Friday, January 23, 2015

Is the Farmers' Market growing more exclusive by jettisoning the flea market?

The Piraeus, home of ancient Greek schlock
In Plato's Republic, Socrates goes from Athens to the Piraeus, a port side passage where the masses thronged. He went down from high society to the places of parades and cheap entertainment. More importantly, it was the place of commoners, outsiders and those considered barbarians. From Plato:

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful.

The Piraeus was a liminal space for a free philosopher of Athens: a threshold out of high society to the mundane world of people of much lower status. If Athens was the one, then the Piraeus was the many.

The Piraeus leaped to mind when I read the news that the North Capitol area Farmers' Market is now terminating its flea market in favor of what sound like bigger ticket vendors more stringently selected:

After spending more than a year visiting and collaborating with other successful markets across the country, the staff has developed a new system of standards that will ensure that shoppers will know the source of all items sold in the market and that the vendors will have been involved in the creation of their products.

“There are other places to go if you want a flea market experience,” says NFM Executive Director Tasha Kennard. "We recognized that in order to be the best market we can be we have to do things differently. The actions of the staff and the board show our commitment to and appreciation of the value of local farmers and products.”

What other flea markets exist within walking distance of North Capitol neighborhoods that allow the experience of the Farmers' Market adjoined by a great public park like Bicentennial Mall? I do not know of any. The article goes on to say that Farmers' Market flea market vendors are to be exiled to the Fairgrounds in south Nashville. Is a gated-community consciousness growing in North Nashville?

I'm not a buyer of kitsch, but I recognize that there is a reason it exists. It is a form of cheap art or expression that those middle-class-and-below can afford without a line of credit. Will those same commoners still be able to enter the Farmers' Market and browse with the idea of buying? It does not sound like it. A member of Urban Planet criticizes the move:

I agree that the produce and flowers should be local, but I disagree with kicking Flea Market vendors out. Growing up in the area - before it was hip and cool - the flea market has always been a part of the Nashville Farmers Market, even when it was on the other end of Bicentennial in open air tents. If the vendors pay their rent and don't sell knock off items, why should they have to move. I love going to the Asian couple tha has the $1 bins of little household items and wudknots. Many of these people make their livelihood at the Flea Market and displacing them because of a "few" that do not like cheaply made items is a shame. That's what a Flea Market is - I would rather have these vendors at a facility where they pay montly rent/taxes, than to have them posted up on the side of a road or in vacant lot selling their items, because that is what's going to happen.

So the Market will be displacing 50+ vendors in the flea market for a handful of "artisan" vendors that will sell $10 handmade soap, $20 soy made candles, and $30 hand-made scarfs. I'm all for supporting local-made products, but not everyone likes those type of things. Being that the market is located in a historically and predominantly black zip code, I would think they would want to cater to all residents - not just the folks in the new apartments, condos, and million dollar shotgun houses.

Their is plenty of space at the facility for everyone to coexist. They have already gone up on their rents three-fold now I guess this the last straw to kick them out [SIC].

I understand why many gentrifiers look down their noses at cheap tacky stuff that has been sold in the same place for decades, but I have no problem with flea markets because there are common goods that are higher than stuffy taste or stiff-necked wealth. Inclusiveness and respect are two such common goods.

What stands out to me is that First Tennessee Park, the Nashville Sounds' new ballpark, is specifically mentioned as a catalyst changes at the Farmers' Market. Some of us have warned that the new ballpark may not have the desired effect of growth in existing Jefferson Street businesses. Instead, it may leverage relocation of larger businesses that drive out the smaller ones. Is that good? It depends on what your expectations are. The Farmers' Market is like canary in a coal mine on that score.

Make no mistake: the Farmers' Market is a Metro owned public space. Make no mistake: if the Farmers' Market discourages buyers who cannot afford handmade artisan crafts, they will not visit the Farmers' Market, which will make it a less diverse place. Make no mistake: a space that no longer welcomes diversity, including class diversity, is no longer legitimately public.

I've been a neighbor of and a regular customer at the Farmers' Market for a decade since moving to Salemtown. I did not patronize the flea market, but I also never saw the need for it to go away. I do not understand why later arrivals (and apparently a neighborhood association) do.

By the way, I would be deliriously pleased if the Farmers' Market could certify that all of its produce comes from local, organic, family farms (like those in Scottsboro/Bells Bend) and not from Tennessee's powerful agribusiness plantations. I'm not deluded enough to believe that the schlock-haters are clamoring for a bridge that far. They seem satisfied enough with elbowing out the riff raff.

Disclaimer and full disclosure: This blog has been a donor to past efforts to preserve and to develop the Farmers' Market.

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