Feb 18, 2022 - Development

East Charlotte’s open-air market is shut down, leaving 200+ vendors with nowhere to go

open air market eastland mall

Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

More than 200 vendors from the Charlotte Central Market at the old Eastland Mall site need a new place to set up shop.

The city says it doesn’t have anywhere to put them now that their lease has expired. But it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

Context: Since the market opened in the summer of 2015, it has more than quadrupled in size from its original 40 vendors. But even on its first weekend, it was a huge success, as journalist Ryan Pitkin wrote in Creative Loafing at the time.

Why it matters: So many reasons. For starters, the market is a form of livelihood for many of the vendors. It’s a cultural melting pot where people from all over the Charlotte area go to enjoy foreign foods, shop for crafts, and find inexpensive items.

  • It’s profitable. Vendors pay taxes to the city from the revenue they make on the weekends.
  • And, closing cultural attractions like the market inhibits immigrants from integrating and contributing to the community.

In the summertime, so many people come that people barely fit,” says Claudia Garcia, who’s been a vendor since day one.

open air market eastland mall
Open-air market in January 2020. Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

Flashback: The idea for the market came from two local men, Errick Curtis-Pulley and Theodore Williams, who lobbied the city to allow them to open the market.

  • The city granted them a lease in 2015, and it expired last spring.

“We notified the operator of the flea market that we would not be extending the lease and that he would need to look for a new site,” city spokesperson Cory Burkarth tells Axios. 

Yes, but: Vendors at the market tell me that Williams and Curtis-Pulley are no longer affiliated with the market. They also say they weren’t given a heads up when the lease expired.

  • “We had already bought our merchandise to set up shop the next day, and he [Williams] just posted something on Facebook about the market closing,” says Garcia.

Without a person in charge, the vendors took it upon themselves to organize. They created a leadership board made up of five people, hired a lawyer, rebranded from its original name “Charlotte Open Air Market” to “Charlotte Central Flea Market,” and started to plan for a more permanent future.

  • In the meantime, they continued to operate on the city’s property without a lease, but with the city’s knowledge.
  • Their lawyer, Ismaail Qaiyim, tells me that he sent a letter to the city’s Economic Development Department on Jan. 25 to discuss the future of the market but didn’t hear back until Feb. 11.

Driving the news: On Feb. 11, a representative from the City shut down the market abruptly, with help from CMPD. No arrests were made, and the incident was peaceful, but the vendors say they were caught off guard.

  • Burkarth tells me the city gave them several notices. “We told the market operator six months in advance that he had to evacuate the land.” He added that they also posted signs around the site, but did not speak directly to the vendors. 

Between the lines: The weekend before the evacuation, an arrest was made on the property. CMPD’s Lieutenant Stephen Fischbach tells me Ahmet Erkek, a man from out-of-state, was arrested on a concealed weapons charge

  • 911 call records obtained by Axios show Erkek was allegedly selling guns out of his car.
  • Veteran vendors were concerned about people coming to the market and selling illegally. “If I went up to him and told him to leave, he would be like, ‘And who are you?'” Garcia said, adding that a lease would give them the power to control who was selling, and what.

The big picture: The former Eastland Mall site and the surrounding area is one of 17 opportunity zones in Mecklenburg County, which are primarily in the north and western parts of Charlotte.

open air market protest
Central Flea Market vendors respond to removal from the Eastland Mall site with a protest and press conference on Feb. 14. Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios
  • Opportunity zones are low-income areas that have historically lacked investment and it’s the city’s responsibility to revitalize them.

The other side: “The reality is the quote-unquote ‘progress’ across the city as a whole is pushing people who are already in the margins, further and further into the margins and this is just another example,” says Autumn Weil, the Executive Director of International House, a nonprofit that helps educate, mentor, and integrate immigrants in our community.

  • Weil tells me that it’s not just the market vendors facing evictions. Other business owners are also losing their venues because landlords are selling their properties, homeowners can’t afford the rise in property taxes, and nonprofits are also facing similar evictions.

“I wish we were in a position to be able to purchase land and offer it to them,” she says. But International House is facing a displacement problem of its own. The property they currently work out of, on Central Ave., is owned by CMS and they’re being asked to leave five years earlier than anticipated.

  • “We’re committed to being in that Central Avenue area, off Albemarle Rd., but we’re also very mindful that the area will look very different five years from now,” says Weil, adding that if the immigrant community moves, they’ll move with them. 

What’s next: Garcia tells me the vendors aren’t looking for handouts. “We just need a space, if we need to pay to use that space we will.”

  • Burkarth tells me the city has no plans of helping them relocate because none of the property they own is suitable for the market. 
  • Weil, who points out that the city might have a park or two they could set up at, says without the help of the city or county, it will be very difficult for the vendors to find a new space.

“It’s easier to say no when sometimes the right thing to do is to work together to find the solution, even though it’s harder,” said Weil.

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