Maggie Castellon, 44, manages the BayFresh Piñateria at the Berryessa Flea Market with confident ease. She keeps an eye on the people passing by her stand, searching for potential customers while instructing her brother and her kids to keep the stall clean and organized. The brightly colored piñatas and Mexican candy they sell are lined up in cheerful rows.
“All the candy we have, we work with distributors that import from Mexico,” she said. “Then our piñatas — each style you see is a different family that works on the style.”
Her family has had a stall at this market since 1974, a little more than a decade after the flea market first opened in 1960 when George Bumb decided to turn an old meat processing plant into a 120-acre outdoor market. It became a hub for thousands of immigrants to start small businesses and build their lives in Silicon Valley.
Most of the vendors immigrated from Latin America, but there are business people from many other places, too: Vietnam, China, India and Korea, among others. Castellon grew up helping her parents in their stall and recalled how important it was for her to be exposed to many different cultures, languages and religions.
“All of the best pieces of all these different cultures [come] together and [clash] together [in the market],” Castellon said. “It’s beautiful.”
But this vibrant place, an intersection of so many people and cultures that now call San José home, could soon cease to exist.
In the early 2000s, BART selected the Berryessa neighborhood as the ideal place for its southernmost stop. As a result, city officials started rezoning the land surrounding the station — including where the market operates — to make way for thousands of housing units.
Now, a little over 20 years later, the Berryessa BART station is open and the 120-acre market site could be a perfect location for transit-friendly housing. City officials say when the development they plan to build is complete, it will include 4,000 houses and apartments, acres of public parks, and could create 22,000 jobs in the area.
San José, like many California cities, is facing pressure from the state to meet housing and climate goals. For city planners, dense housing developments near regional transit stations appear to be the perfect solution.
“From a good development standpoint, [the Berryessa Flea Market] would have to be put into other economic uses,” said San José Councilmember David Cohen. “At that time, the council did not take any action to determine what would happen to the flea market.”
The lack of planning for their future has infuriated some vendors. The market is their livelihood. Maggie Castellon’s family is lucky; she has a full-time job as a courtroom clerk that anchors them. But, they still depend on proceeds from the stall to cover expenses.
“The funds that come from the flea market are able to supply food and additional payments,” she said. “Having a second income seems to be the way a lot of residents in San José are having to go.”
In late 2020, a small group of vendors formed the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association and led protests and hunger strikes to petition the city to include the vendors in conversations about the flea market’s future. This year, the city created an advisory committee tasked with drafting a transition plan for the vendors as the market closes. Maggie is a member.
Their advocacy efforts have made an impact. The city council recently set aside 5 acres in the new development plan for an outdoor market. Cohen and other city officials say they will do everything they can to encourage whoever builds the housing to continue the flea market. But there’s no guarantee the developer will follow the city’s advice. No matter what happens, the market would be significantly smaller.
Some vendors, including Castellon, see the 5-acre plan as a paltry commitment. They don’t want to wait for a spot in a market that may not have space for them. Instead, they’re working with the city to find an alternative spot in San José where all the vendors can move together to start a new flea market.
They’re considering the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, the Reid-Hillview Airport and the Singleton Road disposal site. The city promised to investigate each option, but officials haven’t committed to any particular site yet. Meanwhile, the Berryessa Flea Market’s owners announced in July that they expect to start issuing eviction notices in January 2024. The vendors will then have a year to move out from whenever they receive an eviction notice.
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Castellon hopes the city will step in and find a solution for the vendors, but is willing to leave the city and start a market elsewhere if she has to.
“It’s good to have hope, but you also have to have initiative and motivation,” she said. “And that’s what we’re going to do. [We’re] just going to make it happen, whether it’s in San José or in another city, with the goal being for us to stay here. But if we’re not going to be welcomed in San José, then we’ll make it happen elsewhere.”
But Castellon and the other vendors may get a temporary reprieve. Fears of a recession have developers canceling and stalling housing projects. Subsequently, the owners of the flea market still haven’t found a developer to take on the project, partially because of its size and the current economic climate.
“The environment isn’t ideal now,” Cohen said. “Chances are the market’s going to be open even longer than people thought.”
This story has been updated to reflect that flea market vendors can expect to begin receiving eviction notices in January, 2024, and not October, 2023 as the story previously stated.
Aug. 13: An earlier version of this story stated Reid Hillview Airport is closed when it is still open for business. This story has been edited to correct the inaccuracy.
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