Night markets are markets, too

Raleigh’s success in embracing trust helps explain L.A.’s failure

Last week, the city of Los Angeles permanently shuttered a thriving commercial and cultural zone — one that helped hundreds of struggling residents get back on their feet after a year of COVID lockdowns.

The Avenue 26 Night Market emerged spontaneously along the streets and sidewalks of a Latino working-class neighborhood. In April, here’s how L.A. Times reporter Brittny Mejia described it:

As sunset nears, a temporary town appears along a short stretch of industrial Lincoln Heights.

It has its own regulations, waste management system and at least 100 businesses selling acrylic nails, earrings, weed pipes and mouthwatering burgers, asada tacos and mini pancakes. Along the cracked asphalt, on weekends, a DJ plays music as crowds dance and drink out of clay cups rimmed red with Chamoy.

The businesses operate mostly under canopies or out of pushcarts. Vendors wait for workers at the warehouses along Artesian Street to finish for the day so they can move into empty parking spots and set up tables and carts. They pay the young man who brings Home Depot trash cans, scatters them up and down the street and empties them throughout the weekend nights.

Their form of self-governance? Telling newer vendors to move aside so the veterans can take their usual spots.

Sounds almost idyllic. A Times photo essay showed mobile vendors roasting corn, baking pizzas, and hawking tacos and gourmet pancakes. 

But as the market mushroomed — and went viral on social media, primarily TikTok — trouble ensued. Neighbors complained of gangs, gunfire, and disruptions to normal life. Mejia, reporting last week:

Residents described waking up to freshly dumped trash, puddles of urine and human feces. Business owners said blocked driveways prevented employees from driving home at the end of their shifts.

A group calling itself Respect Lincoln Heights sent out updates on gunshots, altercations and blocked streets.

City Councilman Gil Cedillo announced the closure Aug. 5. Nearly a half-mile of the street where vendors set up and cleared out each day was fenced and barricaded. 

The Avenue 26 Night Market’s initial success couldn’t prevent its eventual undoing. It emerged organically, but lacked any formal governing structure, leaving no one accountable. 

In other words, it was a market in name only.

Vendors scrambled earlier and earlier each day to pick the best spots. Residents who lived near prime market locations had to park blocks away. Petty vandalism went unchecked. Garbage and human waste festered when the sellers and buyers returned home each morning.

Other night markets flourish throughout California. Unlike Avenue 26, though, these markets operate a few hours per session, often once a week or a weekend per month. They also operate above ground, as it were, with permits, formal security, and local sponsors. 

They provide the structure necessary to sustain themselves.

Who’s in charge?

Avenue 26 Night Market lacked three elements essential for any market to survive: accountability, enforceable contracts, and trust.

These factors accelerated the market’s demise. No one was in charge to assign spaces, ensure sanitation, or keep patrons from trashing their surroundings. 

A suspicious if not hostile relationship with city officials and nearby residents left no reserve of goodwill to ease tensions. (Cedillo may have rejected any proposed street market, but the absence of communication between the city and the vendors was problematic.)

Trust was lacking.

Share

In informal or ad hoc arrangements like Avenue 26, trust is essential for transactions to occur. Here’s Niko Matouschek, a professor of economics at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University:

Trust is an issue that most people don’t associate with economics, yet economists actually care a great deal about trust. And they care a great deal about trust because, in the absence of trust, many value-creating transactions simply wouldn’t take place.

To take the quintessential economic transaction as an example — if you (the buyer) don’t trust me (the seller) not to sell you a lemon, then you won’t buy from me in the first place. And you won’t buy from me even if, in principle, I could make a product that you value more than it costs me.

And so, trust matters to economists because it enables and facilitates transactions that create value and therefore are good for all of us.

Building trust and accountability are hallmarks of the thriving Raleigh Night Market. In an email, Sara Buxton, one of Raleigh Night Market’s co-founders, says, “We jump through a lot of necessary hoops to do what we do. 

“Safety and security of patrons, vendors, entertainers, and staff is our No. 1 concern,” Buxton said.

Raleigh Night Market’s willingness to jump through those hoops makes it a trusted partner with officials in the places they do business. “We have our own security team as well as a working relationship with the police departments,” Buxton said. Fees from vendors cover security, electricity, sanitation, permits, and the like.

She and co-founder Lauryn Stroud operate markets at four locations in Raleigh, and one each in Apex, Durham, Garner, and Cary.

Share Social Fabric

Attitude adjustment

Letting street markets operate signals a major attitude adjustment from Raleigh officials, who outlawed food trucks on city streets and private parking lots as recently as a decade ago. (Raleigh restaurateurs strong-armed city officials to ban most street food vendors, while other Triangle cities, especially Durham, welcomed them.)

The city eventually relaxed the rules … slightly. Buxton and Stroud paid heed to the more-welcoming attitude. The initial Raleigh markets operated in the historic City Market retail district. Though the City Market and Durham locations had to close last year during the early stages of the COVID pandemic, both reopened safely this spring.

As the Delta variant of the virus spreads, upholding health and safety guidelines becomes more important. “We want to do everything in our power to prevent [closing this year] to keep everyone earning money in a safe way.”

Taking public health guidelines seriously, and building relationships with locals, enhanced trust. It enabled Buxton and Stroud to expand their main market to a larger, more open space at nearby Moore Square Park, which was renovated during the pandemic.

They added a second Moore Square Brunch Market one Sunday each month, midday and happy hour markets at a renovated historic grocery store south of downtown, and another night market in Smoky Hollow, a new, mixed-use neighborhood not far from the bustling Glenwood South district.

The model they’ve developed works so well they’re in the process of replicating it.

“One of the things we have in the works ... is branching out with consulting, [including] potential growth of our branded night markets to other cities and states. … [Raleigh Night Market] will soon rebrand to a parent company, changing the title to encompass everything we do.”

Buxton and Stroud have five part-time employees. They partner with nonprofits, schools, and college intern programs for fundraisers. All building trust.

“Accountability is key,” she said. “Accountability for the producers, vendors, city, and host locations.”