This blog is part of an ongoing series of posts by the Greenlining Health Equity Fellows at The California Endowment.
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” –Mother Teresa
It’s a warm Sunday afternoon and the sun is shining brightly when suddenly a gentle breeze cools the perspiration on my skin. I pause from dusting a thin layer of dirt off a pair of Nike Cortez and I take stock of my surroundings. There’s a cacophony of sounds: children laughing, pigeons cooing, and Mexican Norteño music blaring in the background. Nearby, I see my parents and older siblings attending to customers who are haggling for a better deal. While in the distance, there are throngs of people making their way through the dozens of colorfully adorned makeshift stands. I smile at them knowing that I’m right at home.
You see, as a kid, swap meets (or flea markets) were my playground. For years, my family would traverse the swap meets of the Central Valley and then San Diego County, reselling brand name shoes and making $10-15 on the pair. It was never glamorous; it was gritty work and it was how we stayed financially afloat. It was our lifeline.
Unfortunately, over time, swap meets have lost much of their economic viability. What were once bustling marketplaces of vendors and visitors have now become ghost towns of their former selves. No longer can intrepid immigrant entrepreneurs like my parents start up a business in a swap meet and achieve the elusive American Dream. What happened?
Some will have us think that simply times have changed and our economy has gone elsewhere. But I don’t take that reasoning as a justification. From my personal experience, I’ve seen how local governments have deprioritized working class spaces and places in favor of more corporate forms of development. Take my hometown of Escondido, California for example.
Over the past ten years, there have been repeated efforts to rezone & redevelop the site of the Escondido Swap Meet (now known as the Escondido World Marketplace). From trying to convert it into a minor league baseball stadium, to raiding the swap meet for minor code violations, or even planning for a tech district at the location, there have been clear attempts by those in positions of power to displace small business vendors and replace them with more upscale ones. Heck, there have even been collaborations with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to scare away the predominantly immigrant population.
These efforts to displace are not just affecting swap meets, but all types of working class spaces and places across California. Whether it’s mom & pop shops on Main Street, neighborhood parks, or even the local library, spaces for the working class are often deprioritized and defunded.
When policymakers call for community change, I’m not opposed to redevelopment. Like any true American, I hold the values of change and progress near and dear to my heart. What I think is wrong is when we don’t include the public in the planning process. Deciding whether a small business or family gets to stay in their community shouldn’t come down to closed-door conversations. Rather, it should be a public and participatory process where residents’ voices are included in the decision-making. These decisions aren’t just about abstract laws and dollar signs; they’re about real people’s lives that are at stake of being completely uprooted and about their health which is at risk of being degraded.
As residents of this country, we have a choice. We can continue to accept this reality of communities planned and designed for only a few people, or we can stand up and demand that communities be planned and designed for all residents. It’s our future we’re talking about and it’s time for our neighborhoods to be planned for all. Only then can we have a true democracy.
Fortunately, passionate people up and down California are working to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to live, learn, work, play, and thrive in their neighborhoods. Today, as a Greenlining Health Equity Fellow with The California Endowment, I’m working to advance health equity and community transformation in some of the most disinvested communities of Southern California so that one’s zip code doesn’t determine how long they live. And so that families like mine can live healthy and happy lives without the fear of being displaced from their homes and communities.
For more info, follow Juan on Twitter at @juan_p_reynoso