Public Comment

Berkeley’s Overground Railroad

Toya Groves
Friday June 16, 2006

The Ashby Community Flea Market represents a marketplace that existed over the ages in all of the seven continents. Upon walking into it you are greeted with the welcoming call of the drums played by people from all walks of life. Dancers move in the middle of the circle inviting guests to watch or join in. You are instantly surrounded by the sweet aroma of incense coupled with the smell of African and Caribbean food. Colorful cultural decorations and canopies filled with clothes from ancient places around the world, jewels from far away lands sparkle on table clothes, and handmade soaps and oils lure all who walk amongst this space. Within these clothed walls people are able to pick up Chinese chalk and fruits and vegetables while walking under the sunshine, mingling with friends and strangers, bargaining with vendors. This is not the average flea market selling old junk to those who find it to be treasures, this is a sacred space. This fusion of world cultural traditions gives the Ashby Community Flea market a sense of place—as if it has been here all along.  

Rising up in 1975, as the final step in the historic age of enlightenment and revolution known to many as the Berkeley Hippie Black Power Movement, the Ashby Community Flea Market emerged as a place for people to make a living, support families, and nurture a community environment that included and valued ancient cultural items. As one patron said, “It was a place to meet your wife.” 

Found in the historic Ashby Station District also known to residents as South Berkeley, the Ashby Community Flea Market has a regional draw making it a heart beat of Berkeley. In the old days, this neighborhood was the birthplace of the first steam train and electric transport systems connecting Oakland with Berkeley. Originally this land was bought by Mark and William Ashby, who were pioneer farmers, intending to build a ranch. Yet the visions of Governor Leland Stanford and real estate developer Francis Kittredge Shattuck overshadowed their farming idea as they put in a steam train line that would be the vein of what is now called the city of Berkeley. It was considered to be “one of the most attractive portions of Oakland’s surroundings” and was often referred to as the streetcar suburb. It has always been a place of comers and goers. Pit stops to enjoy the sun, meet new faces, and meet old friends. 

Locating on the corner of Ashby Avenue and MLK Jr. way, it stands as a monument of cultural uplift as old folks reminisce about Black Panther Party meetings and the renaming of old Grove Street after great freedom fighter Martin Luther King Jr. The environment surrounding the Ashby Flea Market is a sacred space allowing ancestors and freedom fighters to be honored and their legacy upheld.  

In the late 1980s, the flea market stood strong amidst the attack on the black community via crack cocaine and co-intelpro (CIA infiltration). Propelled by the beats and exodus of drums from all over the African Diaspora, the Ashby Community Flea Market remained amidst barren conditions, as people and neighborhoods were levelled by crack cocaine almost as fast as the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. Neighborhoods that were once rooted in the tradition of hard work and self empowerment were ruined, as crack cocaine consumed the second and third generation simultaneously. The drums of the marketplace beat louder holding down the African roots of its attacked people while providing a safe haven and an outlet for those who might otherwise be the victim of this urban genocide of the 1980s. Providing a place to receive shamanistic healings via herbal lore and sound waves, the Ashby Community Flea market allowed most who were victimized by Reaganomics physically, mentally, and emotionally a safe haven to heal. 

In the 1990s, I first hit the marketplace as a teenager searching for myself. The Ashby Community Flea Market allowed most of us to find ourselves as we wore our African dashikis, long Moroccan skirts and big gemmed hippie jewelry that nobody could find anywhere else with pride. It also planted within me the idea of entrepreneurship as I found confidence in watching the young vendors make a living without selling out to corporate America. But more than anything, the flea market was a place to actually touch, hold, and take home things from places around the world. At this market I bought my first red, gold and green African medallion and learned the other names for Africa. Native American dream catchers and turquoise filled my first medicine bag. As Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X told me to go back to Africa, the flea market allowed me to first take this Hajj mentally as I learned of books about the Black Panthers, eating to live, and Egypt. It allowed what might have only been pictures in books to be real and alive. This place is a sacred spot acting as a vessel into ancient worlds just as the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, and the shell mounds have swelled upon this great earth. The Ashby Community Flea Market should also bear the title of greatness and be held as a historic place. 

Now in the new millennium, as condos and cement are coagulating mother earth, even in places like Berkeley, the flea market is once again playing the war drum as concrete structures threaten its lively hood. Corporate America has once again found its weak link to take advantage of within the city of Berkeley and is planning to submerge the Ashby Flea market under the guise of urban development. In a time where most of us struggle to save and preserve the little bit of what is left of ancient culture, it is time we save what is here right now so that our children and their children will reap its benefit! The Ashby Community Flea market cannot be moved and contorted by the motions of money but must be preserved and recognized for its richness of cultural unity. Removing or moving this sacred space will serve as the mechanism for the divide and conquer motions of colonialism. So let’s allow this flea market to pour out into the streets and its influence to be the beacon of city uplift and beautification by building around it and not upon it. Let’s allow the drums beat and the smell of incense flow through the neighboring communities just as the old steam trains chugged up and down the streets connecting us all to each other and giving birth to a city that always held love, change, and vision at its core. And as the little engine blue engine cried out, “I think we can!” 


Toya Groves is a South Berkeley resident.