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West Berkeley market still has area’s support

By Josh Parr Daily Planet Staff
Thursday August 31, 2000

Some might call Willie Phillips a dreamer. He walks along a city block dominated by dot-commerce e-tailer lofts and gets visions of a funky, ethnic street mercado. He considers the Fourth Street boutiques and cafes and imagines some of the millions in yearly sales returning to the Oceanview community that surrounds it. 

As he speaks, he waves his hands as if conjuring up the market, to which he refers with its Spanish name. 

“The mercado would have a stage in the center for music and poetry, and 50 pop-up umbrellas for merchant stands around the edges. They’d sell organic produce, arts and crafts, ethnic foods. There’d be places for kids to play, and people would come from the neighborhoods to be here - to buy and sell high quality, affordable goods.” 

Proposed by the West Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation, a non-profit organization, the mercado was originally slated for a May opening. But the West Berkeley market has instead run aground on procedural snags, most based on resident and local business opposition. Some fear that the market will worsen parking. Others don’t want “itinerant traffic” to increase by their homes. 

Owen Maercks, owner of the Vivarium, doesn’t see the need for such a market. “Berkeley has a farmers’ market. We have a flea market. We have an arts and crafts market too. Why do we need another one?” 

But after a three year ride to get to this point, Phillips, who chairs the WBNDC, sees the resistance as mere bollards on the road of progress. He’s more concerned with seeing the project reach fruition. 

It’s admirable dedication for someone who became a board member almost by default. 

“I picked up on it after the former chair of the project, H.S. Zulu, was evicted from his home, and had to deal with his own problems. He’s now homeless. Another founder, Esther Bernal, died last year. It was her idea to give the Latino community a place to come to.” 

It’s a vision fermented of the frustration of many Oceanview residents who feel that the benefits of economic redevelopment in their neighborhood have passed them by.  

When Christine Vida, member of the West Berkeley Project Area Commission, looks at her neighborhood, she sees gentrification. 

“Even though I like a little bit of Beverly Hills, I don’t want a mega shopping zone here in West Berkeley. And I don’t want those interests taking over the neighborhood.” 

Though the West Berkeley market is still in astral form, it’s already polarized the rapidly changing neighborhood of Oceanview. The mercado has been in the works for over three years now, Phillips said. 

Though several sites have been considered, the setting du jour is the block of Fifth Street between University and Hearst avenues. It’s a small block bookended by Spenger’s large, rusted anchor on one side and the slick stucco polish of the Nature Company on the other. 

“It is not a produce market, or a flea market. Nor is it just a minority, hippy operation.” says Phillips, trying to dispel some of the perceptions surrounding the market. 

“What it is, is a market that will provide goods and opportunity to the people of West Berkeley who are not benefiting from the economic boom on Fourth Street. It takes advantage of what is already here, and creates a family-oriented, comfortable environment where local artisans can bring their wares and make a small living from the Fourth Street spillover,” says Phillips. 

Projected to profit perhaps $200,000 per season, which runs only during the warm months, much of the money, claims Phillips, would go toward subsidizing low-income entrepreneurs. 

“Training and development of local entrepreneurs is something that’s really lacking on a grass roots level. That’s something we want to address, not only theoretically, but in practice. Nothing beats giving a beginning entrepreneur a chance to run their own booth at a weekend market.” 

Many on the City Council and the PAC committee are supportive of the project. 

Calvin Fong, aide to District 2 Councilmember Margaret Breland said Breland is “very supportive” of the market. 

“Fourth Street generally caters to people who don’t live in Berkeley,” says Fong. “People who have lived here for years are having difficulty remaining here - to say it’s all due to Fourth Street is unfair - but Fourth Street is just the symptom of a larger problem. Property values are going up and those who can afford to move in come from a different demographic. This new market is neighborhood serving, and if it were at Fifth Street, would be accessible, by foot, by bus, for the people who do live here.” 

Vida agrees. 

“The yuppie element, upwardly mobile white folks for the most part, come here, knowing where they are coming, and then they start to complain about the low income folk who lived here already. I’m like, ‘you know who lived here before you came here, so don’t start acting like it’s suddenly a problem.’” 

Opposition to the market troubles her. 

“On one hand, I feel some sympathy for the residents who will be affected by this market,” she says, “but it really irritates me when business owners who benefit from the traffic suddenly say they don’t want the residents of this neighborhood to benefit from “their” customers. They need to remember, back in the 80’s before any of this development came here, things were never supposed to get this out of control.  

“I’m tired of all the tourist stuff - everyone deserves a little piece of the pie.” 

While figures on just how much money the Fourth Street shopping district generated in the last year were unavailable, WBNDC reports peg 1997 figures at $88 million. 

For now, the existence of such a market hangs in the balance. At the last PAC meeting, overwhelming testimony against the market’s proposed location prompted the commission to postpone any recommendation it would make to the City Council until the WBNDC could come up with a show of support from the community. 

Between now and then, Phillips will be outreaching in the neighborhood to find those people. But he says it won’t be easy. 

“I’m hoping to get people there, over 100 have already signed a petition showing their support. But people around here have become so disenchanted by the process of decision making that they don’t trust the process anymore. They don’t feel comfortable in a meeting just attended by people with vested interests,” say Phillips. 

Citing very few people of color on the PAC committee, he claims that many citizens don’t feel that they will be heard.  

“You get this situation where a few people are trying to represent all of West Berkeley, and that’s very problematic. People need to see some of their own up there, to know that they will be understood.” 

But if Phillips can just conjure up the image strongly enough in the next month, perhaps he will see his dream come into existence. 

“We need to tear down the walls between the perfumed soaps of Fourth Street and the so-called raggedy people who live in Oceanview. This market could start that,” says Vida. “That’s what gritty, historical Berkeley is all about.”