The Berkeley Flea Market will be closed in February and March — the first time in its history that it has shuttered in the winter. (Natalie Orenstein/Berkeleyside)
The Berkeley Flea Market is shutting down for February and March — the first time in its 46-year history that it has closed — and may end up relocating from the Ashby BART Station parking lot to a lot on Adeline Street.
The weekend outdoor market has been struggling financially in recent years, and organizers said they will use the next few months to regroup and consider future plans.
“The flea market has been suffering for the past three years,” said Charles Gary, a long-time board member of Community Services United (CSU), the Berkeley nonprofit that runs the market, which aims to help homeless and working-class people run their own businesses. “We felt that this would be a good time to reorganize.”
The group’s expenses include $2,500 in monthly rent to BART, as well as the cost of insurance, security, portable toilets and personnel to assist vendors. It makes money from renting out stalls to vendors.
CSU has launched a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to raise $20,000 in donations to keep the market alive. As of Wednesday morning, $2,659 had been contributed by 36 donors.
“The Berkeley Flea Market is in grave danger,” a statement on the GoFundMe web page reads. “Our cash flow is very low, and the rainy season has come. When it rains, we can lose a whole weekend’s earnings. We will only survive if our community supports us. This is an emergency. Please help us.”
The market, which typically draws about 100 vendors, also recently had to close for two weekends because of storms and smoky conditions.
“When we don’t operate, we don’t make any money, but we still have the costs,” said CSU board member Andrea Prichett, who said the market is planning to reopen in April. “It’s frightening for [vendors’] livelihood ... It’s important for us to get back into action.”
The city doesn’t provide any direct funding to the flea market, although Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s manager of economic development, said the city is working with CSU in several ways, including through the city’s new partnership with Uptima Business Bootcamp, an Oakland-based “business accelerator.”
“They’re working directly with the flea market to develop an action plan to help them with their sustainability,” Klein said.
“We were fortunate enough to be their first client (in Berkeley),” Gary said, adding that CSU has already met with Uptima twice this week, and another meeting is scheduled for Sunday.
The Berkeley Flea Market’s history — which Gary said doesn’t include ever shutting down in February and March — stretches back to 1973, the year the Ashby BART station opened. Trains didn’t initially run on weekends, prompting people to use the empty parking area to sell secondhand items. It has since grown into a Berkeley institution and an important source of income for some local residents – many of whom are homeless and living on low-wage jobs — as well as a community gathering place.
Site's future still unclear
The future of the 6.3-acre, 600-space Ashby BART parking area, which consists of two lots, has long been a contentious issue in South Berkeley. While BART owns the underground space of the station and the parking area, the city controls the site’s above-ground development rights.
In 1985, a court ruled against BART in a lawsuit aimed at moving the flea market off the site, saying the market had the right to stay as long as BART didn’t have a legitimate use for the parking area, according to Prichett.
Now Berkeley is eyeing the BART parking lot for affordable housing. And, while the city has said it intends to find a space for the market, many neighbors have expressed concern in public meetings about gentrification, the need for affordable housing and the possible disappearance of the flea market.
Berkeley has been working on a long-range plan for the area through its Adeline Corridor Plan, a vision for a 100-acre expanse stretching about a mile, from the intersection of Dwight Way and Shattuck Avenue to the Oakland border. The city launched the idea after receiving a $750,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2014.
The city is working with BART and residents on the specifics. The project’s first draft plan and environmental impact report will be ready in April or May, Klein said.
One idea that's been floated is to turn the space into a nonprofit-managed “town square” with permanent vendors, live music and other arts and cultural amenities, and a smaller area set aside for the flea market. Gary said a farmer’s market could also be added on Sundays.
“We’re the bridge (between) the community that’s been there for 40 years, and the community that’s coming there daily,” he said.
The gentrification factor
“There’s been an overall decline in foot traffic in the market,” said Prichett. “We attribute that to gentrification. In the last three to five years, we’ve really seen it.”
Through dozens of eminent-domain seizures of homes and businesses in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, BART construction radically transformed this South Berkeley neighborhood, which had previously been home to mostly black and Japanese families.
Over the last three decades, the racial makeup of the Adeline Corridor neighborhood has changed rapidly. In 1990, nearly half the neighborhood was African-American. By 2010, that percentage had dwindled to about 25 percent, as a growing number of white families moved in, according to a 2016 report from the Adeline Corridor Community Forum.
Gary said the average home price west of Martin Luther King Jr. Way was $61,000 when the flea market began operating in 1973. “Now it would cost $1.4 or $1.5 million,” he said. “That’s a changing demographic. When all these things are put together, it’s been difficult for us.”
Gary said a number of other factors have also contributed to dwindling attendance at the market in recent years, including the growing popularity of online shopping.
“For years, every stall in the market would be full,” he said. “We were able to make money. That’s not the case anymore.”
Vendors at the market sell all sorts of wares, from Bob Marley pins and African masks to clothes, socks, jewelry and plants. Drummers form a drum circle every weekend. Food from all around the world is also on offer.
A commenter on Yelp wrote recently of how he appreciated the eclectic nature of the market. “You had vendors that sold all sorts of things,” wrote Tre S. from Pittsburg. “You had your bohemian stuff, your hipster stuff, your old records and nick nacks [sic], food stalls, scent and oil stands, jewelry, knock off products and even massage stations throughout this space. They also had some African musicians playing in spurts as I walked along and looked at things.”
Other commenters on Yelp, though, noted that the market had gone downhill in recent years.
“This market was once overflowing with local and regional vendors,” wrote Dee Was Here Z, who is from Alameda. “It was full and thriving when bootleg movies were hot! One could spend hours learning, listening to the bongo/Congo drummers, eating ethnic foods, smelling the trees, and of course, supporting the locals striving to survive in the Bay. But evolving streaming technologies have permanently altered the landscape and it seems more like an opportunity to get a sunburn in the summer and grab a cool ginger drink to take on your stroll back to your car, meet Uber or hop on BART.”
Eyeing a new site
The market is considering a proposal to relocate to Adeline Street where there would be built-in foot traffic and better visibility.
“They’ve been strategizing how to make the market more visible,” said Gary.
Klein, the city's economic development manager, said the flea market has obtained the paperwork to apply for the required special-event permit to potentially move to Adeline Street, a process he noted could be “pretty complicated.”
“We know that the flea market is a valuable community asset,” he said. “We’ve heard a very clear expression from the community about the value of the flea market.”
This story was originally published by Berkeleyside on Jan. 25, 2019.