Erika D. Smith

There’s a war to make gentrified Oak Park black again. A ‘racist’ coffeehouse is the latest target

The coffee shop Old Soul at 40 Acres replaced this Starbucks, which closed in 2009 as the Great Recession hit. Since then, housing prices have increased dramatically in the surrounding neighborhood of Oak Park, forcing longtime residents to relocate.
The coffee shop Old Soul at 40 Acres replaced this Starbucks, which closed in 2009 as the Great Recession hit. Since then, housing prices have increased dramatically in the surrounding neighborhood of Oak Park, forcing longtime residents to relocate. acruz@sacbee.com

Twenty years ago, the corner of Broadway and 35th Street in Oak Park was known in Sacramento for drugs, prostitution and not much else. Then along came Kevin Johnson, newly retired from the NBA, who decided to turn two buildings on the long-neglected block into an art and cultural center, anchored by a coffee shop.

He called it 40 Acres, as in the “40 acres and a mule” that were promised, but never delivered to freed slaves after the Civil War. He thought that it would transform the poor, mostly black neighborhood where he grew up. And it has — so much so that the neighborhood is no longer poor or mostly black.

Such is the predictable story of gentrification. So, it’s sadly amusing and ironic, if not surprising, that we’ve reached the chapter in which Black Lives Matter is promising to protest that coffee shop at 40 Acres, Old Soul.

On Oct. 12, activists plan to host an open-mic night on the courtyard across from where customers will surely be sipping on expensive, caffeinated beverages. The theme? “Make Oak Park Black Again,” of course.

“Old Soul at 40 Acres is one of the many white-owned businesses that (are) unaffordable to most of the black folks that live in this area,” Black Lives Matter declared on Facebook, adding that “just like with gentrification,” the owners are trying “to erase us from this space.”

And as if to prove their point, the protest will happen during Specialty Coffee Week, an annual event that draws a particularly hipsterfied crowd of craft coffee roasters from all over the country. Perfect timing, right?

What led to this dust-up is a matter of some dispute. Both sides agree it stemmed from the last open-mic night held inside Old Soul at 40 Acres.

Tanya Faison, the founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, says it went well and was all about love, even if it ran a bit long. The owners of Old Soul, Tim Jordan and Jason Griest, disagree. They say they heard complaints from white customers and employees about feeling “harassed,” “intimidated” and “threatened” by some of the speakers.

That led to a testy conversation a few days later between Faison and Jordan, who quickly pulled the plug on future open-mic nights at Old Soul and whose descriptions of black activists Faison found to be racist.

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The way Jordan and Griest see it, Black Lives Matter is a “political organization” with a mission they generally support. But Old Soul shouldn’t be hosting political events, they said, because their coffee shops should be “positive” gathering places where everyone feels welcome and comfortable.

From the perspective of two white businessmen focused on making a profit, that makes some sense.

But I also can’t help but wonder who is “everyone”? And a “positive” gathering place for whom? The wealthier, mostly whiter people who have happily moved into Oak Park as the neighborhood has changed in recent years? Or the poorer, mostly browner people who continue to be pushed out and are understandably angry about it?

Can there really be a business that effectively serves and makes both groups feel welcome? If so, how? And, most important, do business owners like Jordan and Griest who operate in gentrifying neighborhoods have a responsibility to try to answer these questions, even though there are admittedly no easy answers?

“Absolutely” is what Black Lives Matter activists would say. Others in Sacramento would likely say the same, as evidenced by a brewing boycott of all three Old Soul locations, as well as public backlash directed at the owner of Naked Coffee, Christopher Pendarvis, who told activists to “grow up” in a tone-deaf email that has been making the rounds on Facebook.

Old Soul’s owners were more circumspect. They cited their years of good work in the community and the bonds they’ve built with customers, of which I am one, and lamented that so much of the company’s reputation is now being ripped apart and laced with accusations of racism on social media.

“I’ve thought a lot about this,” Jordan told me. “Are we the problem or are we the symptom? We’re clearly a grandfather business compared to all the other businesses. Is that a good or bad thing? Did we create the taco place across the street? Did we create the brewery that opened? I don’t think so. Developers did that.”

Griest was more to the point. Sitting in the shadow of Old Soul at the Weatherstone in midtown, he told me, “I don’t think businesses have anything to do with gentrification.” Gentrification would happen anyway, he said, and he’d much rather sponsor a community forum on on the topic at the Guild Theater than to have that dialogue happen at an Old Soul in a way that would alienate customers.

In other words, Jordan and Griest want to be Switzerland.

That might have been what Oak Park needed 20 years ago, back when the war most residents worried about was over drugs, not affordable housing, and when Johnson, using taxpayer-funded loans and grants, was struggling to develop even “a community in transition.” But that kind of head-in-the-sand thinking is not what the neighborhood needs today — much less in the near future, when UC Davis starts bringing in thousands of students to study on its forthcoming Aggie Square campus a few miles away.

There are plenty of ways, big and small, for business owners to support longtime residents who feel like outsiders in their own neighborhood. Get involved in the community. Hire more local workers. Because whatever is happening now is clearly not enough.

That’s my gentrification story and I’m sticking to it.

Even as his landlord tears down the East Harlem building he lives in, Ray Tirado has stayed put in his apartment. “Harassment by construction” is a critical part of how gentrification takes hold in neighborhoods like this, experts say.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith.

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