You can hear the rumble of a drum circle from more than a block away, and it grows louder and louder as you approach Berkeley’s Ashby BART Station. Every Saturday and Sunday — except when it rains — a freewheeling jam session brings together drummers and other musicians in the BART parking lot.
Guy Fuerte, who’s been banging on his Cajon — a large rectangular drum — says he’s been coming to play here for 20 years, and it’s kept him from “making bad decisions.”
“It just gave me a place to come to express myself freely,” says Fuerte, who is now friends with many other musicians who come to play. “I was intimidated by the playing, by the music. I didn’t know how it all came together. I didn’t know how to use my hands to create such rhythms, but they invited me into it and showed me how … they were patient with me.”
This drum circle is part of the Berkeley Flea Market, which has served as a gathering place for African-Americans and other local residents for decades. Now the city of Berkeley is planning improvements to the surrounding neighborhood, and many are concerned that will contribute to more displacement of longtime residents — and of this well-loved market.
Walking the aisles, you can find everything from handmade soaps to used electronics and classic comic books. But one thing is impossible to miss: booths full of items celebrating or exploring black culture. At Pamela Jackson’s booth you can find what she calls “slave documents, mammy/pappy cookie jars, all that racist memorabilia.”
“I sell history, is what I sell,” explains Jackson, who’s been a vendor for five years. She’s been coming to shop here since the Ashby BART Station opened in 1973.
BART originally didn’t run trains on the weekends, says Errol Davis, with Community Services United, a nonprofit group that sponsors the market. “The parking lot was empty, so people felt they had the right to go in and set up and sell.”
Davis says the market is now a vital community gathering spot and a source of income for vendors.
“It’s not just African-American. There’s people out here from India, Tibet, Africa, South America, I mean from all over the world,” says Davis. “To wipe it out, they wouldn’t be able to make the extra money it takes to put their kids through Cal or whatever they’re doing with their income from the flea market. It would be gone.”
Planning For The Future
In 2014, Berkeley received a $750,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and designated the Adeline corridor a priority development area. The roughly 1-mile commercial strip stretches from the Oakland border to the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Dwight Way.
The MTC money is funding dozens of community meetings to get input on the area’s future.
“This is the last neighborhood in Berkeley that’s gotten this kind of attention,” says City Councilman Max Anderson, who represents District 3. “We’ve got Solano, we’ve got Elmwood, we’ve got Shattuck, we’ve got Telegraph, and finally after 40 years, we’re gonna do something about South Berkeley.”
Anderson, who lives a block away from Adeline Street, says it used to be the heart of a thriving black neighborhood, before BART built the station and “demolished that whole Adeline corridor.”
“Forty-three homes were eminent-domained and the construction lasted four or five years. And so all of those businesses there that were largely African-American went under … everything from eating establishments, to funeral homes to you name it,” says Anderson.
“So here we are in 2016, trying to undo something that happened 40 years ago.”
Affordable housing is something that many in this neighborhood would welcome, and that’s under consideration. But it may be the very thing that ends up threatening the flea market. Alisa Shen, with Berkeley’s planning department, says the city is “just trying to solicit ideas” at this point, but the BART parking lot is one of the few available sites where new housing could be built.
“We’ve heard the community wants more affordable housing, and typically you look at surface parking lots or vacant lots,” says Shen.
Learning From The Past?
In 2006, a proposal to build residential housing on the Ashby BART parking lot site was beaten back by neighborhood residents. But Shen says the city learned its lessons during similar revisioning initiatives for downtown and West Berkeley. Many felt that developers dominated those discussions and local residents were locked out.
This time around, the city is conducting a survey of the flea market vendors, and holding dozens of community meetings, where they’re hearing from a lot of skeptics. At a meeting with the Community Services United board of directors and other concerned citizens, Berkeley Copwatch‘s Andrea Prichett sounded off.
“I feel like what’s gonna end up is, you’re gonna be building expensive apartments for people who don’t live here yet, and that the people that do live here are gonna be forced out,” Prichett told Shen. “And then you’re gonna be able to say that the flea market was part of the process.”
The market could be relocated onto Adeline Street, which would be closed to traffic in one direction on the weekends.
Pamela Jackson is trying to organize her fellow vendors to create their own vision for the future. They recently held their first meeting. Jackson, who was born and raised in San Francisco, says she doesn’t want to see history repeat itself, where neighborhood improvements have ended up displacing black residents.
“My family was very prominent in the Fillmore area when redevelopment came through there, so that kinda tugs at my heartstrings. To remember what happened in San Francisco to the black community there, and then to hear the same rhetoric 40, 50 years later here in Berkeley now.”
The planning department hopes to have a proposal for the Adeline corridor by next year. The City Council will then have the final say.