Mosswood garden dispute reflects the neighborhood’s uneasy change
on November 3, 2009
On a balmy weekday evening, North Oakland’s Mosswood Park is a hub of energetic urban neighborhood activity. On the park’s hallowed basketball courts – training ground for a number of future pros and long known as home to the Bay Area’s best pickup competition – about a dozen black, white, and brown players jockey for position, sink jump shots, and argue the score beneath neighboring baskets. Other players dissect the action from the benches near the courts. Soccer is king over on the baseball diamond, and at the play structure, a pair of towheaded youngsters wobbles up a plastic staircase under a bespectacled father’s vigilance. A boom box blares rap music, three adults roller-skate to the beat, and cars and cyclists whiz by on nearby West MacArthur Boulevard. A helicopter buzzes noisily by overhead. “What’s up, cop!” a dreadlocked ballplayer shouts skyward.
In the park’s northwest corner, where West MacArthur meets Webster Street, a chain-link fence surrounds a sizeable rectangular section of real estate – Mosswood’s community garden, bookended on one side by a large double gate and, on the other, by a drab little flat-roofed outbuilding. A banner advertising Jazzercise hangs from one part of the fence, inside of which a fleet of some 20 raised wooden planter beds is organized in rows. Most of the beds contain browned vegetation, lumpy soil, and haphazardly strewn metal plant supports. But in a corner of this corner of Mosswood Park, over by the flat-roofed structure, is a different planter bed – one that sits higher than the rest, and, compared to the others, bursts with fecundity.
Eggplants, red peppers, and white and yellow flowers grow from lush green stems watered by a network of white plastic tubing. The tubing circulates back to a ground-level tub, filled with goldfish, that cycles water back up to the planter box. A blackboard diagram on the outbuilding wall explains the arrangement: fish excrement fertilizes the vegetation as water from the goldfish tub is drawn up through the white tubing to be dispersed among the plants, whose roots, in turn, filter out the waste before the water returns to the tub. It’s called aquaponics, a self-contained agricultural system.
But scrawled in chalk over part of the blackboard diagram is another word: STOP.
Kijiji Grows, a local for-profit company that specializes in designing aquaponic systems, built the contraption this summer, setting off a lingering neighborhood dispute in the process.
At the surface, the debate is pretty simple. Some Mosswood residents say Kijiji’s presence and innovative technology can help inspire urban youth – several local teens helped build the setup and have expressed interest in constructing more – to learn and think about the earth, where their food comes from, and community-based business. But other neighbors see Kijiji Grows’ entrance to the garden as unfair, are troubled by some of the company’s actions since moving in, and now regard the whole episode as the latest example of shoddy city parks management.
Nominally an argument about a garden, Kijijigate reveals a complicated set of deeper tensions in the community: tensions of change, class, precedence, priorities, and entitlement. A recent meeting, called to address the brouhaha, resembled a wedding: lots of chairs, an aisle down the middle, and – on either side of the aisle – two distinctly different clumps of people. To the left of the Oakland Parks and Recreation (OPR) officials, who stood up front facing the crowd, sat one group – mostly African American, many of whom had lived in the neighborhood for decades, and almost all of whom supported Kijiji Grows in the park. Farther back, and to the right of the OPR emcees, sat much of the anti-Kijiji Grows group – almost all white, and many newer to the neighborhood. Tensions between the pro-Kijiji crowd and the anti-Kijiji crowd never boiled over, but there was no shortage of impassioned exchanges.
“Underneath all the stuff about the garden,” longtime Mosswood resident Cassie Lopez said, some weeks after the meeting, “there’s a power struggle going on between folks in this community.”
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Mosswood’s community garden opened about a year ago after an effort by a group of neighbors, who were aided by a contribution from Kaiser Permanente. But the new venture, along with similar sites across Oakland, was hit hard this summer when the city’s community gardening coordinator left amid substantial OPR budget cuts. It was around this time that local entrepreneurs Keba Konte and Eric Maundu entered the picture, reaching a deal with OPR to use Mosswood as the site for an aquaponics operation from their company, Kijiji Grows. Konte, an Oakland resident, photo artist, and co-owner of Berkeley’s Guerilla Café, and Maundu, an engineer with farming experience in his native Kenya, declared that they had no intention of making money selling produce or aquaponic systems from the Mosswood site, although the free prototype showcase certainly couldn’t hurt business.
But when Konte and Maundu’s business entered the park, the move seemed to crystallize tensions that had been building in a changing neighborhood in a changing city.
“There’s been a lot of development and a lot property transitions here over recent years,” says city redevelopment agency project manager Kathy Kleinbaum, who oversees the area including Mosswood Park. “I think the demographics of the area have really changed significantly, with younger families moving in who are wealthier, a lot more professionals, just a wealthier population in general.”
Oakland as a whole has seen a significant shift in demographics over the past 10 to 20 years, particularly among black and white residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 1990, the city had 163,526 black residents, 44 percent of the entire population. By 2000, the number of black residents was down to 142,460, and by last year African Americans had dropped to 106,491 residents, 29 percent of the citizenry. Between 2000 and 2008, in the meantime, the city’s white population grew by more than 12,000, rising from 31 to more than 37 percent of the entire populace.
And, over the two decades before 2008, Oakland’s median household income nearly doubled, from $27,095 to $48,699, which represents an increase in wealth even when accounting for inflation. Similar changes have been recorded in much of urban America, most notably, perhaps, New York City’s Harlem and San Francisco’s Mission District. Harlem and the Mission have had their own issues with demographic shifts and the influx of new residents, but as the Mosswood-Kijiji struggle shows, no two local controversies are completely analogous, even if they revolve around the same central points – who has power and sway, who is enfranchised or disenfranchised, and whose visions and values take priority as distinct populations try to integrate and find common ground.
Cassie Lopez – a woman of commanding physical presence and verbal panache – has lived on 38th Street about a block from Mosswood Park since 1970, after growing up in Detroit and spending years working with the Black Panthers and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Recently retired after 31 years teaching in Oakland’s public school system, she and her husband raised two children on 38th, in addition to caring for many more “homeless kids or kids who needed someplace to be.” Over the past dozen years she has witnessed firsthand the changes Kathy Kleinbaum described in the neighborhood, where “a real division has happened between the people who have been living in the community and those who have moved in,” Lopez says.
“I’m not against people who got money coming in, it’s just that the people who used to own these homes don’t own these homes anymore,” Lopez says. “That’s changed the feel of a working class neighborhood. Working class black families helped to build Oakland. Now it feels like we have no voice here, no place here, and it’s not a good thing. It’s not all about the Benjamins. At least, it shouldn’t be.”
AJ Benham bought a house across the street from Mosswood Park in 1998, after renting for a time in Montclair. She says she wasn’t originally looking to buy in the neighborhood, but happened to find a place where “the price was right – it was more than right.” An athletic looking, middle-aged white woman, with a sharp gaze and frizzy dark hair, Benham works as an orthopedic nurse practitioner at a private practice downtown, teaches Jazzercize classes at the recreation center, and is active in a local citizens’ group called the Greater Mosswood Neighborhood Association. She says that although she’s a relative newcomer, the gap between Mosswood residents is not lost on her.
“The issue in this community,” she said, “is that there are probably two groups, one of which has been here longer than everyone else, and the other that hasn’t been here as long.”
When Kijiji Grows moved into the community garden, supporters and resisters of the company split largely along those lines, and many neighbors saw its co-owners’ actions as arrogant and inconsiderate. Upon brokering their deal with OPR, Konte and Maundu removed the fence gate’s locks – to make the garden more accessible for everyone, they said. They also piled debris around the garden – simply a consequence, they said, of refurbishing the adjacent outbuilding, which has long been discussed as home for a planned teen center. And they drilled a hole in the outbuilding wall, running wiring out to power their aquaponic setup; OPR director Audree Jones-Taylor has said they were not authorized to do that, so a solar panel currently provides the energy for Konte and Maundu’s planter bed.
Another prime source of contention is that Kijiji was fast-tracked in, while most citizens have to submit an application, face possible waitlisting, and pay an annual fee to use a plot in the garden. Konte and Maundu also managed to reach an agreement with OPR that included no formal tenancy agreement or monetary rent requirements.
In a September missive to Jones-Taylor, park neighbor Seth Katz lambasted Kijiji Grows for ‘cutting down locks, vandalizing a public garden, stealing electricity and water, leaving out dangerous wiring, tossing city property out of a city building, piling countless heaps of garbage on both sides of the garden, and being rude in the process.’
Katz, who moved into the neighborhood in 1999 and works as a technical writer in Palo Alto, spearheaded a push to install a dog run at the park some years ago. He sits on the city’s redevelopment board, and, like Benham, is active in the Greater Mosswood Neighborhood Association. “I am all for the idea of bringing in private money to support the parks in their time of need,” he said via email. “But I do not trust the way it is being done, and have no idea what criteria are used to decide who gets to use our property.”
Public rancor eventually grew to the point that a community meeting was called for the end of September, in large part to address the Kijiji Grows issue. A divided room – and neighborhood – debated for hours across the wedding-like aisle. But not much changed, and many neighbors left with a feeling of frustration.
Glen Bell, who grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s playing at Mosswood Park and still lives in North Oakland, says he feels the anti-Kijiji crowd has been overreacting these past several months, and getting too hung up on bureaucratic details.
“I think a big part of the bigger picture was being missed by a particular group,” Bell said, referring to Kijiji’s intended positive impact for neighborhood kids. “Everybody has a social responsibility, and I think one group was missing part of that bigger picture.”
Lopez, an outspoken participant at last month’s meeting, pointed to how she says the division over Kijiji Grows has really reflected the neighborhood’s larger issues of change in the community.
“Some white people really are conscious, but a lot like to come in and talk and push an agenda,” she said in October. “Those are really the people who need to learn to work with people more collaboratively, really get to know folks, not come on the block and try to lay my gauntlet down right away, just because I bought a piece of property. There’s a certain arrogance there, a certain smugness there.”
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After the late September meeting, Jones-Taylor, the OPR director, decided to let Konte and Maundu keep Kijiji Grows in Mosswood’s community garden. This came to the satisfaction of many, and to the displeasure of others who have become disillusioned with OPR.
Multiple phone calls to Jones-Taylor’s office over the past couple weeks went unreturned, as did calls to general recreation supervisor Reco Bembry. When finally reached by phone and told the subject of this story, Bembry groaned and transferred the call to OPR’s Dana Riley, saying she would be able to handle all questions. Riley said tersely that she does not make public statements, and passed the query to city spokeswoman Karen Boyd, who had this response: “Parks and Recreation staff is very aware of what these issues are, and are working to find positive solutions. The director is very comfortable that, in the next few weeks, they will be able to achieve a positive solution to these issues.”
That difficulty in trying to get detailed answers from OPR reflects some of the frustration Katz, Benham, and others feel towards the department – what they describe as a lack of communication and openness.
For example, a Mosswood-related OPR interoffice memo, dated September 16 and worded ambiguously, appears to request a citywide advisory board’s permission to let a private nonprofit elementary school called Bridgemount Academy use part of the park’s recreation center to hold classes for its 28 students. But when contacted, school director Lisa Hopkins said that Bridgemount’s first day of class at Mosswood was September 8, despite the permission-seeking memo being dated more than a week later.
Benham says she worries about the lack of formal contracts and application processes for many of the outside operations that run out of Mosswood, including Bridgemount, Kijiji Grows, and even her own Jazzercise class, which she says is currently bound by nothing more than a handshake deal.
“I’m a very upstanding person, and I write my check every month,” she said. “But what if I wasn’t? Then what?” It’s not that Benham personally wants to plant where Kijiji’s set up, or wants a portion of their harvest; what she and others want most is to avoid a repeat of the circumstances surrounding their move-in.
“With regard to Kijiji, he could be as good a person as I am,” she said. “He could have all the best intentions. But without the openness of communication, it looks a little bit suspect.”
Benham, Katz, and others have also raised concerns about the possibility of a teen center starting up in the outbuilding connected to Mosswood Park’s community garden. According to redevelopment agency project manager Kleinbaum, OPR has been awarded $66,000 in community grants since 2006 for just that purpose. Another application submitted this year for more money was turned down, she said, primarily because of community apprehensions about how specifically the center would be run in terms of operating hours, supervision, and accountability.
“Parks and Recreation applied for the money,” said Kleinbaum. “But they haven’t done a very good job of telling people what will actually occur.”
Said park neighbor Katz in a recent email, “I have no faith in OPR to create a responsible, constructive teen center at this point.”
But, as is the case in the Kijiji Grows conflict, Lopez and other longtime residents say they feel many of the newer neighbors, in focusing so much on procedure, are “missing part of the bigger picture,” as Glen Bell said.
“You can talk about ‘process’ and all this stuff, but be sensitive to the fact that there are kids dying in the streets,” Lopez said. “Maybe their kids aren’t dying in the streets or out getting in trouble. But ours are. If it’s going to help the kids, why not be more receptive to it? Why does it have to be a battle? Why can’t it be easier to invest in the community?”
Lopez has long sat on Mosswood Park’s advisory council, an OPR-sanctioned volunteer organization designed to support the park’s recreation center, and yet another source of tension between newer and older community residents. A park’s advisory council has considerable sway over what happens at its site.
Benham says that when she tried to become involved in the advisory council over the past couple years, she became frustrated after several months of showing up for meetings only to find them canceled or rescheduled.
“If you have that happen enough times, the message you get is ‘we’re not really interested in having you at the meeting,’” she said. “You either just don’t want me at the meeting, or aren’t meeting and don’t do anything. There are times I’ve wondered, is it racial tension? Is it ‘I’ve lived here a hundred years and you’re new here?’”
Much of the late September community meeting focused on – in addition to the Kijiji Grows controversy – a piece of OPR literature dated November 2, 2000. The document directs advisory councils to have a minimum of five active voting members, each of whom serve a maximum of four consecutive years. Members may serve a maximum of two consecutive years in one of the council’s four officer positions. A number of attendees at the meeting, most of whom also vocally opposed Kijiji Grows in the community garden, challenged whether Lopez and others are following these rules.
Lopez, for her part, acknowledges serving on the council for longer than the allotted time, but is unapologetic.
“The people who complain and have to resort to the rules are full of it,” she said recently. “A lot of people come to the council, and once they do their little pet park project and get that done, they leave after only staying a few months. The reason I have stayed for so long is I want to see Mosswood really survive and flourish. Some people only worry about the park. But I’m worried about the kids and the community here, not just the park.”
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Mosswoood Park itself, meanwhile, continues through the debate, disagreement, and dysfunction, a dynamic nucleus of a diverse and changing neighborhood in a diverse and changing city. Local ballplayers, entertaining visions of Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, continue to test their mettle on the outdoor courts. Professional parents keep watching children on the tree-shaded play structure. Bustling West MacArthur Boulevard traffic keeps whizzing by. And in Mosswood Park’s northwest corner is the low-roofed would-be teen center that Glen Bell remembers from his North Oakland childhood as a snack bar where, decades ago, he bought refreshments and checked out athletic equipment during long days of play. Reflecting recently on the brouhaha over the garden that still hosts Kijiji Grows, Bell tried to understand the point of view of those who want Kijiji out, but might as well have been describing the neighborhood at large over the past decade or two.
“Sometimes people get a little bit of something and they react strongly when they feel it’s being taken away from them,” Bell said. “There’s this duality, because maybe their reaction makes the situation worse or creates more tension. But at the same time, they really do feel that something is being taken away from them.”
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