Oh please! It’s a toss-up as to who is the bigger liar: the cops or the district attorney! And that public defender congratulating [District Attorney Nancy} O’Malley’s office for its Brady policy? Pure politics. The Alameda County District Attorney’s office does NOT disclose Brady evidence (including lying cops and other dishonest law enforcement personnel). And its deputy district attorneys even argue in court that they don’t have to! We have the transcript. The judges let the district attorney’s office get away with this. Some judges appear not to know what Brady requires, while others act as supreme prosecutors, rubber-stamping the deputy district attorneys’ every action. We got a couple of reams of evidence to which we were legally entitled (Brady evidence), nearly one year late through a public records request. The district attorney was never going to turn this evidence over, ever!  If you get a fair trial in Alameda County, someone screwed up because it clearly isn’t supposed to happen.

Jan Van Dusen, Oakland

Miscellaneous Letters

Retire Eponymous

The Express should seriously consider implementing a software content-checker that automatically removes the adjective “eponymous” from every article submitted to the copy editor before it ever reaches his or her computer screen. This is perhaps the most abused and overused word in the American reviewer’s lexicon, and it richly deserves to be retired from these pages.

The Wikipedia entry for the word “eponym” defines the term as, “a person or thing, whether real or fictional, after which a particular place, tribe, era, discovery, or other item is named or thought to be named.” The entry includes an alphabetized list of hundreds of eponyms, most of which you will find in any dictionary, such as:

Julius Caesar — the month of July, Caesar cipher, the titles Czar, Tsar, and Kaiser.

Augustus Caesar — the month of August; the city of Zaragoza (originally Caesaraugustus); the city of Caesarea in Israel; numerous other cities once named Caesarea; the Caesarean section, because he was supposedly born in this manner.

Rudolf Diesel — the diesel engine

Gabriel Fahrenheit  — the Fahrenheit scale

John Maynard Keynes — Keynesian economics

Ernesto Miranda — Miranda Warning

Charles Ponzi — Ponzi scheme, a kind of fraud

You get the picture. To be included here as an eponym, a word must meet a rather high standard.

Now, strictly speaking, most of the usages that appear in these pages do not violate the rather loose limits imposed by the definition — most, but by no means all, as the examples below, some of which stretch the limits to ridiculous lengths, amply illustrate.

None of these uses would suffer even slightly from the simple omission of the adjective, and would exemplify far better thinking and writing if replaced by a more suitable, less mindless, adjective. Do your writers think we’re so daft that we can’t figure out that the name of the restaurant/dish/movie/item has the same name as the person/place/thing mentioned right next to it in the same sentence?

If I haven’t yet made my case, then consider the sources of my irritation, among which are the following examples, culled from the first few pages of the results of a search of the Express web site for the term “eponymous.”

East Bay Express in general:

“We’re naming Jackson’s Canvas in Montclair as the East Bay’s best new restaurant. The eponymous brainchild of Peter Jackson”

“Chris Blue is working his magic right here in Berkeley at the eponymous Chocolatier Blue.”

“Al’s Barber Shop … The eponymous Al has owned the shop since the 1950s”

“Avenger … Marvel reboot featuring Chris Evans as the eponymous superhero”

“The eponymous debut, full of neurotic vocal delivery and rock appropriation”

“Hewing closely to the first half of Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia is less the tale of the eponymous victim or even the investigation into her death”

Zodiac … David Fincher’s film version of the Robert Graysmith book about the eponymous San Francisco serial killer”

“Live-action adaptation of Snow White, starring Lily Collins as the eponymous princess”

“Blue Sky … a pleasant little coffeeshop … the walls are painted an adorable/eponymous cloudy design”

“Phil’s Sliders … The thirty-seat restaurant’s menu will, of course, focus around the eponymous sliders”

“Food Shift, an organization she’d recently launched that’s devoted to reducing hunger…The eponymous exhibit, Food Shift, opens with an event on Friday”

Film reviewer Kelly Vance:

Beowulf (PG-13). English lit majors might never recognize Robert Zemeckis’ manic, depressing, video-game-style version of the legend of the eponymous Danish warrior hero”

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (PG) … finds adolescent Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) back at Hogwarts, using the mysterious, eponymous prince’s potion book to help his friends get dates”

The Virgin Suicides: A family tragedy widens out to affect young men who care for the eponymous afflicted young women.”

“‘Jackson weaves the marvelous tale of the eponymous, diminutive Bilbo Baggins”

“Blancanieves … The eponymous unwanted stepdaughter”

“The upcoming Big Sur riffs on Kerouac’s novel about fun-seeking poets camping out in the eponymous wilderness.”

She-Devils on Wheels (1968) was an attempt to cash in on that era’s biker-pic craze, with the gimmick that the eponymous motorcycle gang”

“What makes a beauty shop so great is that it really is a microcosm of society,” intones an earnest voiceover at the beginning of The Salon. Indeed. The denizens of this eponymous inner-city beauty shop”

Behind the Mask, a meta-horror flick of Craven self-satisfaction. The film’s eponymous loon, as played by Nathan Baesel”

The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (7 p.m.), a documentary about the eponymous cephalopod”

Restaurant/Food Reviewer Luke Tsai:

“But there is more than meets the eye at Anula’s. Anula Edirisinche, the eponymous chef-owner”

“the eponymous beef in the Warm Spiced Cinnamon Beef Salad”

“Romney Steele, whose oyster-centric restaurant, The Cook and Her Farmer, is slated to open in Old Oakland’s Swan Marketplace later this year. For the pop-up, Steele (who is, of course, the eponymous cook)”

“Stag’s Lunchette … wood paneling, antlers on the wall, a mason jar filled with arrows, and sepia-toned sketches of forest scenes featuring—of course—lots of those eponymous stags.”

“interview with the very French-looking Grégoire Jacquet, owner and founder of the eponymous gourmet takeout joint, Grégoire Restaurant”

Donald Swearingen, Oakland

Support the Steinberg Prison Overcrowding Proposal

California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has developed a rational proposal that will end the stalemate between the federal government and the State of California over meeting the federal mandate to reduce our overcrowded prisons. The Federal Court has determined that overcrowding is leading to inadequate care of inmates, and thus violating their basic rights.

The Governor has put forward a proposal to shift even more state inmates to leased space in county jails and private facilities and delay the closing of Norco Prison in Riverside County in response to the federal government’s demands to reduce our prison population to 137.5% of capacity. The Governor’s proposal clearly does not address the root cause of the issue. California’s overcrowded prison population is primarily a result of high recidivism rates (more than 65% of inmates return to prison over a three year period according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), inappropriate mandatory sentencing on low level offenses, and the practice of sending large numbers of people to prison in certain counties. Since the Governor’s proposal does not address the high rate that people enter the prison system, implementation of his proposed initiative will eventually lead us to another prison overcrowding situation in the near future, thus returning us to the same situation we face today.

The heart of the proposal by Senator Steinberg provides performance-based grants to county drug and alcohol programs; and mental health programs that can document their success in keeping formally incarcerated people from returning to prison. The proposal also extends the deadline for reducing the prison population by three years and creates a panel to analyze and improve our sentencing laws. Implementing the Governor’s proposal would mean that taxpayers would continue to spend more than $50,000 per inmate to incarcerate someone in state prison, while doing nothing to disrupt the pipeline back to prison. The Governor’s proposal would perpetuate a process that negatively impacts families, unravels the fabric of our communities, weakens the financial health of our state and continues to redirect the problem onto the backs of local government.

It is hard to argue that our current polices of sentencing and incarceration are successfully keeping our communities safer and rehabilitating those who are most in need. The key to helping our men and women who are returning to our neighborhoods become positive contributors to our communities is addressing the issues that led them to engage in criminal activity. Substance abuse and mental health issues are clearly high on the list. Like many difficult situations, the solution to prison overcrowding requires innovation, creativity blended with the utilization of proven methods, not deferring the situation. By implementing Senator Steinberg’s proposal, many of those whose paths have led them astray will have the opportunity to receive the care and support they need to be thriving community members.

Keith Carson, Alameda County Supervisor, Fifth District, Oakland


Our September 5 food news story, “A Renegade Supper Club,” misspelled the last name of Canoe Club chef Stephen Thorlton.


Our August 28 news story, “When Cops Lie,” mistakenly stated that Contra Costa County Chief Assistant District Attorney Hal Jewett had declined to comment about whether his office would place a police officer who lied under oath on its Brady list. Jewett had declined to comment as to whether his office would place a cop who lied — but wasn’t under oath — on its Brady list. In an interview after the story was published, Jewett said his office would place a cop who lied under oath on its Brady list.


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