This is the last weekend for the Funky (Fresh) Flea Market in its current location, the Florida Market, and today I made my last visit. The Florida Market, just a few minutes from my house, quickly became one of my favorite parts of DC when I moved here, a bewildering example of “multiculturalism from below” that brought together the DC area’s less wealthy immigrants to haggle over halal meat, overripe produce, cheap Obama merch, and designer knockoffs. Outside the crumbling DC Farmer’s Market building, men in makeshift kiosks blast go-go on amps that sound like they were blown twenty years ago, slinging go-go CDs, sneakers, and contraband cigarettes.
The Funky Flea Market supplemented this heady mixture with all sorts of amateur commerce, mostly of the “roving garage sale” type of dingy electronics equipment, old clothes, and DVDs of second-rate comedies. But you could also buy kompa CDs while listening to a debate over the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, check out hats emblazoned with the Eye of Horus in rhinestones, watch negotiations over tools conducted by people who don’t speak the same language, and pick up cut-rate cleaning supplies. Lately the food options at the market had ballooned: in addition to the half-smoke cart and the Cambodian soups and barbeque in the farmer’s market building, you could get actual lengua tacos (real Mexican food is a rarity in the District; more common are inferior Salvadorean facsimiles), homemade Jamaican curries, sweet bean pies sold by the Nation of Islam, and, inexplicably, Uighur food — greasy succulent kabobs and samsas, a kind of empanada stuffed with potatoes, all cooked on an electric grill.
Like any good flea market, there are records: the usual assortment of decaying Kool and the Gang LPs you’ve never heard of, and of course the occasional gem. Once I named my own price for some UK rave records from a Mexican guy selling mostly drills. Once I encountered a table full of books that must have once belonged to a hapless grad student: I picked up each volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Derrida’s Of Grammatology for a dollar a pop (I left the Pynchon). Today I bought some records from one of the shrewdest vendors, who inevitably stakes out the southwest corner of the lot. He speaks at least four languages of hustle, but prides himself on his customer service: he offered me a small stool to sit on while a pawed through boxes of records. His assortment today was mostly rap 12-inches from 2003-2008 in excellent condition; I almost pulled Young Gunz’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” but I think I have that record somewhere. I did enlarge my collection of Lil Joe compilations of Miami bass music — the story of how a Jewish tax attorney from Long Island became the major purveyor of 2 Live Crew tracks is one that could only come from the music biz. I got three today: Pimps, Playaz, and Hustlaz, Booty Summer Party, and Dirty South Booty Freaknik, a “NON STOP CONTINUOUS GHETTO STYLE DJ’S PARTY MIX.” Highlights: Freak Nasty’s “Da Dip,” MC Shy D’s “Rapp Will Never Die,” and electro classics from Ade and Gigolo Tony.
The Funky Flea Market is more than a place for business, it’s a place for performance. Fortunes are not made here, but an average worker can realize the American Dream of being his own boss and presiding over his storefront, if only for a weekend, and maybe getting a little spending money for the evening. Customers hunt for bargains and audiences, opportunities to display their knowledge of tools they can’t afford, boast of a legendary deal they made or offer advice on how to strap a sofa on top of a conversion van. It’s a social space: you can’t buy something without having a conversation. I did an ethnographic project on the market, visited regularly, talked, and vended one day. I woke at 5 AM, paid my $30 for a space, and heard dozens of stories and fantasies spurred on by the attractive guitar I was selling. Today, proprietor and MC, Mr. Omowale, paid respects to Gil Scott-Heron over the loudspeaker. “He was an artist and social activist, and he faced struggles, just like we all do at some point,” he intoned, before putting on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.” The Funky Flea Market is about community as much as commerce.
This community is mostly black and brown, mostly poor and working class, with a large proportion of immigrants, a community in a city whose space for such people is dwindling. The sandwiched between the ersatz bohemia of H Street and the ravenous condo/office space bubble of NoMa (where they pay nonthreatening black people to greet yuppie neophytes when they exit the Metro), the neighborhood has changed from one that catered to the down-and-out to one that caters to the upwardly mobile, the newly propertied, the college-educated and gainfully employed. Something happens to people when they buy overpriced row houses — suddenly everything about a place becomes quantified, transmogrified from the opaqueness of everyday social life into the subtle calibrations of property values. Poor people, working people, or, to use the appropriate parlance, those who struggle or hustle, are unwelcome. Every violent crime, every syringe in an alley, every Central American day laborer passed out in front of a loading dock, threatens an investment. The sheltered suburbanite’s irrational racist and classist fears for safety become the rational profit-maximizing actions of the petty bourgeoisie with a mortgage. They hate the Flea Market, and the Florida Market in general, and they lie and speculate about it — it’s full of criminals, the merchandise is stolen, the people sell drugs — even as the more courageous will venture down for a local-blog-approved taco.
And they’ve won, as they so often do in DC. Condos again. Full of the transient upper middle class, faces whiter, younger, richer than the faces that populate the market now. Do condo buildings furnish memories, community, stories, urban sociality? Let’s leave that rhetorical for the moment. For now, we know the flea market’s space will be an empty parking lot, the Uighur food and computer parts will be sold on U Street, whose special flavor of gentrification seems more inclusive of black DC (though who’s to say?). Here on H Street, the gentrifiers smile and do what they’re supposed to in order to pretend like they aren’t constantly thinking about how to expunge what’s here so they can turn a tidy profit when they flip their houses in the next decade to the next generation of overpaid bureaucrats. This is the American city, where “improving the neighborhood” means getting rid of the people to fix up the housing stock.
I feel betrayed. But of course, without ownership I have no right to any of this. I just live here.