Last Saturday started with rain, but the clouds quickly dissipated, making room for sunshine and good vibes at Lake Merritt. Gulls circled the Pergola, landing gracefully at the water’s edge. A Zumba class got underway beneath the archway, spilling pop music out across Eastshore Park. In front of the synchronized dancers, on the walkway, tables of all shapes and sizes were draped with colorful, patterned tablecloths, in anticipation of the monthly Quartz Party.
Artists and crafters from across the East Bay have been coming to the Quartz Party since January to sell their handmade goods—clothes, jewelry, patches, prints, and magic candles are just a few of the many offerings. Others provide services like oracle card readings, haircuts, and tooth gemming. Together at the lake, they create a tableau of creativity and joy.
“It’s a good time! That’s why I called it a party—not a market, not a fair,” said Rizza, a tooth-gem artist and one of the event’s founders. “It’s not just for you to come spend money.”
At the table next to Rizza (all of the members we spoke to asked that we only use their first names), two vendors hugged, finalizing a trade: a tincture for a t-shirt. Next to them, two dogs cautiously sniffed each other while their owners traded phones, connecting online. Around them, folks laughed and high-fived while asking questions about pieces or crafting techniques, and sharing their art.
For Rizza and the other founders of the Quartz Party—the name is a portmanteau of “queer” and “art”—organizing the event has been a labor of love, driven by a shared desire to reimagine what safe public spaces can look like for queer-identifying artists in a late and post-pandemic world.
It began simply enough last Jan. 12, when a local jewelry artist, Al, posed a question—HELP ME SELL MY ART?—on the queer social media app Lex. Seventeen days and a lot of collective action later, the first Quartz Party took place on January 29 at the Pergola, a gathering of around 10 queer, trans, and BIPOC artists. Most were new to vending, but having the support of a collective gave them the confidence to take on the challenge.
One big hurdle the group identified early on was obtaining city permits, which are legally required to vend at the lake. For individuals navigating the process for the first time, the rules can seem murky and the red tape and fees can feel intimidating—something Al knew too well, which is why they asked for help in the first place.
Members of the burgeoning collective quickly decided they wouldn’t require their vendors to get permits, to avoid excluding those who didn’t have the time, money, or resources necessary.
Al and other organizers of The Quartz Party cited previous efforts by Black and brown vendors to hold space at Lake Merritt, as a big reason why they were able to envision doing the same.
“It’s the work of the vendors that have already been here that have allowed this space to exist,” said Tiana, a leather crafter and one of The Quartz Party organizers.
Vending at Lake Merritt became contentious during the pandemic, with more sellers setting up shop along Lakeshore Avenue—not all of them permitted—and drawing large crowds on weekends. Some residents complained about the ensuing increase in traffic, noise, and garbage along that strip of the lake, while vendors, many of them people of color, advocated for their right to be at the public park and earn revenue there during a historically challenging economic time.
The city of Oakland responded in the spring of 2021 by launching a pilot initiative intended to address everyone’s concerns. The plan, spearheaded by District 2 councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas with input from vendors, residents, and city staff, allowed vending to continue at the lake but stepped up traffic control and parking enforcement efforts, especially on the weekend, and called for the installation of more public bathrooms and handwashing stations, among other things. That initiative officially ended in the fall of 2021.
Since then, enforcement of vending permits at Lake Merritt has appeared to be light, even though they are technically still required. It’s unclear whether officials will introduce a similar initiative in 2022 as the weather warms up and the lake attracts more visitors.
Many of the roughly 15 vendors who were at the Quartz Party on Saturday said it was the first time selling their art, and they cited the collective’s low barrier to entry and a sense of community and safety in numbers as reasons for participating.
Kota, a bead artist, was among the first-time vendors at Quartz. They heard about it from a friend, Mar, who sold wire-wrapped rocks at a previous Quartz Party. On Saturday, the two shared a table adorned with colorful earrings, thick-corded necklaces, and mixed-media prints.
“We are selling our art for our survival,” said Kota. “I really like this spot because we didn’t have to pay. It was literally just first come, first serve. We can just be here.”
To Tiana, the relative freedom of being able to participate in something like the Quartz Party is part of what makes Oakland so special. “Not all cities would just allow this,” they said. “A lot of cities really crack down on selling without permits. Oakland is a bit more open and that’s something that we really appreciate.”
The state, too, has sought in recent years to make street vending less restrictive. In 2018, California passed SB 946 which decriminalized vending in public spaces. The law made it less risky for street vendors—a workforce that includes many Black and brown people, immigrants, and lower-income earners—to sell their goods. But for many, the overall experience of setting up a vending business can still be daunting.
“As a group, our voices are stronger,” said Rizza. “So, if something happens to one person, we have the power of the group around.”
Al and Tiana have spoken about officially registering the Quartz Party as a seller’s collective in the future, which would offer more protection for group members and take the pressure off of individual vendors to get permits. Until then, though, the collective is offering resources to help individuals who would like to obtain permits and will continue to host the Quartz Party monthly so that LGBTQ+ small-business owners and artists can continue to have a safe, low-risk space to share their goods with the community.
For Al, that social media post in January has led to other opportunities. “I’ve got my jewelry going into a couple of retail shops and I am using that as a springboard to hopefully get into some shops in Napa or Walnut Creek,” they said. They hope the market can help others financially liberate themselves in similar ways.
Al’s earrings, some of which feature blocky alphabet beads reminiscent of middle school friendship bracelets, swayed in the wind. The Zumba class ended, and a drum circle formed in its place. Folks wandering through instinctively danced to the beat, stopping here and there to admire the art or wave hello to friends from Quartz Parties past.
The next Quartz Party will take place on Saturday, May 21. To learn how to get involved with the event or more details about attending, follow the organizers on Instagram @quartzoakland.