Street Vendors At Lake Merritt Fight For Right To Vend
Between March and April of 2020 unemployment in Alameda county quadrupled. Some Oaklanders turned to street vending at Lake Merritt to make ends meet. Now, the street vendors have their own market, but if they will be allowed to stay is another question.
In his nearly 50 years of selling t-shirts in Oakland, James Copes has learned a lot about his native city and he’s become kind of a legend. The 70-year-old is credited with coining the city’s nickname, Oaktown. And, he’ll be the first to tell you.
Oakland dedicated Old School Copes Day in his honor in 2019. He often carries a binder full of newspaper clippings and photos chronicling his career.
His t-shirts read like mini Oakland history lessons. Clara Evangelista is shopping for a baby shower, and pauses on a blue onesie. It reads: “I Hecka Love Oakland”
For instance, have you ever wondered why people from the Bay Area say hella? Copes has Evangelista read an explainer from his binder.
“Growing up in Oakland, in the fifties and sixties, neighborhood kids were not allowed to cuss around adults. If we got caught, we would get a whooping. The term originates from the popular phrase at the time ‘What the heck?’ and ‘I'm having a heck of a good time.’ In recent years, I often hear the word hella, but the original hecka represents a term of endearment, love and great affection,” Evangelista says.
For Copes, it all started with street vending. He made enough money doing that to open his own brick and mortar stores.
Old School Copes is still old school. He’s still vending on the street. But now he’s also helping usher in a new chapter of Oakland’s street market history. He’s the director of the Black International Marketplace of Oakland, or BIMOO. It’s a weekend market right at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, managed by Aurice Guyton.
“So the vendors, of that 40 and 50, who are pretty regular that come out every week, I would say maybe 60%, 60 to 65% started vending because of the pandemic, and speaking with them, their businesses are less than a year old,” Guyton says.
She’s talking about vendors like Karen Knight.
“Oh, it's a breath of fresh air, you know, it's no struggle. It's no bribing Peter to pay Paul, or no gas, bus pass,” Knight says.
Knight works as a home health nurse. But a pre-existing condition makes her vulnerable to COVID. So she had to stop work while she waited for the vaccine.
“I never got EDD, you know, unemployment. I never got none of that stuff and it just put me in a bad way,” Knight says.
Knight decided to start selling wallets, handbags, and accessories outdoors, at BIMOO. She calls her business Liz’s Handbags and Accessories, after her mom.
“This, so to speak, saved my life,” Knight says.
A recent study named San Francisco and Oakland the most intensely gentrified cities in the country. Median incomes and home prices have risen dramatically, typically in low-income neighborhoods populated by people of color, often pushing them out. The economic shutdowns from the pandemic didn’t help.
“I've asked someone out here to buy me a sandwich one time. I’m saying it got bad for me,” Knight says.
During the pandemic, zip codes in Oakland that are majority people of color tended to have higher unemployment rates, higher COVID infections, and fewer opportunities to work remotely. People had to get creative to survive, and BIMOO worked like a sort of business incubator.
“When I got this avenue out here to sell, I buy her a sandwich now,” Knight says.
For Knight, her business is a point of pride.
“I put my hand on my own back. I'm proud of me. Cause I started this from nothing. With a card table, five purses and two wallets,” Knight says.
Starting from nothing resonates with other vendors. Like Terry Hendricks Jr. He started Oakland Native Clothing with his brother and a friend in the summer of 2020, before BIMOO existed.
“To be honest with you, we didn't know where this thing was going to go. You know, we just were like, hey, let's get out here to the lake, see if we can get some stuff going, and make some T-shirts,” Hendricks Jr says.
They started off with one t-shirt machine, then added another. They now have a store on International Boulevard. But they still sell on the street at BIMOO.
“We’re still true to the lake because the lake has helped us, you know. It’s like our foundation, to get off the ground,” Hendricks Jr says.
That part is important. Because what became BIMOO started as an unofficial market in a different part of Lake Merritt.
The time was March of 2020, right when shelter in place started. Unemployment in Oakland went from around 3% to nearly 16%. Employment in middle and low wage jobs fell the hardest. James Copes saw this firsthand.
“Most people that are low-income and medium-income, they don't work from home. They got to go somewhere to work,” Copes says.
People started coming to Lakeshore Avenue on Lake Merritt, setting up an informal market and vending to make up for lost income.
“They were just doing what they had to do to survive, y’know, come out and get our hustle on to earn some money towards taking care of ourselves and our families,” Copes says.
As summer came and the pandemic continued, the market grew. At its peak, Copes estimates as many as 75 vendors would set up shop right there on the lake. As they say, "if you build it, they will come."
“But there was a tremendous amount of complaints from the neighbors,” Copes says.
About things like blocked driveways, public urination, and lots of trash leftover. Copes knew that if the vendors didn’t get organized, they’d get kicked off the lake altogether. He says he asked the city for more support. Things like restrooms, community policing, and more trash service.
“Why do you think the trash is around the trash cans? That tells me something instantly,” Copes says.
But Copes says the city kept turning the screws on the vendors. They restricted parking, they began giving citations to some of the vendors. So Copes called his city council person, Nikki Fortunato Bas.
“Their message was really about the importance of entrepreneurship and having economic opportunity, especially during a recession,” says Council President Bas.
Bas met with the vendors, neighbors, and Copes in August of 2020.
“Even before I had that meeting, I was pushing the city to organize a vending pilot, knowing that there's been a lot of interest in vending across the city, including at the lake,” Council President Bas says.
Recent laws have made this easier. In 2018, California passed the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, which decriminalized street vending statewide. In Oakland, Council President Bas’s idea was to pilot a program where street vendors could sell their wares with the city’s blessing. The question was where?
“Early on, We talked about alternatives. Nikki was saying, ‘Well, what about Mosswood Park? What about De Fremery Park?' and other things.” Copes says. “We want to be at the lake. There's a tradition here at the lake.”
Copes says just like barbeques and picnics, vending has always happened at Lake Merritt. Granted, he says, it’s never been this big. The high foot traffic, central location, and history of vending is all part of why people want to sell here.
“There's no place like Lake Merritt. Do you understand? There's no place like Lake Merritt,” Copes says.
Copes ended up finding a compromise with the city. In the fall of 2020, the City of Oakland piloted BIMOO, with Copes acting as director. They got to stay at the lake, but the catch — was that they had to move. From the main drag on Lakeshore Avenue with a lot of foot traffic, to a more out of the way spot on El Embarcadero, just north of the lake.
“We’d like to be back over at Lakeshore, to be honest, but that's not going to happen,” Copes says.
Even though the vendors make less money than they did on Lakeshore, the pilot has been a success, and the City of Oakland funded BIMOO at their current site through November. But market manager Aurice Guyton says the city hasn’t given her any long-term promises.
“It is up to the Oakland Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) to determine if we can stay or if we have to move locations,” Guyton says.
At a recent PRAC meeting, some people pushed back against BIMOO during public comment. One caller, named Laurie, said Lake Merritt is a park, not a market.
“It should not be dedicated to solely one group, every weekend, for commercial purposes,” Laurie said.
But Guyton says the vendors have a right to be at the lake.
“Most of the vendors here are black. They all have a tie to Oakland. They're either born and raised in Oakland or have lived in Oakland the majority of their life,” Guyton says.
She says, being asked to move again is all too familiar for many vendors and organizers.
“Many of them have been displaced because of gentrification. They have moved out, but they still call Oakland their home,” Guyton says.
They’re tired of getting pushed out.
“This is a way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re not leaving’. We're still here,” Guyton says
BIMOO was created to address a problem: unpermitted vending near the lake. But it hasn’t exactly done that. Copes estimates around 14 vendors still set up an unregulated market on Grand Avenue every weekend.
He says many of the complaints against BIMOO are from people who can’t tell the difference between them and the unregulated vendors. When BIMOO went legit, it meant that their vendors had to play by the city’s rules.
“We did the legal thing. I got the permits, I did everything they asked to do,” Copes says.
That means vendors who want to sell alcohol, cannabis, or food without a health permit, for instance, aren’t allowed.
“They were doing food illegally on Grand Avenue, and people were cooking and having music and s***! I want a margarita too!” Copes says.
Copes is trying to bring more vendors into the fold. He says people can join BIMOO at no cost.
“We encourage people to get their business license and sellers permit. But I didn't think it was a prerequisite for people to be able to come out and sell,” Copes says.
The city of Oakland isn’t the only place trying to regulate street vendors. Down in LA, where there are an estimated 10,000 vendors, the city created a permit program last year. And last month, San Francisco passed legislation to begin regulating street vendors at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Back in the Bay Area, Council President Bas wants to encourage more regulated street markets in Oakland.
“It really is a bread and butter issue for a lot of people. Because of that, I really want to keep pushing on the city to find allowable locations for vending across the city and really pair it with promoting so that people know where they can support our local entrepreneurs,” Council President Bas says.
This is one place where Copes and Bas can see eye to eye.
“We need that activity all the time, every weekend, and even during the week, a place during the week,” Copes says.
To Copes, it’s just the vendors getting their fair share of the lake.
“Do we have a right to be at this lake and share this lake in a safe and responsible way? Do we have a right to do that? And have a chance to earn a living or earn part of our living here on this beautiful Lake Merritt?” Copes says.
It’s clear that during its short time, BIMOO’S made a big impact on the vendors.
“There are over 50 vendors out here who need this. This isn't something where we just get out of here and want to come and have a party every day. People need this to feed their families and to keep their business going,” Hendricks Jr. says.
Even though Karen Knight has gone back to her job as a home health nurse, she still comes out to BIMOO every weekend. The market has changed the way she sees herself.
“I've come a long way. This is what I built. It means a lot to a person when they scrape and build something themselves. Praise the Lord I'm here and building this,” Knight says. “I got grandkids. They may not want to sell no purses and stuff, but they’re going to have an idea. You need to have a business too, you know, just cause you got a job, you need something else. Cause what happens if the job don't pan out? You know, you’re left stuck,” Knight says.
Knight also says she wants to go back to school.
“Ain't that something? So I'm going to go back to school for this. So I can better myself and what I got going. Maybe I don't stay selling purses. I don't know, but I know I want some kind of business of my own. That's what I like,” Knight says.
It’s amazing what a card table, five purses and two wallets can lead to.