SF Underground Market

San Jose Market, or How the health department showed up (again)

This past Friday we had our first Underground Market in San Jose. At 5:10, 10 minutes after the market was scheduled to open, I was standing in a circle with a San Jose police sergeant, health inspector, and the fire marshal.  The three people I would least like to be talking to before a market of un-certified foods.

We had made the trek down to the South Bay for the 01SF biennial festival in San Jose, a festival that celebrates art whose tagline is "Build your own world.” From what I saw between meetings with the health folks, it was actually a pretty cool festival. However, it felt like a bad idea from the beginning. Usually we have our market in an enclosed space, or in an out of the way parking lot.  We organize the market as a private club, which is not open to the public, so has been able to avoid government scrutiny, but I’ve always felt that they really don’t want to see it in the open. To have the market in the middle of a city funded festival that the health, police, and fire departments were sure to attend, seemed a bit fool hardy (as my grandmother would say). We have worked it out with the SF health department, but had no idea what the San Jose folks would think. To make sure it was legit, I asked the Zero One folks to probe the health department about the market weeks in advance, to see how they would feel about an event like ours. I was told that they were amenable, if not necessarily comfortable.

Back to the parking lot. It was us, the health, fire, and police departments, and the Zero One organizers standing in a circle. The health and fire inspectors detailing why we were going to get shut down, the Zero One organizers suddenly explaining to us that they had contacted the health department, and they had been told that a market like ours would definitely be shut down! They had known all along, and instead of letting us know, they had forgot to mention that little point. I have not been that mad in a long time.  Suddenly they were acting like we had just shown up, without any partnership with them, to put on the market.

I was sure the market was over.  The conclusion of our talk was a laundry list of the laws we had violated, and an explanation that the next step would be for the inspectors to go around and shut down the vendors one by one. They explained to me that all 29 vendors would have to 1. Go home, wasting all the food they had made 2. Those that had produced their food commercially (about 3 amongst the lot) could buy them for an intensely inflated fee.  The idea of this market is to give a chance to people who are just starting out. To lower the bar of entry in a way. This would have killed the chances of many of the vendors there if it had been shut down.

As we started to accept this as our horrible fate, the health inspector made a phone call and the other person at the end of the line said it would be okay to let the market carry on. With one phone call, the issue quickly went away, as if there was no threat to the market to begin with. We had to give assurance that the market was only one day, and that everyone who entered got a wristband, but that was about it. The health and inspectors still inspected vendors, but it was more a friendly attempt to do the best they could with what they had, and no one had to leave.  The inspector went booth by booth, outlining ways vendors could hew closer to health department regulations, which we try to do as much as possible.

I don't know who this faceless person on the other side of the phone was. One of our vendors suspects that San Jose city lawyers recommended they leave it open less they open themselves up to a lawsuit. A cop who was standing near by told us he thought the whole thing was a publicity stunt to amp up Zero One. I heard a rumor that a channel 5 reporter was taking the angle that the cultural commission had pushed our market as an event that they knew would get shut down, as a way to make the city look bad, although I never saw the story.  To be honest I’m not sure what happened. Maybe San Jose didn’t to shut down an event they allow in SF. Maybe somebody knew somebody, maybe we’ll never know. (if you do know for some reason, please pass it along)

In the end it worked out. The market happened. It started three hours late, but about 1,200 people came. What's so amazing to me about this experience is the clear line it drew of the way bureaucracy works.  Everything the health inspector told us before that phone call was legit. She detailed the law, and why and where we had broken it.  Then she called someone, and the law changed. Which is great. I think the law should change – if an adult chooses of their own free will to eat food that was made in someone else’s home they should be able to.  As it stands now, the government doesn't agree. That night, someone decided that they did.  Every time we succeed putting this market on we set more of a precedent.  A precedent that states that food made at home is just as safe as food made in a commercial kitchen.  That stainless steel and walk in freezers don’t make food safe, but rather the care of person producing it.