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'Let your freak flag fly' A roaming flea market aims to fill empty spaces with community

Volunteers sweep dust off the floor of the former QFC site on Capitol Hill ahead of Punk Rock Flea Market's two-day event starting June 22.
Freddy Monares/ KNKX
Volunteers sweep dust off the floor of the former QFC site on Capitol Hill ahead of Punk Rock Flea Market's two-day event starting June 22.

On a recent sunny Thursday afternoon, Ezra Dickinson climbed a ladder outside the site of the former QFC in Capitol Hill to remove plywood that was covering the windows. Different colored floppy disks were glued to the plywood to make images like fish or stick figures.

"We're just cleaning up the exterior right now so that we can get light into the building, for starters,” Dickinson said. “Because we got kind of a dark space and lights a nice quality to have, if you can have it."

He’s a volunteer with Punk Rock Flea Market, which is taking over the site of the former grocery store on 15th Avenue for its two-day event starting June 22. The roaming market for small businesses partnered with a developer to prevent a building sitting empty in the neighborhood.

It's an outlet for artists, resellers and people who make food to showcase their offerings. When buildings go empty, organizers reach out to property owners to see if they can host the market at the vacant property.

Inside the building, volunteers were sweeping. People who want to sell their goods at the market are asked to volunteer four hours to get the space ready.

Todd Hewitt is a handyman who helps make the buildings safe for the flea market. He's been volunteering for five years because he said he's found his community at the flea market.

"What it means to me is, it's just a place for people to kind of express their artistic little offerings, and a place where you can let your freak flag fly," Hewitt said. "Everyone's welcome."

So far, they’ve found and fixed a leak in the bathroom. They’re also replacing wiring that was stolen from an electrical panel.

The flea market is all about working together, said organizer Joshua Okrent. He sees potential in empty buildings like the former QFC site.

"But as far as having a marketplace where small businesses can come in and set up shop and we can be loud and be noisy and make a mess and have fun,” Okrent said. “It's infinite. Yeah, we would never tear a place like this down. And so we're just happy to use it while it's while it's available, for the minute that it's available.”

Okrent penned a six-month deal with Hunters Capital, the company that wants to develop the property. COO Jill Cronauer said the company tries to avoid leaving buildings empty because that sucks the vibrancy out of a neighborhood.

"Whenever we’re developing something in the neighborhood, it’s really important for us to find something to go there… even if it’s temporary… even if it doesn’t make financial sense," she said.

Cronauer is waiting for the City of Seattle’s approval to demolish the building and make a new one with housing and retail space.

Okrent said the flea market's location is always changing. When his time ends at the former QFC site, he said he'll pitch the flea market to other property owners.

"But that's the concept is that people that have another idea for the space rather than simply maximize profit at every moment that — they understand that it can also serve a community need," he said.

So, while the group is keeping the former grocery store alive right now, it’s been building community across Seattle for the volunteers who have made the Punk Rock Flea Market happen for the past 18 years.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Freddy Monares has covered politics, housing inequalities and Native American communities for a newspaper and a public radio station in Montana. He grew up in East Los Angeles, California, and moved to Missoula, Montana, in 2015 with the goal of growing in his career.