Boggia's favorite location is on Broadway and 4th street. It's been unoccupied for years. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Bay Area Bites: Oakland’s Jack London District: A Food Desert For The Wealthy?

Post originally published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites

Design for upcoming Portside Community Market. Image courtesy of Portside Community Market
Design for upcoming Portside Community Market. Image courtesy of Portside Community Market

The Jack London District might finally get something it’s been lacking since its booming development: a real grocery store.

After decades of growth and restructuring, a number of notable restaurants like Haven, Forge, and smaller artisans like Miette opened their doors on Jack London Square’s waterfront and within the surrounding residential areas. Even so, the district remains a food desert meaning that access to fresh produce is limited. Aside from a farmers’ market, which happens only once a week, the closest grocery store to the Jack London District is in Chinatown.

A startup team decided that it was time to shake things up. Tommaso Boggia and La Wanda Knox are co-founders of Portside Community Market, a soon-to-be cooperative whose mission will be to provide residents in the Jack London District with fresh, local and organic produce. The team plans to build a 5000-square-foot community market.

The hip neighborhood has attracted investors, restaurants and festivals but Boggia says this type of business development doesn’t necessarily reflect the residents’ wishes.

“I have been working with a neighborhood association for over a year, researching how Jack London residents, visitors, employees and business owners would like to see the neighborhood improve,” Boggia explains. “Over and over again, the number one concern is having more residential amenities and more specifically, a grocery store.”

Boggia is from Italy. He moved to the U.S. nine years ago and was shocked by the lack of access to fresh food.

“I was not able to walk to a place to get fresh and healthy food,” he says. “And I lived in Santa Cruz!”

For over year, Tommaso Boggia conducted research asking residents how they would like to see Jack London Square improve. Photo: Lauren Benichou
For over year, Tommaso Boggia conducted research asking residents how they would like to see Jack London Square improve. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind Portside Community Market’s business strategy.

“I come from Bayview in San Francisco,” she says. “It’s what you would call another food desert.”

Knox believes the market is an opportunity to build wealth and support the local economy. It is also an opportunity for her to grow professionally. Her stint as a corporate consultant left her feeling frustrated and she hopes that a cooperative business will offer a better working environment.

“I have worked in the corporate world and it is not friendly to African American women,” she says. “I always plateaued.”

Brahm Ahmadi from People’s Grocery inspired her. Ahmadi and his team are undertaking a similar venture in West Oakland called the People’s Community Market. Ahmadi is currently fundraising for his West Oakland project. After meeting with Ahmadi, she gained a better understanding of the challenges ahead, like the lack of “real” support from the City of Oakland.

“The city of Oakland says it supports the concept but at the same time officials haven’t put anything behind it,” she says.

La Wanda Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind the business strategy of Portside Community Market. Photo: Lauren Benichou
La Wanda Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind the business strategy of Portside Community Market. Photo: Lauren Benichou

But let’s be honest, Jack London Square brings massive revenue to the city of Oakland and residents aren’t living in poverty. Jack London’s 2000 residents do not have the same “needs” as West Oakland’s 25,000 residents, half of whom do not own a car, which makes walking 1.5 miles to the nearest grocery store a real challenge. So, I ask, why Jack London?

“I was not going go to a community of need and impose something on a community that is not my own,” Boggia says while Knox nods in approval. “This is the community that I know, that I live in and that’s why I wanted to start it here. From the beginning our idea was to create a replicable model whether through franchise or just though creating a way to support a sister cooperative in a community that is more in need but it will be driven from the people of that community,” he says.

Jack London: A Food Desert and Vacant Buildings

The district of Jack London is home to more than 2000 residents and workers but it is also a harbor of vacant buildings. Since the 1970s, numerous developers attempted to redesign Jack London Square only to leave behind empty spaces. In the 1970s, European-style pathways and storefronts popped up but the project never succeeded in exciting the masses. Barnes and Noble, which open in the 1980s, closed in 2010 and the building has been vacant ever since. That same year, Jack London Square Ventures LLC, a partnership between Ellis LLC and Divco West, envisioned a ferry-building-style market and built a six-story glass building composed of office and retail space. 90 percent of the office space is now leased to restaurants like Haven or Bocanova but the 72,000 square feet of retail space is still market-less.

Vacant buildings are a common sight in Jack London. Photo: Lauren Benichou
Vacant buildings are a common sight in Jack London. Photo: Lauren Benichou

What’s Next?

“The next step is figuring out our fundraising logistics and as soon as we are incorporated, we can start finalizing the location,” Boggia says.

“We are looking at visibility, parking, square footage and proximity to residential areas,” Knox adds.

Boggia's favorite location is on Broadway and 4th street. It's been unoccupied for years. Photo: Lauren Benichou
Boggia’s favorite location is on Broadway and 4th street. It’s been unoccupied for years. Photo: Lauren Benichou

But that’s easier said than done. Boggia says that some of the major challenges the team faces have been plaguing the district for years: property owners’ lack of strategy or unrealistic goals. He says that some of them, like Jack London Partners, are waiting for big box grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, to lease or buy their properties.

“That’s never going to happen,” he says. “There isn’t the residential density for it and even then they keep telling us that they don’t want something smaller.”

This location on Alice and 3rd is Knox's preference. "It has character," she says. Photo: Lauren Benichou
This location on Alice and 3rd is Knox’s preference. “It has character,” she says. Photo: Lauren Benichou

The team has recently launched a survey asking what residents would like their grocery store to look like. Boggia is convinced that the Portside Community Market will thrive even with competitors like Whole Foods because the project is truly community-oriented.

“We’ll reflect the neighborhood’s character, we are adaptable and we are worker-owned,” he says smiling.

More Information

Portside Community Market
Facebook Portside Community Market

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KQED News: The Celebration of the Days of the Dead in California

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It is that time of the year again! Check out my blog and radio piece for KQED News on our relationship with death and what Days of the Dead is all about.

To hear the piece and check out more photos, follow this link:

The celebration of the Days of the Dead is now very familiar to many Bay Area communities. This Meso-American holiday emerged in the 1970s, with official events in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some forty years later, the Bay Area hosts the largest one-day celebration in the country. In Oakland, the Fruitvale Dia de los Muertos Festival has had as many as 100,000 visitors. The Oakland Museum of California recently held its 18th Days of the Dead ceremony and received nearly 3,000 visitors.

Days of the Dead celebrations aren’t merely about death; they honor the lives of those who have passed. They are also about creating a new relationship with death, one that is different from what we experience in the United States. In many ways, the holidays are cathartic, with vivid colors, altars, sugar skulls, crafts and a comical spirit that helps us deal with death by focusing on life.

KALW’s Bay Area Beats: Micah Tron


KALW’s Bay Area Beats: Micah Tron

Originally aired/published on KALW

Micah Tron is a rapper born and raised in San Francisco. She’s a queer woman of color, but the hurdles she has faced go even beyond her race, sexual preference, and gender. She lived in a shelter, was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and a few years into her twenties, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. But she hasn’t let this stop her from pursuing her music career – she says it actually motivates her. After her nephew was born deaf, she learned sign language, and her latest dream is to make music for the deaf community. She spoke with reporter Lo Benichou about her story.

MICAH TRON: Tramicah Dimpsy is my government name. Micah Tron is my artist name.

When I was younger, my mom got me a karaoke machine for Christmas and I had been dying for it, too, and I got it and I was juiced and so I started…downloaded instrumentals from the internet, put them on CDs, and putting them into the karaoke machine and then rapping in my beats and making little cassette tapes.

I was trying to dabble into poetry because I was into the whole Def Jam on HBO thing. I was also thinking about journalism at the same time that’s why I went to New Orleans for, to study journalism – I wanted to be a writer, but music was really my passion.

So it was me and my sister and my other brother, and it was just us three, and my mom, she raised us all, by herself. I felt like she is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She worked two or three jobs but we always stay fresh. We lived in the projects, but we always stay fresh!

“The Sky is Falling Down” was a song I wrote awhile back. Three characters, coming together – and they all have these trials and tribulations. People who come from that kind of background – the kind of background I came from, really – but, you know, there is a way to make it. I feel like I am the odd bird in my family.

There was one point we stayed in a shelter and I had a mentor who they assigned to me. And I feel like she opened up the whole world to me, because I lived in the projects and my family was so closed minded. I didn’t really get to see a lot of the city and so she took me to places like the DeYoung Museum, she took me to Crissy Field. I had never seen Crissy Field before in my life.

We did a lot of stuff – it was so mind-blowing. It opened my whole eyes to the city. I had never known, you know. Then she disappeared, I never saw her again. And I know that she was a lesbian and I think that may have impacted me somehow, too. I felt like I came out at two different times, one to my family was the most recent because my family is kind of small-minded and bias against a lot of kind of people. But before that, I was just doing me – everybody pretty much knew.

I always thought it was an opportunity. There’s not many lesbian rappers trying to really get out there. I moved around a lot. I actually stayed at my dad’s house for a while in Georgia. He came and got me before the hurricane hit. I was going to Dillard University and it was a week before the hurricane and I got displaced.  It set me back so far.

I think I just now caught up to where I need to be, but as far as school-wise, they lost all of my information, my scholarship, my records and all of this so I was starting over really. I was with a friend and we were in my room and I just blanked out. And I blacked out. My friend said you know you really just had a seizure and you need to go get some help.

I saw the doctors and they put me on medication and I went from medication to medication and I felt like the medication made me sicker, so I stopped taking medicine. I am lucky that it hasn’t happened yet on stage. I am afraid it will happen but I try not to think about it. It was the Lil Kim show. That was my like, big boom of the year. I had been doing small club events and little stuff here and there for like non-profits and stuff like that, but when I got the opportunity to do that, I was stoked! I felt like I was priority. He called me for the opportunity – it was not something I applied for or that I tried to get, I was called up and I was her opener. I was the last person to go on before she did, so that was really cool. I’m working at a school called SEED, it’s a school for deaf toddlers and infants.

That’s one of my new ideas – I’m feeling like I want to make music for deaf people. They feel the tempo of the music and they feel the punch of the music but the sounds are different. It’s something they feel and internalize differently than other people because I feel like people who hear music don’t really listen to music – they just hear it. They feel it, they boppin’ to it, but they don’t really internalize the sounds, instruments, words everything that’s inside the songs.

I feel like I want to do something like that to bring out the music in a song so people can see it from a different side. That’s what I want to do, really – to travel. To get my music everywhere so I can show everybody who I am, so people can experience something different from somebody who is in a realm of people who get overlooked all the time. I think it’s our time to stand up.


“The Making Of” Project

“The Making Of” Project

The Kitchen Sisters and KQED are launching a new program. “The Making Of” is about things are made. How you, your neighbor, your co-worker make things. It’s a deeper look at an art human beings have been performing for years, the art of making… I will be the project’s intern. But I am also telling a story. The one of sugar skulls and the Day of the Dead. Stay tuned!



NPR: The Mosque’s Synagogue

Leon Bleckmann wearing his signature cap in his South Bronx apartment. Bleckmann was former treasurer of the Jewish congregation that lost their meeting place before being assisted by a local mosque. Photo by Lauren Benichou.

At first sight, Masjid al-Imam looks like a typical mosque. It’s an old, nondescript building on the corner of Westchester and Pugsley Avenues in South Bronx, New York, sandwiched between an aboveground subway and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Only on Friday nights, when men in broad-brimmed hats and black coats enter the building, would you give the place a second look.

That’s because this mosque is also a synagogue.

“This is the first place in New York State where Muslim and Jews worship on the same ground as brothers and sisters worshipping one god,” says Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the Imam at Masjid al-Imam and one of the main conspirators of this unlikely arrangement.

The building itself is actually the Islamic Center of North America. It houses both a mosque, located on the first floor and a space for Jews to hold services at the ground level. Both Muslims and Jews have been sharing this space since 2007.

It all started when the Jewish congregation Young Israel of Parkchester lost their own place of worship, a building also located in the South Bronx.

“The roof started to leak and the water was coming down on the electric equipment,” says Leon Bleckmann, the synagogue’s treasurer at the time. “It was getting dangerous.”

The small congregation lacked the funding to maintain the building, and the decline in membership also added to their struggle. Bleckmann said this decline reflected a general trend experienced all over the Bronx. According to a demographic survey from the North Jewish Data Bank, the Jewish population of the Bronx dropped by 45 percent between 1990 and 2000.

“All the way through the entire South Bronx, we are the only Jewish congregation left,” Bleckmann says.

Young Israel was forced to sell their building to the City of New York. With the money they received, they rented out a small storefront.

“They charged us $1800 for a hole in the wall,” Bleckmann says. “It was half of the space that we have now.”

With such high rent and almost no incoming funds, the congregation quickly ran out of money and lost their makeshift sanctuary once again. There was a moment, Bleckmann says, that they could not find anywhere to go.

After hearing about their struggle, Patricia Tomasulo, president of the Community Democratic Club and community activist, told Sheikh Drammeh about Young Israel, which was officially under the direction of Chabad of the East Bronx. Sheikh Drammeh received them with open arms.

“When a community activist came to me and said ‘I am just trying to help some Jewish folks who’d just lost their synagogue and they’re in need of a place to hold their services,’ my answer was immediately ‘welcome,’” Sheikh Drammeh says.

The Jewish congregation moved in, initially using the Imam’s office to hold their services before moving to a larger space in the back of the building. Bleckmann still hopes they will be able to have their own space someday, with the Torah and their own amenities. Even so, the two parties — Jewish and Muslim — are grateful and seem to get along perfectly.

Not everyone agrees with the move. Muslim scholars have complained to Sheikh Drammeh and some mosque-goers have decided to leave altogether.

But despite the controversy surrounding this little building, Sheikh Drammeh said he feels that they are setting a precedent in interfaith relationships and hopes his mosque might lead by example.

“I have absolutely no doubt that what started here in the boogie-down Bronx will not only be permanent but will be global,” he says. “Small things that come from good hearts have the potential to become universal.”

Sheikh Drammeh said that it is a Muslim’s duty to care for a guest, so for now, it is a match made in heaven.

This was first reported and produced for NPR’s Intern Edition Spring 2012.

Photo By Lauren Benichou from iPhone 4

First Steps on The Wild Side

Photo By Lauren Benichou from iPhone 4

Entering the world of freelancing is overwhelming, terrifying, confusing, exciting and, again, overwhelming. So I have decided to channel some of that energy through this blog. If you are an aspiring reporter, producer or if you think that I might be interesting enough, you can follow my troubles and achievements on this blog. I promise to display both the good and the bad. Enjoy!

Multimedia Reporter. Producer. Storyteller. Audiophile


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