Friday, December 17, 2010

Aqueduct Flea Market Vendors Seek New Home by Elizabeth A. Harris -

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The weekend flea market that has filled a parking lot of Aqueduct racetrack for more than 30 years is shutting down this month.
Every Saturday and Sunday at 6 a.m., Aftabudeen Edun pulls his truck into an expansive parking lot in Ozone Park, Queens, and unloads tiny bottles of perfume and moisturizer, lip balm and deodorant, laying them out in neat rows on folding tables. For 16 years, Mr. Edun, a 46-year-old immigrant from Guyana who owns two cosmetic stores on Liberty Avenue, could be found, usually in the same spot, on scorching summer days and in the chill of early December mornings, selling his wares at the Aqueduct Flea Market.
But last month, after more than 30 years, the flea market, which fills the racetrack’s north parking lot, lost its lease as the racetrack prepared to make room for thousands of slot machines, along with upscale restaurants. At the end of the year, the market’s 500 or so vendors must pack up their tables and tents for good.
“I make more money here than sitting in the store all day,” Mr. Edun said. “But the market is closing forever. I have to find someplace else.”
The flea market offers a hodgepodge of goods, like bedding, incense and pots and pans. A crochet hat can be had for $3, a pair of jeans for $12. The bargains attract loyal customers, some from as far away as Boston and Baltimore who roll in on tour buses.
Eve Breau, 59, a medical technician who lives in East Flatbush, has driven to the flea market from Brooklyn nearly every weekend for the last 10 years.
“Walking around here is like therapy,” Ms. Breau said, strolling by a stall filled with pink and red paper flowers, their petals crinkling in a cold morning breeze. “They have everything.”
The casino, which broke ground last month, will be a very different beast. The developer, Genting New York, a subsidiary of the largest gambling company in Malaysia and Britain, hopes eventually to turn the project into a destination resort, complete with upscale hotels. It says the casino may generate more than $1.5 million per day in tax revenue.
Genting said that keeping a flea market open during construction raised safety issues, and the State Division of Lottery, which regulates casinos, does not have a mechanism in place to administer a flea market. But there were other issues at play, as well.
“The casino operation is an attempt to go upscale, and a flea market is by nature sort of downscale,” said Betty Braton, the chairwoman of Community Board 10, which represents the neighborhood, adding that there had been reports of counterfeit goods being sold at the market over the years. “We’re looking forward to the economic development that is going to come from the casino operation.”
While the project would create jobs, some fear they will not be available to the vendors who are being forced to make way, many of whom are immigrants.
“A lot of these people aren’t formally educated, so it’s difficult for them to transition to another job,” said Richard S. David, the executive director of the Indo-Caribbean Alliance, a community organization based in Ozone Park.
The market closes down every January and February, since it is usually too cold for selling and browsing, but the vendors do not know what lies ahead for them in March. Carol DeSanto, the general manager of Plain and Fancy Shows, which operates the flea market, said last week that a search for a new location had so far been unsuccessful, and many of the vendors who have tried on their own to find a home at other flea markets have been rebuffed.
“There isn’t space in other markets,” said Savitri Harry, 47, who works as a baby-sitter for a family in Manhattan during the week and sells jewelry at Aqueduct on the weekends. “I can’t pay my bills without the market. I can’t.”
The Indo-Caribbean Alliance is trying to find a new site where the vendors can contract directly with their new landlord, rather than going through an intermediary like Plain and Fancy. Mr. David said that they were looking at sites in Brooklyn and Queens, including a parking lot close to the Aqueduct site, but that they needed to move quickly so the vendors don’t start to scatter.
“The success of the market relies on all the vendors’ staying together,” Mr. David said. “It depends on that variety.”
But some of them have already made contingency plans, and the market has begun to break apart.
“I’ll be O.K.; I’ll go to another market,” said Arturo Alonzo, 45, standing between rows of blue jeans and plastic mannequins. “But this is a nice community. I’ll be sad to see it go.”