Audiograph's Sound of the Week: San Francisco Flower Mart
All week long we've been playing this sound, and asking you to guess what exactly it is and where exactly in the Bay Area we recorded it.
This auditory guessing game is part of our project, Audiograph, a crowd-sourced collaborative radio project mapping the sonic signature of each of the Bay Area’s nine counties. By using the sounds of voices, nature, industry, and music, Audiograph tells the story of where you live, and the people who live there with you. Every Thursday, we reveal the origins of that week's sound on Crosscurrents, and here in weekly blog posts.
It is a little after 3:30 in the morning at the San Francisco Flower Mart, and 55-year old Victor Neve is unloading his goods for the day: branches of bittersweet, a long vine spotted with orange berries. Neve grows his flowers at his Lassen Ranch, about 300 miles north of San Francisco in Shasta County. At a time when I would normally still be in bed, he’s already been up for several hours, since 12:30 this morning.
Neve is one of more than 60 vendors who sell at the Flower Mart, one of the largest flower wholesalers in the country. The Mart got its start in the late 1800s, when local growers met every week to sell their wares at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street. Back then, there were three separate markets, all run by different immigrant groups, each with their own expertise: Chinese specialized in pompons, Japanese in roses, and the Italians in ferns and potted plants. Those markets eventually joined together in the early 1900s.
Having been born into the business, getting up in the wee hours is a ritual Victor Neve was groomed for. Twice a week, he drives from his ranch to the Flower Mart’s current location at 6th and Brannan, where it’s been since 1956.
The family business started with his grandpa, who sold potted plants in the 1940s, and continued on through his dad, his uncles, and his cousins. If you take a look around the Mart, the family’s legacy is everywhere: Neve Roses and Neve Brothers -- which he started with one of his brothers -- are also located within the Mart. An uncle works for SF Brannan Street Wholesale, just across the aisle.
Neve says these days, it’s hard to make it in the flower business. Sellers have to compete with cheaper providers like Costco, Trader Joe’s and Safeway. He says he puts in more hours for less money than he did ten years ago.
While it has become more difficult to work in the flower business, the future of the Flower Mart itself is not totally certain. In July, real estate investment trust Kilroy Realty Corporation bought a major part of the building that houses the market, and may be in the middle of a deal to acquire more. The plan is to rent out space to tech companies, and although the investors have said they’ll also preserve the market and keep it within the building, flower vendors say that so far, nothing’s in writing.
Just across from Neve’s shop, Karman Kwong is tending to his customers. He is worked at the market since 1980, and run his own business here since 1984.
Ask him what it was like starting on his own, and he points to his head, asking me to look at the color of his hair. “White hair,” he jokes. “Don’t run business; go get social welfare -- better!”
Kwong sells chrysanthemums, and says it’s been enough to get his kid through college. His stall is right across from Victor Neve’s, and another vendor, Lupe Rico. He thinks of these men as his brothers.
“We are all friend[s]. No enemy,” he says.
Alongside the veterans, there is also a younger crop of business owners, like Christina Stumble, a flower vendor and a start-up owner. She started her company, Farmgirl Flowers, out of her dining room four years ago, hoping to jumpstart the local flower movement the way others had done with local food. Her shop makes one daily bouquet arrangement with locally grown flowers, wraps them in reused burlap bags from local coffee roasteries, and delivers throughout the city via bicycle courier.
Stumble understands both sides of the real estate dispute, and says it’s important to protect the Flower Mart. “These are blue collar jobs, creative jobs that we really need to support in the city.”
The end of a long season
The work in the Flower Mart might not be high tech, but being in the flower business requires years of specialized knowledge. Ask David Gregoire anything about his product, and he knows where it’s come from, when it’s in season -- small details that he knows like the back of his hand.
Gregoire works at SF Brannan Street Wholesale, one of the biggest vendors in the market, taking up a large section of floor space that zig and zags with a sharp left here, a right turn there; he calls it the Flower Mart’s version of the Winchester Mystery House.
On his finger, Gregoire wears a ring with an insignia of a carnation. It is his father’s -- about 50 or 60 years old. Back then, carnations were his family’s specialty.
Gregoire is in his early 70s, but because he is super energetic, you would never know it. He takes me through row after row of white buckets filled with different varieties of flowers -- flowers that are locally grown, flowers from South America, flowers with fragrance, flower that don’t smell like anything at all. When we reach the end of his tour, he points to other businesses nearby: “So this is competition in the flower market.” he says.
That is, except for one vendor: “This guy sells baskets, he’s not competition for us.”
Gregoire has been with Brannan Street for 20 years. He started in the business as a kid, wrapping bouquets in newspaper, at a penny a pound. He’s been working with flowers for 56 years, and it’s a legacy that’s been passed on through the family since his grandfather was selling flowers in 1882 on Market Street.
So far, love for the work has been enough to keep him where he is -- but he says retirement is not too far off in his future. As for his four adult children, he says they have chosen other professions. He calls himself the “last of the Mohicans.”
“I don’t dwell on it a lot,” he says. “If we started out in 1882, [we’ve had] 132 years of somebody in this family being in the flower business. So when I stop, it stops.”
An uncertain future
Victor Neve says he does not think his own kids will take over Lassen Ranch, either -- they have their own interests. And that’s okay with him.
“I gave them an opportunity to have an opportunity,” Neve says. “I want them to do what they want to do, and I think they probably won’t come into the business.”
Just like for Neve’s business, it’s unclear what the future of the market will be as a whole, either. The Flower Mart says it is unlikely that anything will change in the immediate future, and there may be ballot measures on the way that prevent development in the building. In the meantime, vendors like Victor Neve are busy doing what they do best ... selling flowers. For him, it is a way of life.
“Even on my worst days when I complain that things are terrible, I still love it,” he says.
Congratulations to Pip Marks, you're this week's winner. We'll have a new sound for you to guess and another chance to win coming up next week.
In the meantime, is there a sound from your life that should be featured on Audiograph? Call at 415-264-7106 and tell us about the sound of where you live.