Flea or Flee? Food Fairs and Music Fests Are Great Until They’re Not


To the list of “nobody goes there, it’s too crowded” New Yorker lore, add another entry: Don’t go to the Williamsburg waterfront on Saturdays. That’s when, April through November, the foodie heaven known as Smorgasburg descends on East River State Park at the foot of North 7th Street. Started in 2011 by the people behind the Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg is a runaway success, to the thrill of food vendors and the chagrin of some locals who must fight the flow of foot traffic to and from the Bedford L stop.

For Williamsburg residents hoping for some quiet river time, it’s still an improvement over last summer, when Saturdays were dedicated to the Smorg and Sundays to the Flea itself. “People can do commercial activities anywhere,” local activist Jonathan Burkan complained at the time. “Why do they have to choose a public park to do it?”

The East River State Park kerfuffle — eventually worked out through the intercession of Assemblymember Joseph Lentol and state Senator Daniel Squadron’s offices, with the Flea now having decamped four blocks north to a gravel lot owned by the city parks department — is just one sign of New York City’s growing pains as an expanding population scrambles for limited outdoor space. For decades, city parks administrators have encouraged people to use parks that were at once seen as desolate and dangerous. Today, they’re confronting the opposite problem: Now that you’ve gotten people into the parks, how do you get them to go home?

“I remember saying back in the ’80s that I couldn’t wait to deal with the problem of overuse,” says Tupper Thomas, the founding director of the Prospect Park Alliance, who now heads the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. Yet, even then, she knew the dangers of being too popular. “The Central Park dust bowl was really created by unbelievable be-ins and eat-ins and leap-ins” in the 1970s, she says. “All the reasons that I thought New York was so fabulous when I was here in my twenties, [but] Central Park didn’t ever want to see another event if they could get away with it.”

Partly at Thomas’s urging, Prospect Park became home not only to the Celebrate Brooklyn! music festival, but to numerous ethnic fairs that crop up each summer, usually in the park’s central Nethermead. Any gripes were minimal, though, until two springs ago, when the Alliance agreed to rent the Nethermead to the Great GoogaMooga, a two-day food-and-music festival organized by the founders of Tennessee’s Bonnaroo. More than 30,000 people trampled across ballgames and backed up on long lines for entry — not to mention lines for food inside the Googa gates (in 2012, a fight broke out in the fried chicken tent) — and New York Times columnist Michael Powell, a nearby resident, railed against the city for having denied Iraq War protestors a rally in Central Park while okaying the “cacophonously commercial” food fair. Last fall, the Alliance chose not to renew the festival’s permit, effectively putting it to an end.

The seven-year-old East River State Park, with its concrete slabs that were once the foundations of rail-freight warehouses, would seem to be a less controversial site. Indeed, Eric Demby, the former communications director for the Brooklyn borough president’s office (and occasional Voice music reviewer) who co-founded the Brooklyn Flea in 2007, says the park was in need of both funds and foot traffic when he approached administrators about moving his events there two years ago. “They welcomed us with open arms. They were happy to have some activation on these slabs,” he says, especially because the waterfront concerts that had been held there were leaving.

However, some locals complained, loudly. “I’ve lived in New York for 25 years, so I don’t know that I’m ever surprised,” says Demby, acknowledging he might complain as well if a giant festival landed in front of his house. Still, he argues, the Williamsburg waterfront has “historically been an incredibly underutilized piece of park. It was a state park that no one used, and then suddenly it had been discovered. I think there was a little bit of a sense of loss of this secret spot.”

Demby is quick to distance the Flea and Smorgasburg from the GoogaMooga, but if there’s one thing the three have in common, it’s that they appeal primarily to out-of-towners. A random sampling of Smorgasburg attendees finds visitors from London, Chicago, and points beyond — “It’s a lot bigger than anything in San Francisco”; “We’ve had a really foodie holiday”; “The best part is the view, I think” — but there’s nary a Williamsburger to be found, which is probably little surprise, since there are only so many $6 fresh coconut waters and hermetic jars of artisanal truffle butter any one person can consume.

Attracting tourists is good for the Brooklyn economy; Smorgasburg puts money in the pockets of local vendors that would otherwise stay on the other side of the East River, if not the Atlantic Ocean, and helps bring some much-needed revenue to the city’s cash-strapped parks. (Albeit not much in the case of GoogaMooga: Prospect Park ultimately netted only $75,000 from each festival, while the NYPD scored four times that much in overtime.) But it also raises a question: In a city with one of the nation’s lowest ratios of usable park space to population, who should get first dibs, residents who want a respite from city life, or visitors seeking one-stop entertainment?

Navigating this conflict will be one of the first challenges for incoming parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, a former planning director for Raleigh, North Carolina, who was appointed by Mayor de Blasio in March. (Parks officials declined an interview for this article, noting in a statement that “we work hard to balance the interests of everyone who utilizes our public spaces.”) It’s doubly fraught, says Thomas, thanks to First Amendment issues: “If you’re running Shea Stadium, you’re allowed to say, ‘We don’t want you here,’ but if you’re coming to the parks department and you’ve fulfilled all of their requirements and they’ve still turned you down, then they’ve discriminated against you.”

Burkan, at least, says he’s now happy with the resolution that relocated the Flea. “I think it’s great to have it just one day a weekend,” he says. “There needs to be a balance.” Demby is less thrilled, noting that the Flea’s new North 11th Street space isn’t guaranteed beyond this year, but seems resigned to more of these battles in the future.

“The changes going on in Brooklyn are cataclysmic, basically,” says Demby. “It brings up lots of issues, and one of these is going to be the use of public space.”