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Church vs. Commerce: Parishioners Try to Take the Brooklyn Flea Down

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Last night, a meeting was held at the Queen of All Saints Church in Fort Greene to discuss the Brooklyn Flea, and its perceived detrimental effects on the community. The cast of characters here included: Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler (the latter looking very dapper in an oxford, crisp khakis, and burgundy boots), organizers of the Brooklyn Flea; Councilwoman Leticia James; State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery; Reps from Marty Markowitz' office; Community Board 2 District Manager Robert Perris and CB2 Chairman Robert Dew; and about 70-80 residents of Fort Greene and environs, including many parishioners. Of course, a Racked correspondent also showed up; this is his report.

The first thing I noticed when I pulled my bike up to Queen of All Saints Church were some flyers taped to the building, "respectfully" asking the press not to attend the meeting. I must say, they gave me pause. Just kidding—I walked right in and took a seat. The basement of Queen of All Saints Church was hot, and the fans were loud. Monsignor Andrew Vaccari, administrator of Queen of All Saints, opened things up by describing the purpose of the meeting as a venue for stakeholders to share concerns about the flea market. This was the third such meeting, he mentioned, and the first to have representatives from the Brooklyn Flea in attendance.
"Wait a minute!" a guy butted in, "can't we also talk about the positive things the flea market is doing?" Vaccari hesitated. "I suppose," he said, but then emphasized that the principal purpose of the meeting was for people to air grievances. Vaccari gave some examples from his church: parking, litter, using church restrooms, and "neighborhood effects." Then it was Demby and Butler's turns to speak. Each passed along the same message: the flea market provides economic support for small businesses, increased funding for Bishop Laughlin High, and a new "energy" for the neighborhood. They also mentioned a laundry list of improvements they've made to the flea market on issues like parking, restroom accessibility, security, and trash collection.

The first "regular" person to comment was Kathleen Walsh, a parishioner at Queen of All Saints and "resident of the neighborhood since 1942." She made something real clear up front: "It's not about gentrification," she said to applause. Rather, "Sunday is a very special day for us, [and] we look forward to that day. It is a day that has been impeded on by the commercialism and hubbub of the flea." More applause. And then it happened—the first overreach. "I muse aloud," she continued, "would such an entity be allowed across from a synagogue?" Loud boos, followed by a plea for peace from one of the attendees.

A few people offered suggestions: What about Saturday? What about starting the flea market in the afternoon, after mass? Demby said those wouldn't work, mainly because the high school has events on Saturday, as does the Fort Greene Farmer's Market.

The religious double standard meme returned with a vengeance soon after this moment of civility. A commentator called the Brooklyn Flea "abjectly disrespectful to the Christian sabbath," and then declared that "You better not believe this would happen with Hasidic Jews." Boos. She ignored them, though, and raised her voice. "If it can't happen on a Jewish sabbath, it can't happen on a Christian sabbath!" A combination of boos and cheers followed. A man stood up and said he'd been in the neighborhood since 1987, when he "was attending Pratt and saw a fellow student get shot in the face in front of [his] dormitory." He called out the previous commentators for antisemitism, said he loved the flea market, and then began to sit down. Someone shouted, "where do you live?" He didn't say anything, and the shouts got louder. "Where do you live? Tell us where you live! Do you live around here?" It was absurd. Finally the guy stood up and said, "I live three doors down from here," and everyone grew quiet.

After a bit, everyone got tired of the Jewish/Christian thing. Councilwoman Leticia James mentioned all the changes in the works, such as bike racks and trash cans, and said that they were working on creating some residential-only parking during the flea market. All of these updates were met with polite applause. State Senator Velmanette Montgomery really stole the show, though, and got folks excited. "I fought against the stadium here," Montgomery said. "This is different. What is suffering in this city and state right now is small business. I'd rather support small businesses than Ratner," she said, and the whole room erupted in applause. "We have lost so many of our small businesses because we don't have the foot traffic...I want buses to stop and spend some money!" More cheering. "These big boxes are running us over!" The room went wild. Everyone can agree about that, right?

The assembly disbanded around 9. Moral of the story: compromise remains elusive. The parishioners should take some of the blame for this—their quality of life concerns leave little room for a middle ground, and there's a lot of anger about the ruination of a "once tranquil" neighborhood. ("This is Brooklyn!" shouted someone in response to that, followed by cheers and boos). As a result, solutions like "more parking," "better security," "better trash," etc. didn't really seem to interest the church contingent all that much. In large part, they wanted the flea market outta there, and fast. At the same time, the churches do have legitimate complaints about trash, restroom use, etc., and it was good that they could voice some of their concerns to the organizers, who had not been invited to the last two meetings.

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—Paul Caine