Activating the Flea Market: How Art Can Pacify Gentrification Resistance (Gentrification and Art pt.II)


“We are in a moment where the connection between art, real estate, and the displacement of longtime residents is undeniable.”

-Los Angeles Tenants Union Members

In San Jose, the rapid gentrification of the city has exploded using art and music as the figurehead for local politicians and developers neo-liberal agenda. The concept of complicitness to gentrification is a hard pill to swallow for any person claiming to have a strong moral compass and the best way to placate their interjections is to feather it with liberal well meaningness that has many blind spots as well as waving a flag of progress via art and music. Art and Music eventually become just another mechanical arm of the gentrifying machine. The idea behind this tactic is a coded form of liberalism, using the unquestionable forces of left politics to favor “free-market” capitalism. This illusion is a potion built of meritocracy, which is the belief that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and thrive if they work hard enough. Pair this with neoliberal free market mythology that pivots around the years of racism and marginalization doled out to certain people, not “demographics.” It pivots around actual free market, you could argue that the many nonsuccesses of capitalism like that of the declining social mobility, bank bailouts, the need for corporatization of government are signs that we do not have real free market capitalism, but actually in a whole new realm of capitalism which is more aligned with forms of a fascist state. Capitalism is written in a way to fail itself, but its saving grace is the ability to adapt with new frontiers to debase. As an example of the non-causal but symbiotic deconstruction and displacement by this machine, we look toward the recent changes to a long time San Jose Swap Meet, the Berryessa Flea Market. The San Jose Flea Market, “which celebrated its 50th birthday in 2010, has significant historical, cultural and economic significance to the city, its owners, the surrounding neighborhood, and the customers and sellers that make use of it, many of whom are low- middle-income, immigrant and/or minority residents of the city and region.” It is placed in a previously disinvested area of San Jose in terms of corporate profitability, a mostly industrial area bridging neighborhoods between the north and east side of San Jose.


San Jose, a satellite in the bay area, has always been an afterthought when it came to transportation throughout the greater bay area especially in the neighborhoods surrounding The Berryessa Flea Market. Up until 1968, this area was still red, and yellow lined under the Federal Housing administrations racist policy which was made to counter the rising P.O.C populations making homeownership accessible to white people by guaranteeing loans to those in certain neighborhoods, the policy refused to support loans to black and P.O.C people or people who lived near them. Creating a ripple of impoverished communities (still seen today) and forced them to create their markets and systems of support. Since 1981 the local government has spoken of reaching the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to San Jose but has consistently disapproved the expansion for cost. Now in 2019 as the city has become overrun with tech migration and affluence entering while the standing population is pushed out because lack of support, the BART system was fast-tracked into fruition placing its stop at the Berryessa Flea Market. With this expansion has come the Predatory investors and developers who see this as another opportunity to usurp local populations culture and switch its bodies out with the shadows of what they built. The newest addition to the Berryessa Flea market is the introduction of a space called, Garden At The Flea. According to their site Garden At The Flea “will unfold steps away from the forthcoming Berryessa BART Station and feature exciting events & activities: new beer cantina, live entertainment stage, more space for food trucks and eatery vendors, a games area, and beautiful garden space. Above all, this space is designed to host exciting community & cultural experiences through which the San Jose Flea Market you know & love will continue to thrive." Garden at the Flea is the brainchild of investors who see this BART expansion as a new frontier in their capital growth. The important relationship between this form of cultural imperialism we are so familiar with in the west can be viewed as just another first step in further pacifying and placating resistance to gentrification. It is slight of hand; The goal of cultural imperialism is made of two parts, “one economic and the other political: to capture markets for its cultural commodities and to establish hegemony by shaping popular consciousness.” hegemony in this context meaning to dominate our already culturally diverse space by a grouping of ruling class members whose goal is to manipulate the culture of that society. “The export of entertainment is one of the most important sources of capital accumulation and global profits displacing manufacturing exports. In the political sphere, cultural imperialism plays a major role in dissociating people from their cultural roots and traditions of solidarity, replacing them with media created needs which change with every publicity campaign. The political effect in to alienate people from traditional class and community bonds, atomizing and separating individuals from each other.” In this situation, the slow displacement of manufacturing is in the form of inklings of change within the Flea Market, which if and when it succeeds will most likely expand the space. The Flea Market as it is “averages 300 sellers on weekdays and 1,200-1,500 sellers on weekends. Food options have proliferated to 30 snack bars, kiosks and sit-down restaurants offering both American and ethnic fare, as well as roving motorized snack and beverage (including beer-on-tap) carts. Shoppers can choose from a wide variety of goods and services on offer, from produce to collectibles, from engraving services to massage sessions, and from fine jewelry to home improvement tools. On weekends, visitors can also enjoy live music performances and children’s rides, and the occasional craft show and health fair.” Garden at the Flea is a blatant push of gentrification with its tactics of recontextualizing what the current market already offers, but in a way that appeals to the affluent crowd that will likely come through the new BART station. It also points its efforts at those who believe that the phantom-like investors as an entity have some positive purpose in mind that will serve the community and them in a two way street of profit and benefit. If history tells us anything, it is that this usage of art and left politics has always ended in a zero-sum game for those on the receiving end, not the deciding end. Zero-sum meaning the irreversible changes made or our total loss is equal to the amount of their total gain. In the mid 80’s we saw this in New York with the Lower Eastside, which was another redlined space. Once it was distressed and disowned area inhabited by majority Black and P.O.C and then through art became an urban oasis pushing in affluence and business while simultaneously forcing out the marginalized who were relegated to these spaces before. Rosalyn Deutsch and Cara Gendal Ryan wrote extensively on art and gentrification in the L.E.S, and as though looking in a mirror they wrote this about what they saw happening, “The representation of the lower east side as an “adventurous avant-garde setting” however, conceals a brutal reality. For the site of this brave new art scene is also a strategic urban arena where the city, financed by big capital, wages its war of position against an impoverished and increasingly isolated local population. The city’s strategy is twofold. The immediate aim is to dislodge a largely redundant working-class community by wresting control of neighborhood property and housing and turning it over to real estate developers.” It is is important to recognize the similarity given here between city government and developers; the city agrees to hand over so much to further privatize the city, creating walls between people and what choices they have left in a rapidly changing city. They go on to say, “The second step is to encourage the full-scale development of appropriate conditions to house and maintain late capitalisms labor force, a professional class groomed to serve the center of America’s “postindustrial” society.” There are logs of this tactic dating back further and closer, yet it still happens.

It is important to recognize with this panned out lens of the larger forces at work that again these things are not causal. One cannot look at the worker who supports these changes as the cause of the mass overtaking. It is crucial to speak on the complicitness and urge people to educate themselves on the issues, but it is not a strategic organizing tactic to chastise. The neoliberal agenda makes it so that the options available for the worker to survive are few and made to be confusing. A primary tool of capitalism is to cause hostility between class members so that internal conflict obscures the more important mechanism at work. To be clear Neoliberalism is made to profit off persons whether they support it or not, even disinterest in it can create capital. There is no first amendment right in privately run curated spaces. There are no rights in spaces like Twitter, FB or IG. Where Garden at the Flea advertises, and where people also advertise their polemics about G.A.T.F. So know that when and if a person is silenced or the entity feigns politics that center around the ideologies of their consumers it is not because the person is speaking hate speech or that this entity has some humanistic moral value. It is just that profitability has worked in ones favor at this time. No Liberal well meaning-ness has ever been without a price tag. It is not causal its just the fluid motion of capitalism upholding itself.

“We’re gonna have to do more than talk. We’re gonna have to do more than listen. We’re gonna have to do more than learn. We’re gonna have to start practicing and that’s very hard. We’re gonna have to start getting out there with the people and that’s difficult."

-Fred Hampton

The inaugural event at Garden at the Flea was advertised as a showcase of Latinx Women entitled, VIVA Muxeres. It is hard to not see this event as a way to weaponize radical politics surrounding identity as a selling point and weaken any argument that the space is not “about community.” G.A.T.F. positioned themselves with young influencers from the city as validating members of the space further dissuading argument. If we pull back again, we can see that gentrification disproportionately enacts state violence on LGBTQ and Women of color and as a visible part in the gentrification of the city G.A.T.F invariably increases this while hiding behind the art, music, and culture deflecting the urgent attention needed towards anti-displacement. At a subsequent event, an investor in G.A.T.F attended and was witnessed confronting a vendor for their, “fuck white supremacy” buttons for sale, claiming them to be inappropriate for a family event. This interaction between investor and vendor is a reminder that this space cannot be reclaimed as is, it is privatized and because of that anything presented within that space is purely at the discretion of investors. The artist or worker is being used to attract a crowd that will increase capital not sustain the population already there. The initial reaction is often to seek justice through creating moral drama between the artists and community members when the focus would be better spent creating coalition instead of division. The only way to stop this aspect of gentrification is to push for more transparency and build a united force against the gentrifying forces and demanding more democratic decision making and use of the space if its existence is an inevitability, rather than concede to either "it is too late" or place energy into dividing further.

It would be a disservice to theorize the issue to death or critique the workers involved to smithereens. The people involved are people I know, we know, have organized with or will organize with and the last thing we need is to create a fissure between us. It does nothing to yell into the ears of people who are also navigating this issue. The use of art and music is an integral part of all our lives, and in our movements, it would be a shame to allow them to be co-opted in a way that would pacify the transformative powers that they hold. What is being said now is that the purpose of interrogating these issues further is to spark a conversation that is constructively critical and pulls at the broader systems at play. It helps to see the international issue that is being assigned on a local level to deter from thinking too individualistic. These things are allowed to happen because of trained helplessness through years of oppression and misdirection. We will use the tools available to us now to resist, and when we construct new ones we will use those collectively!

Richard Gutierrez