July 23, 2024

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How 1-Acre Anti-Capitalist Rooftop Medicine Farm Fights Gentrification from Whole Foods’ Roof in Oakland’s Temescal Neighborhood

How 1-Acre Anti-Capitalist Rooftop Medicine Farm Fights Gentrification from Whole Foods’ Roof in Oakland’s Temescal Neighborhood

The view from the roof of the Logan, a mixed-use apartment building at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 51st Street in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, offers a panorama: Oakland Hills to the east, and the San Francisco skyline directly west. The view from the roof of the Logan is notable, but the view of the Logan’s roof is unparalleled: a 1-acre farm where rows upon rows of lettuces, greens, herbs, and flowers flourish. The rows are neatly structured, some sections bare and ready for seed, others lined with tall sunflowers. Plants are nestled into every corner of the 25,000-square-foot space — about double the size of an Olympic swimming pool — including mustard greens and a lemon verbena plant, both thriving five stories above the street.

“Before the dawn of capitalism, food was medicine,” says Rupa Marya, a physician and founder of Deep Medicine Circle, a Bay Area-based nonprofit organization that works to, as its website explains, heal “the wounds of colonialism” through food, medicine, story, and learning. That work encompasses operationalizing urban farms — including one in San Gregorio and the one located on top of the Logan, which Marya calls the Rooftop Medicine Farm — which means building relationships with Native stewards of the land, bringing in farmers, and connecting with outside organizations to distribute what’s grown.

Rooftop Medicine Farm’s ecological site director Benjamin Fahrer and Kevin Jefferson planted the first rows of seeds on the Logan’s roof in spring 2021. By the end of the year, a new neighbor had moved in: a 31,011-square-foot location of Whole Foods, the grocery store chain owned by the world’s second-richest man. For the most part, Marya and the Deep Medicine Circle team aren’t concerned with the goings-on below. But the image of an anti-capitalist farm sharing a building with a corporate powerhouse speaks to a kind of tension that permeates the Temescal neighborhood, which has struggled with rising home prices threatening to displace longtime residents for years. Beyond providing tomatoes and arugula to community and not-for-profit organizations, Rooftop Medicine Farm’s work seeks to educate new and longtime locals on the ways in which history and racism continue to impact the community today.

A view of rows of plants on a rooftop farm.

At Rooftop Medicine Farm, Bay Area-based non-profit Deep Medicine Circle grows food to distribute at no cost to East Bay residents.
Ray Levy Uyeda

Deep Medicine Circle is a part of a larger movement led by Black and Indigenous women to build a more just American food system. As a part of that work, all of the food grown at the farm is offered for free to BIPOC Oaklanders and community organizations including POOR Magazine, Moms 4 Housing, American Indian Cultural District, Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, and UCSF Children’s Clinic Food Farmacy. The organizations then redistribute the fresh produce in disinvested neighborhoods of East Oakland. It’s one way Marya says Deep Medicine Circle is reimagining how communities can foster healthy and sustainable relationships with the land and each other.

Pulling colonial beliefs and systems of inequity out by the roots is the Rooftop Medicine Farm’s goal, Marya says. “The impact of stress, chronic social defeat from racism, racist police violence — all of these things create toxicity around the body, and stress like debt, student debt, and your mortgage,” she says. Our bodies collect memories and hold traumas, Marya explains, but can heal through food — if we’re able to provide it.

To that end, the farm conducts surveys with organizations and community groups that receive food grown on the rooftop plot. “We are figuring out what people want to eat seasonally, what they’re drawn to, and what they need,” says Alayna Reid, farm director at Rooftop Medicine Farm. Traditional Ecological Knowledge — a term referring to Indigenous knowledge, spiritual practices, and relationship with the land — guides what and how they farm, and Reid is learning about generational foodways from her father, who is from Jamaica, and grandmother, who is Choctaw Cherokee. Through DMC’s Land Back Solidarity Project, the group also worked with Ramaytush elder Cata Gomes to form her Muchia Te Indigenous Land Trust and remit land to its rightful stewards; the organization also has plans to help restore the San Gregorio Creek watersheds, where salmon once, though no longer, ran.

DMC isn’t aiming to dismantle Whole Foods as a business, but to infiltrate places where these temples to so-called clean eating chafe against spaces where people aren’t able to buy their way to good health. The group also wants to answer questions about land: who can lay claim to it and what happens when people with resources move into neighborhoods deprived of them. “These condos are popping up all over,” Reid says of the neighborhood around Rooftop Medicine Farm. “So here’s the model. Maybe by doing this, there won’t be any more excuses as to why food deserts exist.”

Temescal Alley where Marisa Mason Jewelry is located on left side of the street on Monday, July 24, 2017, in Oakland, Calif.

Temescal Alley in Oakland, which houses a collection of boutiques and food and beverage businesses.
Photo By Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Rooftop Medicine Farm is located in Temescal, which means “sweat lodge” in Nahuatl and references a spiritual practice by which the land’s Indigenous peoples heal and connect with ancestors. Back in the 1830s, the governor of California gifted Temescal to a Spanish settler-colonizer named Don Luis Maria Peralta, who later turned the land over to his son, Vicente. A series of federal and state policies rewarded those who enslaved, killed, and colonized Native peoples; these regulations allowed Vicente to sell the land in the 1850s, and, by the end of the century, residents voted to become a formal part of Oakland. Starting in the early 1900s, Italian immigrants built up the neighborhood, and for nearly half a century the area was known as Oakland’s Little Italy with Italian delicatessens, grocery stores, and social clubs lining Telegraph Avenue.

But in the late 1960s, the California Highway Commission finished construction on Highway 24, cutting through Little Italy and decimating the neighborhood. Businesses left, along with 90 percent of the region’s families. The exodus initiated 30 years of economic decline, lowering home and rental prices and allowing artists and Black, Chinese, and Japanese residents who were previously segregated out of the area to move in. By 1998, the corner of 51st and Telegraph was an empty lot. Then, in the 1990s, city officials started to investigate how to revitalize the area, favoring economic projects that offered apartment units and retail businesses in the same buildings. Now, the neighborhood is mostly white, and homes can hardly get off the market for less than $1 million.

Pendarvis Harshaw grew up in Oakland and hosts KQED arts and culture show Rightnowish, which documents the people who create and sustain Oakland’s rich culture. He remembers more white people moving into the Town in the early 2000s. After graduating from Howard University, he returned to teach one of the first pilot classes for African American male achievement in the Oakland Unified School District. By that point, the changes in Oakland’s demographics and rising housing prices had started to indelibly alter the neighborhood, Harshaw says. He’s since moved to Sacramento to be closer to his daughter but returns regularly to Oakland for work. “When I go back, home isn’t necessarily home anymore, because so much has changed,” Harshaw says, referring to Oakland. “It’s not good. It’s sad, it’s lonely, it’s uninspiring.”

Pendarvis Harshaw.

Pendarvis Harshaw, host of KQED’s Rightnowish.

These changes don’t end with the demographic makeup of the community. Gentrification, which happens when wealthier people move into a disinvested part of the city — often where Black and brown people have historically been forced to live — fundamentally changes the landscape of food access, too. Businesses that offer fresh produce and good-tasting meals typically move in to meet the demands of new clientele, but are often out of financial reach for the neighborhood’s original residents. In Temescal, the signifier of gentrification is visual and explicit: the 4-foot “Whole Foods” lettering outside the bottom floor of the new apartment building, where people can now buy $10 eggs, $5 lettuce, and $8 goat cheese.

In the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a federal agency that shaded neighborhood maps in red, yellow, blue, and green to denote “hazardous,” “declining,” “desirable,” and “best” neighborhoods, respectively, marked the area at 51st and Telegraph as “declining” — not in the red, not blue either. The practice known as redlining is no longer legal, though its ghost remains; in 2022, food insecurity is directly linked with a neighborhood’s HOLC rating, with between 25 to 35 percent Temescal residents experiencing food insecurity according to a 2019 survey. By contrast, 10 percent of the residents in Contra Costa County struggle to get enough food.

“Can we remember what we have all forgotten over the last 600 years?” Marya says, referring to a time before industrial agriculture, food-for-profit models, and capitalist competition. “[Capitalism] was an intentional social program to separate us all, and the things that give us power: our land, our relationships to each other, and our foods.”

Two people working on the Rooftop Medicine Farm.

In addition to providing food to community and not-for-profit organizations, Rooftop Medicine Farm educates people about the ways history and racism continue to impact the Oaklanders today.
Deep Medicine Circle

Food sovereignty means liberating stolen Native land, says Crystal Wahpepah, a Kickapoo chef. In addition to being the owner and chef at Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Fruitvale, she’s an advisory board member of Deep Medicine Circle. Wahpepah grew up in Oakland; her parents and grandparents moved to the Bay Area during the period of federal relocation — an attempt to destabilize tribal sovereignty, shrink reservation land, and forcibly assimilate Native peoples.

Wahpepah gravitated toward cooking Native food at a young age, making foods with sweet dried corn and using wild onions like her grandmother did. Some of what’s grown at Rooftop Medicine Farm is now incorporated into dishes served at her restaurant: everything from herbs like cilantro and sage to different varieties of squash. “What we eat is who we are,” Wahpepah says. “I want them to see how beautiful our food is.”

The Rooftop Medicine Farm food you eat at Wahpepah’s Kitchen — or source as a pediatric patient at UCSF Children’s Clinic or take home from POOR Magazine’s redistribution network — is grown from soil abundant with microbiotics. Rooftop Medicine Farm’s partner organizations are free to distribute it how they see fit, since they have the best knowledge of what their communities need. On some days, working on the farm means tilling the soil and preparing it for new seeds, while on others, Reid and the farm staff harvest crops and ready them for their final destinations across the East Bay. Not yet a year old, the farm’s reach continues to grow and further develop its practices; Reid says the farm plans to practice herbal medicine as well as seed saving, an Indigenous practice of keeping some seeds from a season’s harvest to use and gift later.

“We’re doing our best to get to know this community around us, to find out who has those seeds, because this is the Rooftop Medicine Farm — so we intend to be planting the seeds that our ancestors have saved,” Reid says.

From its rooftop perch, the Farm grows relationships between community and mutual aid groups through organizing, and reconnects people to the history of the land on which they live. Yes, it sits atop the Logan, and the Logan sits atop a Whole Foods, but the farm’s stewards are looking beyond these superficial layers — to the land and its history, what’s grown on it, and the hands that bring that food forth. “We’re actually trying to transform and bring medicine onto one plate,” Wahpepah says. “It’s all about healing.”