On a Saturday afternoon in June, a pop-up market in South District set up at the Kingdom Center Church for its first time.
Small-business owners became weekend vendors, selling their goods and services from food to clothes to art. Meanwhile, kids’ faces were painted and they played in a bounce house as other festivities rounded out the five-week-long market.
It was the inaugural Diversity Market, an event organized by community business owners, leaders and the South District Neighborhood Association. Organizers had a goal in mind for the market: center and elevate entrepreneurs from marginalized groups — women, Black, Indigenous and people of color — to highlight their services and foster community connections.
But the pop-up market soon proved to be a reflection of who South District is and what is to come.
A market built by the community
The Diversity Market was built on the foundation of a preexisting communal hub: the business corner in JD Beauty Supply.
It was created by owner Tasha Lard at the same time she opened the beauty supply store at the Pepperwood Plaza in September 2020, seizing an opportunity to highlight fellow business owners.
It’s a space in the store that Lard invites small-business owners to leave their business cards at. From there, Lard can promote them both in-store and on her Facebook, where she’ll post and explain further about the services offered by the business.
“The Diversity Market, it’s just that,” she said. “It’s that business corner come to life.”
While the Diversity Market is an extension of Lard’s business corner, it also serves as a piece of the South District Neighborhood Association’s efforts at establishing a Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District, according to Angie Jordan.
Jordan is a co-coordinator of the Diversity Market, representing the South District Neighborhood Association.
Under an SSMID, South District could generate funds through an additional fee paid by commercial property owners in the district to use for district improvements and services. SSMIDs are used to advance economic development to create business growth and revitalize neighborhoods.
And revitalization of the neighborhood is the ultimate goal, Jordan said.
“The Diversity Market is a small piece of an SSMID district proposal, the SSMID district proposal is a piece of the business district, but it all comes part of our revitalization of the entire South District,” she said.
Originally, Lard, part of the Diversity Market team, said she first intended to have the market at Pepperwood Plaza since JD Beauty Supply is located there. But as time winded down and the space was still up in the air for use, she turned to someone else.
Frederick O. Newell is a pastor at Kingdom Center Church who has lived in Iowa since 2006. Newell had already learned about Lard’s desire to help young, women entrepreneurs in the community, so when she reached out seeking a space for the market, Newell didn’t need to think twice.
“I said there’s nothing that we need to discuss, you can absolutely do it,” he said, recalling their conversation. “Let me know what you need, and if I have it, (Lard) has it.”
The Diversity Market now had a home at the Kingdom Center, soon to be hosting 30 or so vendors. According to Jordan, it only took two weeks for the market to fill with interested vendors, leading to a waitlist.
Meanwhile, the team behind the Diversity Market was working to secure vendor’s licenses for all participants at no cost to them.
They were able to do that through the little over $10,000 raised for the Diversity Market.
“Before we even got any donations or sponsorships, the first cash that came into our budget was from the actual vendors investing in themselves,” Jordan said.
It was a $25 fee to participate in the market for a single time or $50 for all five markets.
Jordan recognized the fee was a “big ask” of vendors but found that people happily paid the fee.
Five weekends of the Diversity Market
When Evelyn Quezada and her daughter happened to drive by JD Beauty Supply one day, the duo decided to make an impromptu stop to check it out.
There, they met Lard, and through conversation, Quezada mentioned Choco Fresa, her business that began with selling custom orders of chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Choco Fresa opened in late 2020.
At the time, Quezada said they didn’t know what it was, nor what it would turn into.
Quezada always had a passion for learning to make new foods and had received compliments from those who tasted them. Her husband, she said, also knew his way around the kitchen.
But when her daughter decided to start working last year, Quezada saw a chance to give her work at a time where COVID-19 made job hunting that much more complicated.
Soon, Choco Fresa became the latest business to join the business corner. Not too long after, Lard was informing them about the upcoming Diversity Market.
Quezada said she liked the idea, and although she didn’t call herself a business at the time, she decided to give the market a go.
But Choco Fresa’s menu had to adapt to the regulations of what and how food could be served at a pop-up market like Diversity Market.
Food needed to be prepared in a public health approved kitchen. A solution to that is to cook at a commercial kitchen, which are especially useful for small-business owners in the food industry because the kitchens are designed to meet and maintain safety standards and undergo inspection.
Like Choco Fresa, Selina Gunn was also in the same predicament.
Creator and owner of the catering company Selina’s Creations, Gunn has been cooking since she was a young girl. She enrolled in culinary school in Chicago and never turned back, whipping up everything from pasta dishes to egg rolls.
But to serve her dishes at the Diversity Market, she also needed to use a commercial kitchen.
It became a trial and error of what could and couldn’t be served at the market. From selling sauces and spices to grilling outside, Gunn experimented with what was possible and found that despite the changes, people loved what she had to offer.
“I loved the experience because I got to talk and meet so many different people,” Gunn said. “People that did purchase things, when they came back the next week (they said), ‘Oh, I tried your seasonings. Oh, it was amazing, I put it on everything.’ That makes it all worth it.”
Meanwhile, Quezada saw how Choco Fresa grew by being in a physical setting, previously limited to Instagram followers and word of mouth.
“It gave us more ideas about what sells, what people want,” she said. “And it definitely opened up my creativity.”
During the market’s run, Newell volunteered his time to assist with set up and take down for the market. At the same time, he spoke to the vendors to help connect them with other partnerships or people in the community.
According to Newell, the support the South District community gave to the vendors was an “amazing thing to witness.”
“It just showed how much of a community we really are, that we all saw a need (and) we figured it out together as a team,” he said.
Creating sustainable, community growth
Part of the money raised for the market included tents for the vendors. At the end of the Diversity Market’s run, vendors were able to keep the tents, a useful piece should they continue selling at pop-up markets.
And businesses like Choco Fresa are. It attends the Iowa City Farmers Market and was at the Johnson County Fair.
For Gunn, seeing vendors participate in other events made her think about where else she can take Selina’s Creations.
There’s also the knowledge gained from this event, Gunn explained, saying that the next time around, the participating vendors can help others figure out what licenses they need or what food they can prepare ahead of time.
So far, the feedback from the first Diversity Market can be narrowed down to one word: more.
More food trucks, more performances, more advertising and promotion, more vendors and of course, more of these markets on a consistent basis.
And feedback has been an important part of the Diversity Market, evident through the vendors coming together after the market finished to discuss what could be improved upon for next time.
It’s why Diversity Market was able to take off at the scale that it did, because it was built by members of the community and through genuine rapports established between Lard and business owners at JD Beauty Supply, Lard explained. That made a difference in the Diversity Market’s success.
Timing was another factor.
South District’s revitalization has been happening for decades, Jordan said.
The community has been pushing for programs and opportunities like the Diversity Market, but now, there is more awareness from people in positions of power and privilege.
The team had to prove that the Diversity Market was viable, and now was the time to do so while people are interested in helping small businesses and marginalized populations, Jordan explained.
Diversity Market was no longer a question about being possible. It became a question about capturing that awareness, making it sustainable to continually create action in the community and empower both vendors and coordinators and their ideas.
For Jordan, it’s about having a plan. It’s about collaborating with more people, finding those shared goals and being close, whether it be in physical proximity or by regularly meeting to improve together. It’s about creating a culture run by those who are the most impacted, she said, because it’s those people that have the most to gain.
Changing the narrative for South District
At the least, the Diversity Market will return annually according to Jordan, who added that is from the perspective of someone part of the South District Neighborhood Association. They want to expand it with new sponsors, new partnerships and new connections.
But the Diversity Market is not only investing in the entrepreneurs from marginalized populations in the community; it’s celebrating the community itself.
It’s an opportunity for the South District Neighborhood Association to correct the negative narratives that some people have about the South District community, Jordan said.
And with events like the Diversity Market, South District can invite people into the neighborhood to join in on the festivities and properly experience the community.
“We need our neighborhood that’s growing to see that we’ve got these amazing, fun, incredible things linked to physical amenities like the parks and the trails, but we also have the folks that are here and have been here,” she said. “They need to know that they’re worth having a pop-up shop, they’re worth having free face painting, they’re worth the music. They are valuable.”
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at [email protected] or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.