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Nikki Fortunato Bas stood on the sidewalk on the eastern shore of Lake Merritt while a group of about 30 street vendors, whose tables and carts were set up nearby, gathered in a socially distanced semi-circle around her. It was cold, overcast, and windy, but that wasn’t keeping anyone away from the lake this Tuesday afternoon. Joggers curiously eyed the gathering, which was actually an impromptu town hall meeting. Bas, who has represented District 2 on the Oakland City Council the past 18 months, projected her voice through her face mask over the sound of motorcycles rumbling by on Lakeshore Avenue.
“I have an interest in making sure that all of our parks are places where everyone feels like they belong,” Bas said. “I know you feel like you’re getting pushed out, especially since Barbeque Becky.” Several vendors responded “yes” and nodded their heads, recalling the incident two years ago when a white woman called the police to report on a Black family grilling while enjoying the lake.
Recently, city code enforcement staff visited Lakeshore Avenue and warned vendors to leave or face potentially expensive fines—vending in parks is illegal without temporary special event permits. Many of the vendors viewed the move not just as city bureaucracy enforcing the rules, but also as an effort to remove a mostly Black community of entrepreneurs from a gentrified part of Oakland.
After Bas spoke, James Copes, a longtime street vendor who sells apparel at the lake, stepped forward and addressed the gathering. “We are here to stay. This is our location and this is where we plan to be,” he told the group. “But we need to make sure we’re responsible and leave the park cleaner than when we came.”
Complaints about crowding at the lake, especially the lawn between the Pergola and Brooklyn Avenue, have increased as the pandemic rolls on. Some neighbors say the area has been overwhelmed with partiers, and recent holiday celebrations have drawn thousands, despite guidance from public health officials to avoid large gatherings. Video of revelers blocking a fire truck from responding to a Fourth of July medical call near the lake went viral, symbolizing what some view as the lake’s status as a public nuisance, especially during the pandemic.
But it’s the vendors themselves—a rotating cast of several dozen who set up along Lakeshore every day of the week—who have become the most visible subject in this bigger conflict about Lake Merritt’s uses. Some neighbors and other residents want the city to crack down and remove table-top merchants and food trucks from the area, and even break up celebratory gatherings in the park altogether.
Others, including Bas, are opposed to strict enforcement on the grounds that street vending is an important source of income for people whose day jobs have disappeared because of the pandemic. She thinks the city should find a way to work with vendors to safely legalize their existence, which contributes to the local economy. But she said the city also needs to address parking and traffic problems, trash, noise, and other harmful impacts on the neighborhood and lake.
“To vend there, you need a permit,” Bas told The Oaklandside in an interview. “My office has been working with the vendors to figure out whether we could create some type of pilot program so it could be more organized and vendors could have more certainty.”
Tensions between the vendors and residents who live along Lakeshore also have a racial edge. Nearly all the vendors are Black, while many of the neighbors are white. Many lake visitors are also Black and Latino, and in recent months there have been a number of startling incidents surfacing old conflicts about who is allowed to enjoy Oakland’s most central park. Apparent nooses hanging from a tree later turned out to be exercise equipment, but a week later, an effigy tied to another tree led to the opening of a hate crime investigation.
During the Tuesday afternoon town hall meeting, one neighbor, a white woman, stepped to the center of the group and told the vendors bluntly that people visiting the lake are caught frequently urinating and defecating in the entranceways of apartment buildings nearby. But she said she supports the vendors. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be in the Black community,” she said.
Another neighbor who said she lives on Wesley Avenue, which sees traffic jams on weekends when there are parties at the lake, told the vendors she also supports them, but is concerned about the crowds they’re drawing. “It brings me joy to see Black joy out here each weekend.” But she added, “I want you all to stay alive, and I want your grandmas to stay alive. That COVID shit is real.”
The situation at the lake appears to be coming to a head as more neighbors complain about large parties and the number of unpermitted street vendors grows, all while the COVID-19 pandemic worsens.
Bas said that she is working to find a win-win solution for vendors and neighbors, and to bring resources to the lake to encourage social distancing and fewer crowds. But the solutions aren’t clear yet, and the economic forces that have driven vendors to the lake in larger numbers than ever aren’t abating. Feelings of “quarantine fatigue,” the desire to go back to normal and have social gatherings again, are also prevalent, underscoring the need for a new approach to city parks.
One neighbor attending the town hall meeting, Greg Anderson, wondered aloud, “How do we reduce crowds? How do we support Black businesses?”
Then he summed up the current situation: “Right now, this isn’t working.”
Street vendors gather at Lake Merritt out of necessity
Jerome Sindano, a Congolese immigrant who lives in Oakland, is a newer vendor at Lake Merritt. He was a rideshare driver before the pandemic, but he no longer feels safe in such close proximity to passengers. He first set up his table during the Juneteenth celebrations to sell Black Lives Matter apparel and Vitaminwater. He always has sanitizer at his table and wears a BLM mask emblazoned with big yellow letters.
“Here it’s okay, I won’t get COVID out here,” Sindano said in a recent interview.
Most of the Lake Merritt street vendors The Oaklandside spoke with over the past week said they are selling there because they either lost their pre-pandemic jobs or don’t feel safe working indoors in spaces they can’t control. Sindano shows up almost every day at the lake. He says it’s a temporary gig, but a necessary one. “If they stop us here, they are killing us economically. Black economies matter,” he said.
Vendor and Oakland resident Christian Nicholas was at Bas’ town hall meeting on Tuesday and said he feels optimistic that vendors will be allowed to remain at the lake. “Right now, a lot of voices in the community are being listened to. People are willing to work together,” Nicholas said.
He started selling two weeks ago, right after he lost his job as a customer service specialist for Facebook. He started his company, Ibada Tea, almost three years ago. His brews come in a variety of flavors, from green tea to hibiscus and elderberry. He started brewing as a means to regulate his low blood pressure, brought on by excessive soda and alcohol consumption. Health consciousness pervades his whole approach: he’s masked up, has hand sanitizer, and uses gloves when he makes a sale.
As to why the eastern edge of the lake has grown into a larger outdoor bazaar, Nicholas said he thinks it’s because there are few other public spaces in the city with as many pedestrians. “We see people here and it’s okay to sell,” Nicholas said.
Other vendors he’s friendly with come all the way from San Jose and Stockton. Nicholas recently obtained a business permit and said he plans to keep selling herbal teas five days a week at the lake until the city says otherwise.
Last Friday was San Jose-native Brandon Quintanilla’s first go at selling by the lake. He runs Early Morning Late Nights, an independent streetwear distribution company. He set up shop at 9 a.m. and made his first sale of the day at 11. Bursting with energy and wearing a mask, Quintinalla pulled out his phone and documented the purchase for an Instagram story.
Two other potential customers strolled by and stopped to admire a neon yellow shirt imprinted with a giant Kanye West bear head. They opted not to purchase but yelled, “Your stuff is dope! Keep doing your thing!” Quintanilla thanked them profusely.
Quintanilla had been selling streetwear apparel as a side hustle for almost four years and was a mainstay at the Oakland Coliseum flea market. He said his side hustle slowed down when he tried recently to enter the tech industry. He got news that he had been turned down for a job in San Jose, and came out to the lake to collect his thoughts. He noticed the other vendors and felt inspired to restart his EMLN brand. Street vending is his lifeline now.
Quintanilla, who has not received unemployment insurance, switches between staying with his family in San Jose and with his girlfriend in Gilroy. He says people like him often don’t have the luxury of working from home. “It’s hard to tell people to stay inside when they need the money,” he said.
Bay Area artists Tiphereth Banks and Mace have been a presence on the eastern shore of the lake for two years. The two were lounging underneath their canopy tent as Banks worked on a painting. “We’re just us—we make art and pop up here,” Mace said. Their art styles vary but often feature images of beautiful Black women. “I can’t put a name on it—our art speaks for itself,” Mace said.
When asked whether the pandemic hurt their business, Mace replied, “Absolutely not, it doesn’t change anything. It made it better.”
A few years ago, Banks was working as a teacher and traffic director but wasn’t making enough money to support herself. Now, she can. “What I enjoy is being able to create [art] in public,” she said.
Copes, the street vendor who helped organize the lakeside town hall meeting on Tuesday, typically sets up his stand on the triangle in front of the Sprint store where Lakeshore and Lake Park intersect. He used to have brick-and-mortar stores, including a famous apparel shop in Eastmont Mall in the 1980s and ‘90s, but he fell on hard times. When he restarted his business, he found success on the sidewalks.
He also coaches other would-be entrepreneurs. “I am so inspired and encouraged to see people make soap,” he said. “I got a friend who is making candles. I was trying to give her some encouragement. And there’s two young men who make honey, they have their own beehives.” Another friend of his was making macaroons to sell to pedestrians along Lakeshore. “I let her use one of my tables and a chair,” he said.
Copes told The Oaklandside many people turned to vending before the pandemic to make ends meet. Others just wanted a job that involved community-building and service. Now, he said, it’s important for the city to realize that enforcing regulations on vending could have dire consequences for people.
“It’s because of the economic distress that’s in the community that people are finding ways to subsidize their incomes,” said Copes.
Not everyone thinks the vendors on the eastern side of the lake are a net positive to the city, however. The Lakeshore Avenue Business Improvement District, which represents many businesses operating along Lakeshore Avenue, provided a statement to The Oaklandside about what it views as the negative impact unpermitted street vending can have on nearby brick-and-mortar businesses.
“Local businesses are the heart and soul of Oakland. These merchants serve the community and they legitimately pay for business permits and city taxes as well as playing a huge part in keeping Oakland dollars in Oakland,” the organization wrote in an email.
The business district is concerned that some street vendors aren’t paying for a business license or other taxes to the city. “They are also illegitimately competing to take customers away that would otherwise go to the brick and mortar merchants that are in dire need of customers and business at this time,” the organization wrote.
Not all nearby brick-and-mortar business owners agree. Gabriela Nassar-Covarelli and Samar Isabel Nassar, sisters who run the dance and fitness studio Hipline, have been on Lakeshore Avenue for over 12 years. They said they’re excited to see Black vendors claim space on the lake.
“I understand why Black people in the city are selling their wares,” said Nassar. “It’s beautiful.”
“Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, I think it’s important that we make a space for them,” Nassar-Covarelli said. “As a shop owner on Lake Merritt, whether you’re The Gap or little old Hipline, we have the responsibility to lift up others besides ourselves.”
The Oaklandside reached out to other shop owners along Lakeshore and Grand avenues for comment about the vending situation, but most declined to be interviewed.
Who belongs at the lake?
David Ocasio manufactures small batches of CBD skincare products and edibles under the brand name CBGCBDHEMP. He sells his goods from a table on Lakeshore, and on his business cards, Ocasio emphasizes his deep connection to the lake with a photo of himself as a child walking along the shoreline in the early ‘90s.
Ocasio, who describes himself as Afro-Latino, views the lake as a great crossroads marketplace that should be open to everyone, but he said events in recent years have made Black and brown people feel unwelcome. In response, people of color, especially Black people have pushed back to reclaim the lake.
“For all the people who made complaints,” said Ocasio about calls from neighbors and others to stop the vending, “just know we came out here more when Barbeque Becky happened. That’s why we’re persistent about not leaving this corner.”
But Ocasio, along with most of the street vendors The Oaklandside interviewed for this story, said he recognizes there’s a unique need right now to balance this persistence with precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in hard-hit communities. County health department data shows that Latino and Black people are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups and the pandemic isn’t receding. Ocasio gives out free masks and hand sanitizer at his table and encourages people not to gather in large groups.
Others who aren’t dependent on vending have approached the situation at the lake with even more caution. Leon Sykes, known to many around town as “DNas,” is normally a staple at Lake Merritt. He helps organize events like the yearly 510 Day, one of the most popular lakeside parties, but since the shelter-in-place was implemented, Sykes has mostly kept away. “Juneteenth was my last time at the lake,” he said about last month’s massive party to celebrate Black liberation and the end of slavery.
But Sykes acknowledged many people are experiencing quarantine fatigue and want social contact. The lake is a natural gathering point, he said, and the city’s efforts to try to keep people from using the lake haven’t been sensitive to the racial power dynamics which have long been at play. “Even before Barbeque Becky in 2016 is when the signs prohibiting amplified sounds went up,” he said.
Sykes understands the reasoning behind the city’s “give the lake a break” campaign to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But he said the result, whether the city intended it or not, is “pointing fingers” at Black and brown residents and vendors who congregate on Lakeshore Avenue.
Musician Kev Choice lives near the lake’s eastern shore and has seen the many changes the area has undergone over the past three decades. He said he understands why people are upset about recent attempts by the city and some Lakeshore neighbors to drive away vendors and prevent gatherings.
“We have to understand that everything is going to be racialized in America,” he said. “Everything we do as African Americans, as Latinos in this country is going to be racialized.”
But at the same time, Choice said he hopes that people understand that Black and brown folks are at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 and there’s a legitimate need to protect the community. “What’s the message that we are putting out? We cannot see our young people go out having parties in groups of 20 or 30 people. We have to make sure that we are not creating situations where we are putting ourselves at risk or our communities in danger.”
Over by the Pergola, a section of the lake popular with musicians, Isaac Kos-Read has been running Salsa by the Lake, a popular dance event, for the past decade. He canceled the dance parties, however, when the shelter-in-place order was issued. Crowds started growing around Memorial Day weekend. “Kids aren’t in school, it’s hot out. All these factors add up,” he said.
Kos-Read said he would like to see the city encourage vendors to spread out so that they’re not all concentrated in one spot where crowds are encouraged to gather. “The area by Lake Chalet close to the boathouse,” he suggested, listing less-crowded areas. “There’s the Kaiser lot by the amphitheater. There are many other places around the lake where you can help disperse people. Although, of course, people want to come together.”
What’s next for Oakland’s lake vendors?
If these problems—angry neighbors, shop owners, street vendors, and crowds of pandemic oblivious partiers—fall on anyone’s shoulders, it’s Bas, the councilmember whose district includes the span of lake where vendors are increasingly setting up shop, and the grassy areas where weekend and holiday parties have grown in size and intensity over the past couple months.
In an interview the day after the town hall meeting with vendors at the lake, Bas told The Oaklandside that none of these tensions are new. Conflicts around space and activities at the lake have “ebbed and flowed” over many decades. They intensified when she took office in 2018 partly because of the Barbeque Becky incident, which served as a rallying cry for Black Oaklanders pushing back against what they see as attempts to gentrify the shoreline.
“The lake is right in between East and West,” said Bas. “It’s this natural gathering spot because of its geographic location and how beautiful it is.” But for this same reason, it’s also a point of conflict as different social groups congregate and cross one another’s paths.
Since joining the council, Bas said she’s tried to “look at the core issues” causing conflicts around public space, and solve them in ways that increase everyone’s sense of belonging. The pandemic has made that even harder.
“The top concern is health,” said Bas, “but the reason vendors are going there in the first place is an economic issue. And folks do want, even under COVID, some type of outlet for recreation.”
Bas said she’s working with city administration to figure out how crowds can be reduced by better utilizing other parks and spaces around the lake and creating more safe recreation in West and East Oakland. She would like to see more designated locations for food trucks so that they’re not all packed along Lakeshore and fighting for space on a first-come-first-served basis, as is currently the case. She invited Trevor Parham, one of the founders of the Black Business Fund, to Tuesday’s outdoor town hall meeting with vendors to talk about how the fund could assist in creating Black and Latinx markets in the city while also providing business development resources to individual entrepreneurs. She also wants to see some kind of pilot program to better legalize and formalize street vending.
Bas said she’s confident some members of Oakland’s Parks and Rec Advisory Commission will help lead the way toward a more inclusive and safe lake environment, and more activities in other parks throughout the city. The commission is especially sensitive to issues of race and belonging in city parks; among its members are Salsa by the Lake organizer Kos-Read and Kenzie Smith, one of the Black men harassed and threatened by “Barbeque Becky.” The commission’s next public meeting, where they will discuss vending and other hot button issues around the lake (the agenda will be posted here, with instructions on how to attend virtually), is Wednesday, August 12.
Copes, the longtime Oakland apparel vendor, said Lake Merritt street vendors are already organizing among themselves to address concerns from neighbors. Starting this weekend, he said, they’ll spread their tables out further to encourage social distancing, and provide free hand sanitizer. He’d like to see the city provide more frequent trash collection services and possibly place dumpsters somewhere nearby so that vendors could help clean up better. And Copes said more toilets would cut down on the people who urinate on private property.
Vendors, he said, want to be on good terms with Lakeshore Avenue residents, and he hopes the feeling is mutual. “The neighbors are our neighbors,” said Copes. “We are all part of this community.”
Correction: the original version of this story misidentified the race of one of the neighbors who spoke at the outdoor town hall meeting with vendors.