Food & Drink

Commentary: Oak Park’s Old Soul coffee house is a sign of diversity, not a blight

A glance at the 30-year history of St. Hope in Oak Park

St. Hope was established in 1989 by former mayor Kevin Johnson as an after school program at Sacramento High School. Over the years, it has expanded to a family of charter schools and a development company that focuses on revitalizing Oak Park.
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St. Hope was established in 1989 by former mayor Kevin Johnson as an after school program at Sacramento High School. Over the years, it has expanded to a family of charter schools and a development company that focuses on revitalizing Oak Park.

Last October, an Opinion article was published in The Sacramento Bee entitled “There’s a war to make gentrified Oak Park black again. A ‘racist’ coffeehouse is the latest target.” Writer Erika D. Smith made her case that the Old Soul coffee shop at 40 Acres is part of a gentrification problem in the area.

Let’s add context to the discussion surrounding her story of gentrification in Oak Park, inspired by Old Soul.

The original aim of having a coffee shop in the 40 Acres complex was to provide a community gathering place. It started as a barebones café; then the space became a Starbucks. When the Starbucks closed, in came Old Soul, a small Sacramento business.

Smith’s article referenced the opinion of the Sacramento Black Lives Matter Facebook page: that Old Soul’s white ownership, Jason Griest and Tim Jordan, were trying to erase the community’s black people from their café. The justification for the assessment was prohibitively high prices, and the Old Soul owners pulled the plug on Black Lives Matter open-mic nights, following a verbal altercation of disputed intensity.

Old Soul’s defenses against accusations of gentrification included the fact that an African American employee lived a five-minute walk away. He is now a manager at the Old Soul Weatherstone location. A current staff member at the 40 Acres location is married to an African American woman and they have a child who identifies as black. African American students from Sac High are often comfortably present before and after school. Most visits to the café exhibit a significant, contented African American presence.

This presence often includes Joany Titherington, the president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, who feels welcome at the café. A biracial African American, she has been an outspoken advocate for the preservation of diversity in Oak Park as well as Sacramento. This advocacy has included formal statements to the media concerning the need for police training, in regards to when to shoot, following the loss of unarmed Stephon Clark to police bullets in the Meadowview neighborhood.

In an interview, Titherington indicated that Tim Jordan and Old Soul attended Oak Park Neighborhood Association meetings before the café’s opening in 2010, in an effort to learn what sort of café the community wanted in Oak Park at the corner of 35th Street and Broadway.

Gathering information for this followup article through conversations with other customers who have visited over the years did reveal the opinion by one African American that whites, at least on some occasions, have received better service than blacks at the spot.

Though Black Lives Matter Sacramento founder Tanya Faison has been a sharp critic of Old Soul, she also said in an interview she felt welcomed by numerous staff members at the location. Rather than a boycott, as proposed by Faison last year, we should be focused on the positives and the growth of locally owned shops in any neighborhood. They are a more fitting alternative to corporate coffee houses for our diverse city.

In her October column, Smith referred to two groups of prospective visitors in her opinion article, “the poorer, mostly browner people” and “the wealthier mostly whiter people.” She asks, “Can there really be a business that serves both groups effectively?”

It’s important to consider that Hispanics make up a significant part of Oak Park’s population. Census data confirms that Oak Park south of 12th Avenue is over 50 percent Hispanic. There was a major influx of African Americans in the 50s, largely caused by their displacement from other communities. Blacks have taken residence in Oak Park since early in the neighborhood’s history. There is currently an Asian presence as well. In some cases, these different groups live on the same street, reflecting Sacramento’s diversity within neighborhoods. Whites have been there the whole time, almost to the exclusion of other races in the beginning. It is important to note that whites have in the past unfairly had the privilege of being able to live anywhere in the city and its surrounding areas when covenants kept minorities from doing the same. Oak Park is a melting pot of many of our cultures and the shops there should reflect that diversity.

Then there’s the price issue. Old Soul 40 Acres offers an espresso for $3.50 made with a blend that includes Ethiopian coffee, giving it a pronounced blueberry note. Tim Jordan indicated in an interview that his pricing system hasn’t changed since the store opened, and that it is structured in a way that has kept the store profitable. Old Soul shoulders the expense of roasting its own coffee beans and visiting coffee producers in other countries.

With that $3.50, a customer also enjoys access to study space, a restroom and a venue to talk to neighbors, colleagues and strangers.

Broadway Coffee down the street offers a cheaper option for those inclined; their espresso costs just $2.25. And just outside of Oak Park in the other direction down Broadway is one of the most demographically diverse spaces in Sacramento, a DMV branch office at 4700 Broadway. The DMV’s pricing is prohibitive, to say the least, in many cases.

The coffee shop is an indispensable community-building space. Faison met me at a coffee shop recently to discuss Old Soul and Smith’s article, after all. Sacramento is at its best, without question, when its neighborhood gathering places reflect its diversity.

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