By Rebecca Henely
Sadness and uncertainty dominated the mood of not only the vendors but the customers Dec. 19 as the flea market at the Aqueduct Race Track in South Ozone Park sold its wares on one of its last days. The flea market now has closed to make way for a “racino” gambling facility.
“It’s terrible because we don’t know where we’re going yet and I make a living out of this,” said Anthony Pesnell, a 60-year-old Cambria Heights resident who has sold Avon products at the flea market for 20 years. “This is all I do.”
The flea market, which was set up in the parking lot of the track at Rockaway Boulevard and 110th Street, has been in operation for almost three decades through the company Plain & Fancy. Malaysian casino giant Genting plans to build hundreds of video lottery terminals when it renovates Aqueduct, ending what was a long tradition for shoppers and a profession for vendors outside on the parking lot.
“Most of the poor people around here depend on the flea market for a living,” said Harold Kheraj, 55, of South Jamaica, who was shopping at the flea market Dec. 19.
Savitri Harry, an immigrant from Trinidad who became a naturalized citizen, said she works as a babysitter in her home borough of Manhattan and has sold jewelry at the flea market for about 10 years, using the money to put her son through college. She said she has arthritis and breast cancer, and is unsure how she will pay her mortgage after January if the flea market does not find a new home.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” Harry said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Harry also criticized the decision to build the racino, saying she was worried the machines would be a temptation for children in the community who go to the four schools in the area.
Evelyn Chalon, a Manhattan resident who has sold tablecloths at the market for 30 years, also opposed the arrival of VLTs.
“They never asked the neighborhood about nothing,” she said.
The news of the flea market closing was upsetting not only to vendors but to shoppers, many of whom bundled up and braved the cold to shop during the flea market’s last days. Michael Nieves, 55, of Brooklyn said he had been coming to the market since he was a teenager.
“This was a place for us to go when family would come,” Nieves said. “We would bring them here for a tour to see the flea market.”
Michael Unger, who went to the flea market to try to recruit vendors to an indoor outlet location called Value Fair Market in Little Ferry, N.J., said he had been handing out fliers about the new place, but many customers also asked for them.
“They want another market,” Unger said.
State Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) said he has been in talks with the vendors and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s office to find a new home for the vendors, perhaps near Citi Field or in other parts of Flushing-Meadows Park. Yet finding a space to accommodate both the vendors and the parking has been challenging.
“We’re not blessed with rolling pastures of green or vacant lots here in Queens,” Addabbo said.
Meanwhile, Unger is trying to take vendors to his market and other vendors, like 19-year-old Richmond Hill’s Joshua Phurkotum, is attempting to find other markers.
“It was nice,” Phurkotum said of his time at Aqueduct. “It was something to do as a kid.”
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4564.