The street vending pilot program ran from Oct. 3 to Nov. 21 on El Embarcadero. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

An eight-week street vending pilot program at Lake Merritt concluded last Sunday, and by most accounts it was a success—but questions remain as to whether the city will continue allowing vendors to operate when the weather warms up this spring.

The pilot program was designed to ease tensions between Lakeshore Avenue residents and dozens of vendors who, after the pandemic began, set up a large market on the eastern side of Lake Merritt on weekends. The vendors helped draw large crowds to the lake, causing headaches for some neighbors who were concerned about noise, litter, and safety issues. In response, the city closed down part of the lawn between the Pergola and Brooklyn Avenue and relocated the vendors to El Embarcadero, a small side street behind the pergola that connects Lakeshore to Grand Avenue.

On Nov. 21 and 22, the last weekend of the pilot program, Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas attended the market. She praised the vendors for working with the city to create a safer space and said she will push the city to explore future options for street vending in the spring.

Vendors said they appreciated the city listening to their needs. Still, many complained that the pilot program is coming to an end.

“Everyone was excited when they started this,” said Denise Armstrong, who sells soaps, salts, oils, and shea butter through her company, Kiss My Skin. Sitting behind her table on the corner of Grand and El Embarcadero, she said she wanted the city to extend the pilot program through Black Friday and Christmas because that’s when sellers have the greatest opportunity to turn a profit.

“Then have us back next year,” she suggested.

“We had budgeted for eight weeks,” said Bas about the reason the pilot is ending. “We don’t have any more funding identified.” Bas told The Oaklandside that she has asked Oakland City Administrator Ed Reiskin to consider extending the pilot into the holidays and to try to find additional funding.

The project was paid for using federal coronavirus relief funds distributed to Oakland through the state. The city is expected to face another round of budget cuts this spring due to the pandemic-induced recession and it’s unclear whether more money will be available for an organized marketplace.

James Copes and Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas at a meeting in August that led to the creation of the pilot program. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Some vendors said that just like the city, they’re also impacted by the recession, and taking a break for the winter isn’t an option if they want to pay their rent. With the pilot program ending, some of the vendors might choose to move back to Lakeshore Avenue or other unpermitted locations.

“We made a tremendous amount of sacrifice when we moved,” said James Copes, a clothing vendor who has mentored other merchants over the years. “As a result of that, our business went down 40% to 80%. I would have liked to have seen some of the neighbors give us more support because most of their issues were resolved. I know some came out, they let us know they appreciated it, but I don’t think we got the support we should have got.”

“If the city wants to help us, they should listen to us,” said Jerome Sindano, a vendor who sells Black Lives Matter gear. Sindano said he used to make $1,000 a weekend on Lakeshore Avenue. Just a block away on El Embarcadero, he said business has dropped off. Other vendors echoed Sindano, saying the pilot market’s location saw less foot traffic because it wasn’t on the pedestrian path around Lake Merritt. Even so, most said they were willing to play by the rules because of the possibility that vending will be legalized for the long term.

Some residents around the lake said that while the pilot program alleviated problems along Lakeshore, new problems cropped up elsewhere. Some vendors who chose not to participate in the pilot, including those who didn’t qualify because they were selling alcohol, cannabis, and food, set up in other locations.

“At the outset it was a disaster for those of us on the north end of the lake,” said Laurie Gordon, who lives in the Bellevue neighborhood off Grand Avenue. “Just as we had feared, those vendors who did not qualify to get permits to be along El Embarcadero simply moved to Grand and began to creep into Bellevue as well. It was crowded, noisy and went late into the night. Few people were wearing masks and the cacophony of nearly every tent, table or space blasting different music was overwhelming.”

Gordon said she thinks another location that’s larger and not so close to residential areas might be win-win for everyone because it could accommodate more vendors and noisier activities. “If it cannot grow, it won’t be as popular,” she said, “and those who are denied access to it will continue to spread out and pop up in areas that are not designated for vending, upping the demand for police presence and enforcement.”

But for many of the vendors, the lake is by far the best place to earn a living. “It’s the lake,” said Copes. “It’s Oakland. It’s our focal point.”

The city allowed vendors to set up along El Embarcadero with extra booths on Lakeshore Avenue toward MacArthur Boulevard. Credit: Courtesy city of Oakland

Georgetta Berry sells jewelry and handbags bedazzled with “Black Lives Matter” slogans through her small business, Queen of J&L. She started setting up a table at the pilot market more recently. “People love this,” Berry said about the market. “It brings people out.”

Born and raised in Oakland, Berry said she was working in a nursing home until recently when a COVID outbreak infected several residents and staff. She left rather than expose her family, including her two children, to the virus. After that, she started her business to earn a living. “I suppose I’ll sell online now, but that’s slower,” she said.

Bas, whose council district includes the eastern side of Lake Merritt, said she recognized the complex issues brewing around street vending and parties at the lake when she first came into office two years ago. The pandemic undercut many people’s livelihoods and led them to set up shop by the lake, but this further increased tensions between lake visitors, vendors, and neighbors, a conflict she’s spent a lot of time mediating.

Last weekend, a diverse group of shoppers walked through the booths, some stopping to buy clothes, houseplants, and jewelry. At one booth, several men sat around tables playing chess.

Angelica Contreras of A2Z Media Group was hired by Oakland to manage the pilot market. She said that in addition to creating a space for vendors to operate in October and November, her staff helped upwards of 45 vendors obtain licenses and permits, allowing them to work in Oakland and other cities.

“We did everything we could to make sure that vendors are compliant,” said Contreras. “This program may be ending, but now they can go anywhere.”

Contreras also had a COVID-19 test station run by CORE, a disaster-response organization, set up at the market along with hand washing stations and toilets. Along with the city, her staff distributed masks and sanitizer to vendors. Food trucks that used to park along Lakeshore Avenue were also relocated to the parking lot on the other side of the library. Community Ready Core, an Oakland-based organization, helped pass out masks and other PPE and conduct body temperature checks.

Copes, the vendor and organizer, said it was the “convergence of Black Lives Matter and the pandemic” that led to the emergence of the market at its first location on Lakeshore Avenue earlier this year. Now he’s hoping to see the city step up and provide more resources for the market’s numerous entrepreneurs who’ve reenergized the lake’s public spaces.

“Next year, it’s going to be very, very popular. I’m sure of it,” said Copes about the lakeside markets. “I must compliment the city on the fact that they were able to pull this together on our behalf. We had to push, of course—push, nudge, beg, and whatever it took to make this happen.”

Bas, who was joined by incoming District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife this past weekend at the market, said she’s going to work with her colleagues on the council, the city administration, vendors, neighbors, and others to figure out next steps.

“The city is a huge bureaucracy, but it did a good job responding to people’s needs,” she said.

Correction: Community Ready Corps was not providing security for the pilot market.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.