When local mother and entrepreneur Maria, whose name has been changed by her request to preserve her family’s privacy, walked into her first Charlotte City Council meeting on Feb. 14, she hoped to get some answers. What she saw was more of the same.
Maria had been outside with some of her colleagues, fellow vendors at a flea market on the former Eastland Mall property that had been shut down by the city on the previous Friday, when they were invited inside to watch the meeting.
While she can read English, Maria does not understand it well when spoken. Her experience in the meeting was one of frustration.
“The city invited us in to show us their projects, and we were in there for like two hours looking at them, and listening to them show us their projects,” she recently told Queen City Nerve through a translator. “So they saw some people outside protesting, they invited us inside to see their projects, but at no point did they show us anything that included us in their projects … They let us come inside so that we could see what projects the city has, but nothing for us, they didn’t listen to us.”
The council was following a set agenda at the meeting, with no reason to address the situation at the former Eastland Mall site, but Maria’s experience was indicative of a much longer-standing issue that has now come to a head.
The closure of the market and the displacement of around 200 local vendors who set up there every weekend, along with the upcoming demolition of the hugely popular Eastland DIY skatepark, will pave the way for a $26-million multi-use redevelopment of the Eastland property led by Tepper Sports and Entertainment and Crosland Southeast.
While development of the Eastland property has been many years in the making, and welcomed by many throughout the city, the process has raised questions around whom the city is willing to partner with and whom they’d rather ignore.
Jorge Castaneda is another local vendor who, like Maria, was one of a handful of local entrepreneurs who originally helped launch the Central Flea Market at the Eastland site in August 2015 after Guyanese immigrant Theodore Williams lobbied the city to allow him to lease the property for that purpose.
Flea markets are a key source of income for Castaneda, who sells exotic fruits. While he knew the market would eventually close, he and his fellow vendors are frustrated with the lack of communication they’ve received from the city throughout the process.
For months vendors have requested meetings with city officials to discuss how they can move forward by selling their wares elsewhere, but to no avail.
In January, they hired Ismaail Qaiyim of Queen City Community Law Firm to help them organize and better communicate with the city. His own requests for a meeting also went unanswered.
Vendors also say they’re being misrepresented in the media based on the city’s narrative alleging that illicit activity and improper permitting at the site justifies the displacement.
“They wanted to find an excuse, an excuse to say, ‘Oh, that’s their fault. They’re not doing it right,’” Castaneda said. “We tried to do it right, they just don’t want to listen to us. They just keep giving excuse after excuse and nothing is done. We tried to work with the city of Charlotte, we tried to bring more revenue to the city, but we want to do it right. We want to do it right and we want to be heard.”
‘This is culture’
Around the same time officials were informing vendors at the Central Flea Market they would not be allowed to set up on the property anymore, the city was also finalizing plans to shut down the Eastland DIY skatepark.
Beginning around the same time that the Eastland flea market opened, skateboarders slowly built up the concrete park over seven years, creating an iconic space in a city with limited room for skaters.
On Feb. 15, the city announced they only had two weeks to enjoy the fruits of their labor; the skatepark will be shut down on March 3.
When Queen City Nerve visited the site a few days after the announcement, about 75 people were there. Longtime skater Chris Gulley said he had been coming to the park for years and helped with some of the builds. It became all the more special to him in recent years when his kids became old enough to skate there.
“We brought the funds and the materials and concrete and everything we needed together and did it as a team, which is the cool thing about skateboarding in general; it is a community. Everybody here doesn’t know each other when they come here but as you kind of get together and build this park together you build a bond with these people and that’s what we’ve had for the past seven years and now it’s going to get torn down for whatever the city has planned,” Gulley said. “It’s a staple in the skateboarding community, so to have it torn down is a big blow for everybody.”
Standing along the edge of the park upon our visit was Stephen Barrett, who helped found the Eastland DIY skatepark on the foundation of a razed Hollywood Video store in August 2015. He and a handful of fellow skaters began with the centerpiece, a concrete box, and continued to build around it as time went on.
Barrett has taken the announcement of the shutdown in stride. He’s known this day was coming since 2020, when a rezoning cleared the way for Tepper Sports & Entertainment to begin implementing their plans for the site.
Still, he’s frustrated by his experience with the city — one that mirrors those of his Eastland neighbors at Central Flea Market.
When it became clear in spring 2020 that Eastland DIY would most likely not be included in plans for redevelopment at the site, he and others at the park began reaching out to officials to ask about what could be done. The city-built skateparks — one at Grayson Park in southeast Charlotte and a recently built one at Renaissance Park in southwest Charlotte — are not conveniently located or built to the liking of skaters at Eastland, be it for reasons of style (Grayson) or size (Renaissance).
All Barrett wants from the city, he said, is a plot of land where skaters can create their own park. If that’s not feasible, he wants the skate community to have more say in what the city builds.
He pointed to Mooresville as an example. On Feb. 7, town commissioners there approved a $2.8-million renovation of the current skatepark that will implement feedback from local skaters.
“Let’s bring the community in and talk with them like Mooresville did,” Barrett said. “Even during COVID, [Mooresville hosted] live video chats with everybody, people filled out surveys of what style park they wanted, things like that. Mooresville, Lexington, all these smaller towns can get good skateparks, why can Charlotte not do that with all this money here?”
Standing with Barrett was Eastland DIY veteran Brian Mitchell, who said he’s been skating in Charlotte for 20 years. He and Barrett have seen more than a dozen DIY skate spots come and go — Red Ledge, Alby, Indy, 10th Street, NoDa, the list goes on — but none have lasted as long as Eastland.
After having spent countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars at the spot, which has drawn the likes of Nike, Adidas, Toy Machine, DC and a slew of other large companies that have hosted or sponsored events there, Barrett and Mitchell are getting frustrated with the cycle.
They said they wish the city would just provide a lot similar to Eastland with a guarantee that no developer will come and “take it from under our feet,” as Mitchell put it, and then they would get right back to putting their own time, money and love into it.
“This has been an ongoing problem for 20 years … we’re never heard,” Mitchell said, looking out at the park. “They struggle so hard to create culture and that’s not how culture is created, it’s organic. This is culture.
“What they don’t realize is there’s going to be 300 displaced skaters that don’t have a home to go to because they come here, and they’re going to be in the streets, and [city leaders] are going to be like, ‘Wow, why is everything getting fuckin’ skated?’ Well you haven’t listened for 20 years. We build something because you guys don’t listen, and here we are. If you’re not going to build a public park, you’re not going to stop us; we’re going to keep building. If you have a problem with that, you can do something about it.”
A wider conversation
While the rezoning that allowed for Crosland Southeast’s 69-acre Eastland redevelopment occurred in 2020, many Central Flea Market vendors remained out of the loop. Most knew that their time was limited in the space, however.
In October 2021, the city refused to renew a lease that had allowed the market to operate on the property for years. Officials placed barricades in the parking lot blocking access to the space. Vendors like Maria and Castaneda simply moved elsewhere in the parking lot and continued to sell their goods.
Things came to a head in February 2022, however, after a man from out-of-state was arrested for selling guns at the market.
Vendors say they did not know the man and had no way of policing their own market without a lease from the city.
“How can we control that — somebody coming in to sell and set up — if we don’t have a lease, we don’t have paper?” asked Castaneda. “We were trying to avoid that. We don’t want the situation. Our families depend on what we do for a living — our families, our kids.”
In January, the vendors approached Ismaail Qaiyim, principal attorney with Queen City Community Law Firm, as some of them had built a relationship with him during his time working as a Berkeley Law Foundation Fellow with the Latin American Coalition (LAC).
A Charlotte native, Qaiyim began reaching out to staff with the city’s Economic Development department and Real Estate Division, sending his first emails on Jan. 25. He did not hear back until Friday, Feb. 11, when he received an email that refused to acknowledge the existence of the market, stating there was no entity known as Central Flea Market and his clients had no right to do business on the Eastland property.
Later that day, city staff showed up with police to force the vendors off the property and inform them the market would be closed permanently. Qaiyim, whose current office shares a building with LAC just down the street from the market, went to the site when he heard what was happening that afternoon.
“I told them this is the situation I wanted to avoid,” Qayim said. “We wanted to be able to have a meeting, figure out what the plan was. Everybody knew that the vendors were going to have to go to a different site, but at the same time, giving a week or two weeks of notice instead of this, I felt like they escalated the situation by doing it this way.”
For Qaiyim, who also serves as political education and policy co-chair with the Housing Justice Coalition, the situation at the Central Flea Market is indicative of a broader issue around gentrification and what types of people the city finds it more appropriate to partner with.
“There is the wider conversation around what kind of economic actors the city wants to partner with and what kind of economic partners the city doesn’t want to partner with, and who is seen as desirable and who is not,” he said.
The Eastland site is part of the Albemarle Road Corridor of Opportunity, one of six such corridors in which the city is investing $38.5 million to go toward affordable housing, community safety, infrastructure, transportation, workforce and business development, and urban design.
“When you look at the investment, not just in the Albemarle Corridor of Opportunity but all of the Corridors of Opportunity, it’s not local businesses that are really being able to take advantage of it,” Qaiyim said. “In fact, local businesses are disappearing. They’re being displaced along with the communities.”
He pointed out that developers have committed to including a small-business incubator as part of the Eastland redevelopment, and hopes to help neighbors organize to ensure that they live up to those promises. Still, he remains skeptical of the effect the development and the city’s approach to investment will have on nearby residents and business owners.
“It’s very clear when you look at where the dollars are actually going, and who’s receiving public/private partnership money and funding, then you look at who’s ignored, we see very clearly that there is a preference for these large-scale private sector entities that will have consequences for that entire part of the city,” he warned.
“So we’re just asking the city — not really asking more so demanding — ‘Listen, these are people that live here, participating in commerce. They’re economic actors, why can’t you partner with them also?’”
The city has said there is no city-owned property available for the Central Flea Market to relocate to, and in the meantime, Qaiyim is helping the vendors search for a property to lease or purchase.
Castaneda is hopeful that the market can find the support and get another chance.
“I think it’s important to let our government in Charlotte know that we are a part of the community, too,” he said. “We are citizens, we are part of the community. They left us on our own for a long time. I think it’s important to include us — as spenders and a part of the economy of Charlotte — to help us, to listen to us and help us find a solution. We don’t want anything for free. We are willing to pay for a lease, for land, whatever, something, and do it right.”