In Defense of Flea Markets


The Shopping Experience

Admittedly, they could have come up with a better name for the flea market. Over the past decade, various city councilmembers have looked visibly uncomfortable, squirming in their seats, as they tried to explain to the stall owners that the markets were unsightly and unsanitary. At passionate meetings, several eloquent speakers defended their profession as the quintessential small business, their kids put through college, their ascent up the rungs of the economic ladder. But they’ve remained on the City’s hit list for good. There was an utter failure to culturally communicate. When the PDNG’s downtown plan was unveiled, the flea markets were quickly struck and replaced by a Santa Fe-style mercado.

Flea markets are a great example of perfect market. You have willing sellers and buyers, and so long as the Barrio Azteca isn’t charging a cuota that day, minimal overhead and taxes. I sold a couple old televisions that no pawn shop would even look at down on Oregon Street last year. I’ve tried to give away kitchen appliances in even worse shape – and you know if you can’t even find a taker, then it’s time to throw it away. You have tinkerers and traders, hustlers and scammers. It’s loud, it’s hot, and the people are mostly poor. It’s probably better if you speak Spanish. But it’s also something else – it’s crowded, which is something that you can’t say for very much downtown.

Oregon Street is nestled at the heart of the golden horseshoe, and the throngs of people that populate the makeshift stalls presumably also spend money at the neighboring businesses, even if they are fast-food joints and convenience stores. I’m all for the Rosenbaums trying out a more upscale mercado, and I hope that it draws the tourists they are looking for. Let’s just not forget that the lower-income Mexican and American shoppers have been the lifeblood of downtown for decades, and we destroy those economic activities at our own peril. If you want a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s downtown, you’re probably not shopping for shoes or sunglasses at the flea market on weekends. But you should give it a try. The most vibrant cities have a place for everybody.

Vanessa Johnson

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