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Since rumors began circulating among Clark Park craft vendors that city officials would start enforcing permit requirements, West Philly’s weekly outdoor market has felt emptier.
As conversations about possible solutions to the situation buzz around the neighborhood — and are even being considered by city departments — several vendors are continuing to sell at the park each Saturday, even if setting up shop comes with a new set of nerves.
Vendors haven’t seen any park rangers again since early April, they told Billy Penn, but many are still afraid the Department of Licenses and Inspections could show up at any moment. The pop-up operators, many of who’d been selling at the park with no trouble since 2020, were warned of a range of consequences, from $75 fines to confiscation of goods.
“Some people will come around, but they won’t actually set up,” said Jazzmin Royal, a vendor specializing in crystals and skincare, describing the atmosphere among her fellow proprietors. “And maybe they’ll come back the following week. But it has had a lot of people scared to come back.”
Rob Heller has continued offering his handmade metal jewelry at the park, part of a group of vendors who aren’t officially affiliated with The Food Trust’s weekly farmers market nearby.
“As a person who’s got stuff that they wish to share as an artist,” Heller said, “I just want to have freedom of expression.”
Those are common sentiments among the people who’ve been making a living sharing their work with their community — and one that’s being taken seriously by local officials. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district contains the park, said she “look[s] forward to continuing to work with all stakeholders to find solutions that will allow vending to remain at Clark Park.”
How exactly to do that remains unclear.
Parks & Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup told Billy Penn the department will “soon begin a community-based planning process to better understand what works at the park and what is needed to meet the needs of West Philadelphians.”
While it’s impossible to predict what the outcome of such a process will be, here are a few ideas that have been floating around so far.
The city could just skip enforcing permits
The Department of Parks and Recreation maintains it has “no plans to bring enforcement measures to manage unpermitted vending in Clark Park.” Instead, it will rely on educational measures to ensure that vendors know what regulations exist — think flyering from park rangers, but not the confiscation of good or forced removals.
Vendors believe their presence is good for the surrounding community and local businesses. By bringing more customers to the farmers market, the thinking goes, sales go up everyone.
But turning a blind eye isn’t a sustainable solution, noted Royal, the crystal vendor, pointing to the many vendors who still fear that one day they’ll see another park ranger at Clark Park.
“We’d like consistency,” she said. Declining to enforce permits doesn’t offer that in the long-term.
The farmers market could include more craft vendors
The Food Trust’s various farmers markets, like the one at Clark Park, primarily aim to provide affordable and fresh food to the communities they serve. In recent years, craft vending has grown into an important part of these markets, too. Space, however, remains limited.
The official farmers market stretches only one block from Baltimore Avenue to Chester Avenue along 43rd Street, and each week the street is packed with various food vendors. But nearby construction and other space limitations means the organizers have to make hard decisions, they said.
“[Clark Park] is the market with our largest percentage of SNAP EBT sales, and it’s important for us to ensure that the primary focus remains on making nutritious food affordable and easy to find for all,” said Food Trust spokesperson Carolyn Huckabay.
Even when there is a spot or two available, it’s not always easy to work new people into the vendor rotation.
The Food Trust has discussed the idea of having “a small, rotating number” of craft vendors join, Huckabay told Billy Penn, but it has so far not come to fruition. “With limited capacity, we haven’t had the staff time to coordinate these efforts.”
A separate market could run at the same time
Many unpermitted vendors cannot afford to acquire permits on an individual basis. A sidewalk vending license can cost $330 (and doesn’t necessarily allow vending within parks). A broader event license can run $3,000 and up.
That’s what makes arrangements like the monthly Uhuru flea market so valuable — the group takes on the burden of acquiring the necessary permissions and split the costs among the vendors who participate.
Uhuru happens once a month at Clark Park, not often enough to be a reliable source of income for the vendors who have made it part of their weekly routine. The monthly cadence also offers less flexibility, some sellers noted. If they’re sick or have childcare responsibilities during one of the markets, they’d have to wait another month to recoup revenue.
To ensure the Clark Park farmers market retains its focus on providing affordable food, some proponents are in favor of a separate market that runs alongside it without infringing.
This would mean designating an additional area for craft vending near the pre-existing food market managed by the Food Trust, potentially along the same stretch of Chester Avenue where craft vendors currently sell wares unpermitted.
But adding an additional market would also require someone or some entity to oversee it.
Parks & Rec “has limited resources to manage all of the activity at Clark Park and to allow space for the many recreational activities that happen there,” spokesperson Soukup told Billy Penn, which is why it relies on partnerships with Uhuru and The Food Trust to make these kinds of events possible.
The city could establish a cheaper pop-up permit for craft vendors
Since getting permits to vend in city parks is pricey and confusing, some have suggested the city enable small entrepreneurs by creating a new single-day permit that could be obtained entirely online.
There’s already a similar permit for temporary vendors on foot in Philadelphia, which could serve as a model for how to operate a park-specific pop-up situation. The exact pricing would be up to Parks & Rec, but it could be comparable to the $40 fee charged by The Food Trust to operate a 10×10 space at the farmers market.
This might not help vendors this season, since it could take a while to implement. A second permitting system would also require more city resources to enforce. It might take the shape of park rangers doing random compliance checks each Saturday, potentially exacerbating confiscation fears.
Finding temporary alternatives
Although big changes are unlikely to happen soon, craft vendors are finding ways to keep their income stream steady.
Some have been sell their jewelry and craft goods at other pop-ups around the city — they’ve been spotted at The Wine Garden in West Philly, a pop-up called “Minding MY Black-Owned Businesses,” and the Life Do Grow Farm in North Philly.
But many are hoping for a solution to the Clark Park situation.
“Since the pandemic, a lot of things have changed for my family,” said Royal, the crystals and skincare vendor. “Being able to come out here every Saturday helps guarantee that I’ll have certain bills paid.”