Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Breaking Ground on Fresh & Easy Isn't Easy

Quick quiz! Who is missing from this photograph? (Answer below)

a) Sophie Maxwell
b) Gavin Newsom
c) Community Advocates
d) All of the above

The Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market groundbreaking at the 5800 Third Street construction site last Thursday had all the makings of a celebration, but getting to it required crossing a picket line that was more populated than the event itself. That was the first clue the event was to have a split personality.

True Hope Baptist Church Pastor, Reverend Aurelius Walker, led the "Blessing of the Ground." Walker was greeted with respect by the audience, and created what was perhaps the most graceful moment of the day. "Thank you," he said in prayer, "for making our neighborhood a quality neighborhood, now and in the future."

The arrival of a new food market to the neighborhood, something most regard as a victory for the Bayview, received a generally subdued acknowledgement punctuated by awkward moments. Jim Noteware, CEO of Noteware Development, and the event host, thanked the political and financial supporters of the development that will house Fresh & Easy.

Movers and shakers in the public sector were appreciated for shepherding a process that, in Noteware's experience, usually takes much longer. Goldman Sachs, which invested $250M in the project, was especially highlighted.

Noteware expressed pride in his company's strategy of building "mid-priced homes in high-priced markets," and then closed his comments with a generous introduction of Redevelopment Public Advisory Committee Chair, Angelo King, who he referred to as "my friend."

King, visibly bristling, had some of the most poignant comments of the day. He referenced various commitments the developers were pressured to make. "Now we've gotten you on the hook for these things," he said, "and we're not going to let you go."

Speaking to his own community, King mentioned the flight of black families from San Francisco. He hoped that developments like 5800 Third would contribute to a different vision for the Bayview. "If you want to be next to black folks," he said, "stay here in the Bayview." That statement earned King the most enthusiastic applause of the event.

Tim Mason, CEO of Fresh & Easy, was by far the best cheerleader of the day. Following King, he urged, "Don't watch my lips, watch my feet."

Mason seemed genuinely excited to be part of the first announcement of a Fresh & Easy site in Northern California. (Tesco, the United Kingdom-based company that owns the brand, is in phase one of its march across the U.S. market.) He referenced the company's business model which targets underserved neighborhoods. "We have said, since the beginning, we want to serve all communities."

The weather, like the event, seemed unable to make up its mind. Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who was on the cold side of the tent, opened her remarks by saying the spirit of the gathering had warmed her up. She made it clear that bringing a market to the neighborhood didn't happen overnight. "We've been working on this for years," she said, "listening and providing the resources."

Supervisor Maxwell led the ritual of turning a shovel-full of dirt, a few pictures were snapped, and the crowd quickly dissipated.

Now for our quiz! If you chose "d) All of the above," you were right. Supervisor Maxwell was being interviewed when the group shot above was taken. Mayor Newsom, who has a policy of not crossing picket lines, could not attend. And resident and grassroots advocates who had lent their support and work to the process of attracting a food market went unacknowledged.

Comment -- A collaboration of city agencies, community organizations and resident advocates called the Southeast Sector Food Access Working Group (which includes Quesada Gardens) attended the ceremony in full force. The group had been in the news just before the groundbreaking for a survey of residents that made the urgency of food access in the Bayview a quantified message, useful to developers and politicos.

After the formal event, the oversight was brought to the attention of several speakers. Fresh & Easy CEO Tim Mason was the only one to react as though he saw the value of community participation to his own work, a moment that recalled an earlier comment from the podium about U.S. supermarkets like Safeway turning the Bayview down. Why does it take a Brit to spot the value of community, and a U.K. company to recognize that people in low-income neighborhoods shop and eat food like everyone else?

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