In the late 90s to early 2000s, there was almost nowhere in West Oakland to buy fresh produce. What was originally Ohlone Chochenyo land and then later known as the ‘Harlem of the West’, ‘Detroit of the West’, and other names signifying the rich culture, resources and businesses Black folk held in West Oakland, became an example of food apartheid at work. Although the Black Power movement and Chicano movement in the 50s-60s fueled food justice and equity programs in their respective communities here, thanks to generations of racist policies, systems, and structures, the mostly Black residents lacked a reliable source of fresh, affordable produce.
In 2001, a racially and culturally diverse group of West Oakland community members, led by Willow Summer (formerly Rosenthal), decided they would donate their yards and plant on vacant lots in order to grow healthy food right in their own neighborhood. Willow purchased a vacant lot that became the site of the first City Slicker Farm (CSF) garden on Center Street, an all-volunteer operation where neighbors grew and harvested together. Whatever produce wasn’t taken home by the farmers was put out for anyone to take for free. Most people, though, didn’t want to take it for free. They wanted to honor the labor of the farmers and honor their own ability to contribute, and so began the weekly Center Street Farm Stand.
Willow became the organization’s first Director and the founding farmers became an advisory board. The original mission was to empower West Oakland community members to meet the basic need for fresh, healthy food by creating sustainable, high-yield urban farms and backyard gardens. The CSF model was built on and honors the rich history of farming in Black, Latino, and immigrant families as well as the models of community farming in Cuba and Venezuela. For many neighbors, growing food helped reconnect them to generations of agricultural and culinary traditions that were threatened by assimilated, weaponized, and commodified food systems.
By gathering together to grow and celebrate food, share resources and knowledge, and preserve food-ways, we nourish and strengthen the resilience of our communities. Many community residents could remember a family member who had grown and preserved their own food and how good that food tasted.
Soon, people were seeing potential gardens all over the neighborhood, including in their own backyards. Growing food in urban areas presents natural challenges. As a craft, urban farmers look for ways to produce the large quantities of healthy food in the smallest of spaces. Many of the techniques we use today were pioneered as CSF and other like-minded organizations transformed hundreds of backyards, vacant and blighted spaces of West Oakland landscape into family and community gardens. The bureaucratic and legal landscape often provided additional challenges for urban farmers and gardeners.
As City Slicker Farms fought to provide direct access to West Oakland residents, the organization also partnered with the Oakland Food Policy Council, and other like-minded organizations to lobby for favorable laws that empower individual families to produce and sell their own food.
In 2010, we began searching for permanent roots to serve as a home base for our programs and the community. We found a vacant lot on the corner of Peralta and Helen St. , and with the the help of neighbors and funding from Proposition 84, we turned it into a thriving urban farm and community park.
Launched in June 2016 after deep community involvement in the planning and design process, the West Oakland Farm Park is now a hub for sustainable agriculture, environmental awareness and action, and health education. Nowhere else in the Bay Area has an organization demonstrated the permanence of urban agriculture in the way that the West Oakland Farm Park proves possible, nor are there any similar parks in the city that integrate environmental and agricultural learning opportunities as fully as this site.
As Oakland’s gentrification and the physical, mental, and communal implications of food apartheid continue to grow, CSF remains committed to community-based solutions that support food justice and access.