Journal of Aesthetics & protest

Conversations and Theory in
practice. go post-money!!!

issue 7

A Conversation

with Jennifer Renteria (Starlite Swap Meet, LA)
and Scott Berzofsky (Participation Park, Baltimore)

Pariticipation Park
Starlite Swap Meet

Jennifer Renteria: For the last twenty-some years, my family has participated in the ritual of erecting a stand at the Starlite Swap Meet, a space which once operated as a drive-in theatre that housed up to 860 vehicles. Located approximately 20 minutes east of downtown Los Angeles, the otherwise empty theatre lot simultaneously began operating as a daytime outdoor swap-meet shortly after its opening. Over time, the swap-meet proved to be more successful than the space’s cinematic use; despite the eventual demise of the theatre in the mid 1990s, the swap-meet continues to thrive in the shadow of the Art Moderne-like marquee that once marked the theatre’s main entrance.

Our bicycle business – purchased from another dedicated bicycle vendor – began as a hobby, but eventually became the base of our income as my parents’ employment status changed. The entire family, as well as the day laborers, teens, and occasional uncle, we have employed over the years, have worked the stand, engaging in the swap-meet’s demands alongside the approximately other 200 hundred regular vendors. Our days at the swap meet are filled with drawings of bicycle parts made by non-English or Spanish speaking Asian customers on torn scraps of paper, the occasional machista Latino not entirely enthused by the idea of having a young girl tighten their bicycle's screws and everything else in between.

In recent years, what once was a family activity, has become my older brother’s concern as my parents have left the business’ future in his hands. After leaving to college, I spent little time at the swap meet, but in the recent years I have been back in the neighborhood. I have assisted my brother by driving a cargo van back and forth to the swap meet, full of extra merchandise, and occasionally operating the business when he is unable to do so.

Starlite Swap Meet

Scott Berzofsky: The story of your family's swap-meet business reminds me of two ongoing projects we're working on that involve reappropriating under-utilized space in the city for small worker-run businesses. The first is our urban farm cooperative located at Participation Park, a 1/3 acre vacant lot in east Baltimore that we have been squatting for 3 years. During the first 2 years we converted the lot into a community garden and social space where lots of food was grown and distributed for free to residents in the neighborhood. We organized educational activities for kids and cooked big meals with the vegetables we grew. This year we have continued to do these activities, but are also attempting to make the project more economically sustainable and less dependent on grants by starting a cooperative that sells food to local restaurants, at a local farmer's market and to a small community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

The second project is an illegal food cart that we take out some nights to sell affordable, locally sourced food, some of which is grown at Participation Park. We try to use the cart to reclaim public space and create an inclusive atmosphere on the sidewalk where people slow down, eat together and have a conversation. Being a street vendor is very performative— preparing food, talking to customers, and negotiating prices. It's nice to have such a direct relationship with the people who are consuming your product.

I imagine that the bicycle business has a similar social dimension. Have you built relationships with some of your customers over time? I was also wondering if you only provide services in exchange for money or if you barter as well?

Participation Park

JR: One example comes to mind that might answer both of your questions. A few months ago, a street vendor’s son, approximately age 11, inquired about the cost of a BMX-style bicycle that my brother generally keeps in stock. The cost, I believe, was about $80. Being that he did not have the money to purchase it then, he asked my brother if he could pay him in weekly payments. Since we, and the rest of the vendors, know that this young boy and his mother always appear with their cart at approximately 3:30 PM every Saturday or Sunday to sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs (sometimes fondly known as “Danger Dogs”) to the last few remaining customers and vendors, my brother knew that he would not fail him in paying for the bicycle. Indeed, after a few weeks of a couple of dollars here and there and the occasional “Danger Dog,” the young boy had paid for his bicycle.

So, as evidenced by this case, there is a very visible and established community that has been built both amongst the different vendors and, equally, between the vendors and the customers. For the most part, the same faces appear, the same purchases are made, the same music rhythms are blasting, and occasionally, those last few dollars will be overlooked in exchange for a bag of roasted peanuts or the chance to use a bit of somebody’s space for a day. As you expressed, it is nice to directly witness the work and joy one may undertake in obtaining and selling an item.

Have others, perhaps some of your customers, expressed an interest in also becoming vendors? As well, has there been any attempt to, or even interest in, legally recognizing the space as a place to vend?

SB: We are trying to get more residents in the neighborhood to become involved in the farm cooperative. Several people have individual plots where they grow food for personal consumption, but we haven't yet been able to demonstrate how growing food in the city can be a viable form of self-employment. It's very labor intensive and doesn't generate a huge income at first. This year we started selling heirloom tomatoes to a high-end restaurant that uses them on a fancy $9 tomato plate, we want to take some of the teenagers in the neighborhood on a field trip to the restaurant so they can see the potential of what we can produce on a vacant lot. Ideally we can create some summer jobs for these teenagers in the future.

As time goes on and more people become invested in the space, we have begun to wonder if squatting is the most sustainable strategy for land security. We are interested in squatting as a form of direct action and protest against a system of private property ownership that excludes people from the right to the city, the right to produce their own food and develop spaces that respond to their needs and desires. But we also have a responsibility to everyone who uses the park, and as the tragic story of the South Central Farm shows, if you don't have a legal right to occupy the land it can be taken away no matter how positive the project is or how much public support exists for it. So we are considering the option of establishing a community land trust in the next year that would secure the space and make it legal.

I assume the swap meet is legal. Who owns the property? Do all the vendors pay a fee to sustain it?

JR: The swap meet is legal. Nevertheless, its existence has often been at the core of tension between health and safety officials and the property owners.

(I’ll admit that the identity of the latter, for the most part, is unknown to me and, likely, to most of the other vendors. Interfacing with swap meet management is mostly limited to the ticket collectors at the entrance and the swap meet manager. Perhaps the only identifying thing I have come to know of them over the last several years is that they are “Koreanos, “ as most of the vendors refer to them. Aside from that, there is not much to say.)

Officials have regularly identified health and safety violations. As a result, property owners have often felt pressured to close the swap meet – or at least distribute a sense of concern amongst vendors. The swap meet manager will periodically – say, every six months or so –try to get vendors to not violate safety and health regulations, which may be everything from not placing items outside of a demarcated vending space to not selling food out of one’s truck. For the most part, vendors will comply, but will eventually take to going back to old habits that make it possible for them to make an extra buck or two.

The entire scenario – from officials showing up to the eventual vending of uninspected food – seems to happen so regularly that it almost seems like an inherent part of the swap meet’s workings. Of course, the concerns brought to light by the officials are legitimate and ones that should and can, perhaps, be addressed more efficiently. Some thoughts turn to architectural and planning solutions. Beginning with simply repainting lines that create more generous egress and ingress passageways for safety vehicles to providing spaces where people can prepare food within health code regulations.

All vendors pay approximately 50-70 dollars a day to rent a space and need permits to sell more than once a year. Some folks pay for their spaces on a monthly basis, under a kind of “lease” contract. Aside from the regulars, there are always others waiting in line outside of the main entrance early each morning in hopes of obtaining a spot out of which to vend. Spaces are, for the most part, only available if a regular vendor chooses not to show up on any given day. As well, I should note that customers pay 75 cents each to enter. Even in these times, folks are willing to pay the fee, even it may only be to “window” shop. Perhaps the possibility of getting a cheaper price than one may get at a nearby general store – be it because something is already priced as such or because one can bargain for a cheaper one – is what seems to bring folks to the swap meet. Whatever the case, there appears to be a strong demand for the space and its offerings, with a generous amount of people coming to vend or buy regularly, trusting that the other end will appear despite the swap meet’s absence during the week, an empty lot being the only sign of its existence.

What are the demographics of the community you work with and how might that affect how you organize, communicate, and network with vendors and other interested parties?

SB: The Park is located in an African American neighborhood that has experienced decades of disinvestment by the City and private property owners. At least half of the houses in the area are unoccupied and boarded-up, there are large vacant lots on every block, no grocery stores and limited employment opportunities. In many ways our project is a response to these conditions: an attempt to use the one resource that does exist in abundance —land, to produce healthy food and create jobs. But the same conditions of poverty have made it difficult to generate participation, because most people in the neighborhood are so busy struggling to get by that they don't have time to work on the farm. I think over time as the demand for locally produced food grows more people will see the potential to use vacant lots in the city for urban agriculture. Our biggest concern is that the people who live in these neighborhoods have a central role in the process and don't get displaced by a new wave of "green" gentrification.