Attendance has been dwindling at the Berkeley Flea Market. In January, there were fewer than the customary 100  vendors  Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Attendance has been dwindling at the Berkeley Flea Market. In January, there were fewer than the customary 100  vendors  Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Reversing direction on remaining closed until April, Community Services United said the Berkeley Flea Market will open this weekend if the weather cooperates.

But even without rain, storm clouds still rumble over CSU’s relationship with market vendors.

The two entities found enough common ground during a series of meetings the past six weeks to reopen the market after dwindling operating funds prompted CSU to announce in January it would close in February and March. A unanimous Feb. 26 City Council resolution to help the market is buoying hopes the market can continue

But members of the Berkeley Community Flea Market Vendors Association are far from satisfied with how CSU manages the community institution, which has occupied the Ashby BART station on weekends since 1973.

“It’s total chaos,” said Kokavulu Lumukanda, the president of the Berkeley Community Flea Market Association, who equated the decades of history between CSU and flea market vendors as a “Hatfields and McCoys relationship.”

“First of all, ever since CSU made the surprise announcement to close the market, they’ve been relentless in their shutdown message,” he said. “Any other efforts to keep the market open have come from us.”

A vendor at the Berkeley Flea Market, Jan. 2017

About 100 vendors, many low-income or homeless, sell their wares in two station parking lots. CSU – which has overseen the market for more than 37 years without a written agreement with the transit agency – pays BART $2,500 in rent. The group’s other expenses include insurance, portable toilets and security. It collects $35 per day from vendors, a $10 increase from previous months.

CSU blames its financial trouble on shrinking attendance, bad weather and the Northern California fires that closed the market for at least one weekend last fall. Officials say neighborhood gentrification and the proliferation of online shopping haven’t helped.

The organization is trying to re-group by consulting twice a week with Oakland-based Uptima Business Bootcamp, re-applying for non-profit status – which lapsed in the 1980s, according to CSU board member Charles Gary – and raising money with a GoFundMe page, that collected $2,769 as of Wednesday. CSU also asked for donations from vendors during a March 2 meeting, a move Lumukanda equated to “ransom.”

“We hope to have the market open, weather permitting, this weekend,” said Gary. “I believe it’s going to be able to stay open.”

How that happens is what vendors want to know.

“We’ve raised some money, but those have been ad hoc or temporary efforts,” said Lumukanda, adding the city shouldn’t help CSU until the board adds vendors as new members. “A resolution shall not be forthcoming until we get a commitment from CSU to reconstitute itself.”

Vendors also want CSU to get its non-profit status back, for which Gary said they reapplied last month. They want to see the organization’s financial reports, which, by law, must be public.

“We don’t know where this money comes from,” said Lumukanda, adding he’s not sure who is on the board now. “As far as I can see, it’s just Charles and Andrea Prichett. The CSU operating budget has dwindled down. The warning bells should’ve gone off sometime in 2018. It’s very curious that they waited until the rainy season and with the fires last fall. We could’ve raised money leading up to the holiday season. We could’ve averted the January closure.”

Vendor Mike Lee said CSU didn’t have the authority to close the market in the first place since vendors didn’t have a representative at the meeting at which CSU decided to shut the market down temporarily.

“(Closing) was not an action of the board, but that of a couple of unidentified people,” said Lee, a homeless activist and 2016 Berkeley mayoral candidate. “For me, they have no authority.”

The City Council, which currently gives the market no direct funding, asked city staff to assist the market, a move CSU welcomes.

“We’re hoping the city will help us navigate what can only be described as an awkward situation,” said Gary.

The Berkeley Flea Market in January.

The city’s Economic Development Manager Jordan Klein said his department has consulted with CSU for a few months, mostly through Uptima, whose first client was CSU.

“They’re working to help CSU develop an ongoing business plan, and develop a marketing plan,” Klein said. “There’s been a gradual decline in the number of vendors and the number of shoppers. It’s a broader existential challenge the market is dealing with.”

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley presented details of the city’s efforts in a recent memo to the City Council.

City Councilman Ben Bartlett, whose District 3 covers the Ashby station, authored the Feb. 26 recommendation. “The flea market has been called a temple of human and commercial diversity,” Bartlett wrote, in an email to Berkeleyside. “It’s one of the few places where everyone has value, and everyone has a voice. It’s imperative that we help this market grow and reach its true potential.”

One of the suggestions being considered is moving the market to nearby Adeline Street on weekends, which could reduce expenses and help its visibility.

“CSU has also approached the city to informally discuss a move to the public right of way (on Adeline),” Klein said. “They’re still having internal discussions on how a move may take place. There are some people who think a move can improve visibility and breathe new life into the market. It might help them reduce their monthly expenses. That’s something the city and the market are trying to figure out.”

Moving the market would likely benefit the city, which controls the development rights of the parking area, despite BART being the landlord. The site has been mentioned as a possibility for badly-needed affordable housing, as part of the city’s Adeline Corridor Plan – a vision encompassing 100 acres stretching about a mile, from the intersection of Dwight Way and Shattuck Avenue, to the Oakland border.

“Community members in South Berkeley have identified affordable housing as their number one priority,” Klein said.

Klein said a draft version of the plan should be made public in April or May. Public meetings would follow.

African art and objects on display at the Berkeley Flea Market by Andrew Stelzer/KQED.

Options discussed so far include condensing the market into a smaller site along the eastern edge of the parking lot or closing Adeline between Ashby and Woolsey during market hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Other suggested uses of the area include a non-profit run “town square” with permanent vendors both indoors and outdoors, arts and cultural amenities, and fruit stands

It’s safe to say vendors don’t love the idea.

“We’re a 50-year-old organization,” Lumukanda said. “We have a specific agreement with BART. I would turn it over to the lawyer and say, ‘Go get a deal.’ We’ll move if you make us whole someplace else. Who wants to move to a street? A street is a place for cars and emergency vehicles. Berkeley Bowl and Walgreen’s would have a fit. We want to get back to business at the flea market. The name of the game is reconstituting the CSU.”

That may not be possible at this point, according to Ross Taub, a former CSU board member who is advising vendors.

“I think CSU is not ready to give up their control,” said Taub, who presided over the board in the early ‘80s. “Their interests are unclear to me. Two years ago, the vendors made a bunch of recommendations that were ignored. We need better security, we need clean bathrooms, we need lower fees. I’m trying to get the minutes from their meetings. We’ve asked for their finances. Show me the numbers. Then I’ll supposedly know who’s actually part of CSN.”

Christopher Smith, an occasional vendor and a regular member of the flea market’s drum circle, circulated a letter he wrote at the Feb. 26 council meeting, advocating keeping the market at the BART station.

A week later, after the two most recent meetings between CSU and vendors, Smith said “There was a chasm, but I think that’s closing. It’s everybody being able to finally communicate. The board knows it needs more people and they’re taking steps to get there. I’m a lot happier than I was a week ago.”

“I know that things are coming together,” Smith said.

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...