Driving down Wood Street on the outskirts of West Oakland, empty expanses reveal views of the 880 Freeway swooping overhead toward the Bay Bridge. The sky is open and in the distance fingers of fog reach for the Berkeley Hills and the University of California, Berkeley, Campanile. Abandoned railroad switches lace streets leading to Oakland’s historic 16th Street Station, which has been vacant since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Where there used to be a large asphalt and gravel parking lot, today rows of amaranth, dahlias, sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos grow in front of the historic Beaux-Arts building. Welcome to West Oakland Woods (WOW) Farm Flowers.
Empty lots throughout West Oakland are testament to the losses that have severely impacted our neighborhood. Lost jobs, blighted abandoned buildings, and leftover pollution from industrial land use is a story echoed across the country in our post-industrial cities. But these bare lots and empty buildings are far from vacant in terms of history and their significance to the community.
At the turn of the last century, West Oakland was home to a number of the original Japanese nurseries that began a thriving cut flower and nursery industry in the East Bay; one of them was only a block away from the current WOW Farm Flowers site. And Oakland’s 16th Street Station was the end of the trans-continental railroad and the point of arrival for the Second Great Migration, a movement that, along with many others moving West, brought a large African American population from Texas and Louisiana to West Oakland to work at the docks and shipbuilding yards. Often, when people drive up and stop to see what we are doing at our farm, they talk about how the train station is where they arrived when they first moved to Oakland 50 years ago.
WOW Farm Flowers is a project of the Oakland-based, non-profit Game Theory Academy (GTA). GTA’s economic literacy program coaches at-risk youth in taking control of their own financial goals and decisions and provides job training through micro-enterprise programs at two sites: WOW Farm Flowers and the original WOW Farm, a 3,000-square-foot lot near the West Oakland BART station that grows gourmet greens for local restaurants. With growing demand for youth employment opportunities—applicants far outpaced available positions—an opportunity arose to expand the WOW Farm model and capitalize on the same conditions that early West Oakland nurseries had—vacant land and a temperate bayside climate that is ideal for cut flower production
In April of 2014 we signed a lease on 7,000 square feet of land in front of Oakland’s 16th Street Station with BRIDGE Housing, an organization dedicated to building and revitalizing communities in the Bay Area. Two other tenants, Kassenhoff Growers and Farmscape, are working alongside us on plots of their own. With the generous assistance of various Bay Area companies, we tested the soil and determined that the site was safe for a flower growing operation. We removed 12 inches of asphalt and base rock from the site and replaced it with 300 yards of clean topsoil and compost donated by the Oakland Zoo.
By June 2014, a cohort of youth interns began work at WOW Farm Flowers digging beds, laying irrigation lines, and planting. By midsummer, they were harvesting the growing numbers of cut flowers for delivery to local markets, florists, and events creating a beneficial loop linking businesses with an extremely local source of cut flower material produced by local youth. The farm is thriving. Local clients include Mandela Marketplace and Bay Grape in Oakland, and Gorgeous and Green, an eco-florist in Berkeley. WOW Farm Flowers provides regular table arrangements for Kilovolt Café in West Oakland, and flowers for weddings and private events.
Last October, after weeks of preparing, harvesting, and bunching work, WOW Farm Flowers created table arrangements for a wedding at The Lake Chalet on Lake Merritt in Oakland. Each youth intern took ownership of their work and assembled arrangements with a strong sense of style, carefully selecting blooms, combining colors, and adding accents. Working with professionalism, they delivered arrangements to the event space and placed them on white tablecloths; petals were sprinkled around a collection of tiered wedding cakes. The young workers clearly demonstrated an energy of satisfaction and pride and an eagerness to take on the next event.
For most of the kids, WOW Farm Flowers is their first job. So, in addition to the experiences gained from the production work and the exposure they get to the small businesses we serve, the youth come away with a resume, interview experience, references, a bank account, and—most importantly—a paycheck. As our urban environment shifts once again and the next phase of development and gentrification squeeze these “vacant” spaces, we feel it is imperative to include local youth in the process. GTA and WOW Farm Flowers are providing them with new skills and access to the thriving Bay Area economy.
Game Theory Academy
Game Theory Academy (GTA) has a mission to improve the economic decision-making skills and provide opportunities to low-income youth who have experience with juvenile justice, foster care, and homelessness.
• GTA teaches students how to think differently about money, increasing their financial stability and academic achievement while decreasing criminal activity.
• Young people graduate GTA with improved confidence in navigating the economy and with superior analytical skills they can apply to financial, education, career, and risk decisions.
• GTA serves 300 young people ages 16 to 22 each year in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For more information about WOW Farm Flowers and Game Theory Academy visit www.wowfarm.biz.