Faces of the Providence Flea, Now Appearing Sundays at District Park

The new summer location means better amenities, while still bringing together familiar vendors


After 10 seasons in operation, the Providence Flea, an open-air market that has traditionally set up shop on summer Sundays along South Water Street, feels like a community staple. But many treasure hunters aren’t aware of the thing that has always been in the back of founder and market manager Maria Tocco’s mind from the start. “The place where we set up is one of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission’s developable parcels of land, so we always knew we were on borrowed time,” she says.

Time was up last fall when the commission invited developers to submit proposals for use of that space. Several proposals were submitted, including one from the Flea that outlined a multi-use open-air pavilion, but the winning proposal came from Riverside Partners LLC, which plans to put a mixed-use, six-level building on the piece of land.    

Recognizing the myriad contributions the Flea has made to the district, however, the commission wrote into the resolution a clause that allows the market to set up at District Park, which is in sight of the original location and just a short walk over the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge. Tocco is optimistic about the change. “It gives us a little more predictability,” she says. “We’re excited about the move and are gaining visitors from copromotion we’re doing with the commission.”

In addition to the stability, the new location has made set-up easier for the Flea’s weekly assemblage of 75 vendors from its roster of 250, and the built-in pathways make navigation easier for visitors, particularly those who use wheelchairs. Construction on a year-round 3,500-square-foot pavilion that will house public restrooms and additional food and beverage concessions is expected to begin this year. Tocco says that these additional amenities, plus events such as classes and a music series, will make the park a huge draw. “I’m really excited about patrons and vendors being able to take advantage of District Park,” says Tocco. “There’s plenty of room to spread out, which we didn’t have before. We’ll have a food truck pull up every week, so people can bring a blanket and sit on the grass while they eat, shop the market, or go to the beer garden.” 

Tocco says that the Flea’s anchor vendors – some of whom have sold their wares at more than 100 markets – are embracing the change. “A lot of vendors have made the Flea their home. A wonderful community among vendors and between vendors and patrons has sprouted up from the market.”

One anchor vendor is Anne Marie Lamarre Porto, who makes all-natural skincare products through her company, Belle Toi. “I’ve been doing the market for over eight years. I call it my traveling boutique because it has offered me such an opportunity to showcase my goods,” says Porto, who makes everything from moisturizers and scrubs to perfumes and pillow sprays, and designs custom orders. “I can’t help myself – I just keep making more and more products!”

Porto has high praise for the Providence Flea. “Maria does such a wonderful job of curating an elevated selection of vendors. There’s vintage, artisans, makers – there’s a little of everything,” she says, adding that Tocco’s true skill is in building community. “Her focus isn’t on the almighty dollar. Maria works with local businesses and broadcasts information about the market to so many different areas and attendees. It’s such an amazing venue to attend.”

In addition to curating a one-of-a-kind experience for patrons, Tocco works to help vendors find success in and beyond the market. “One of the first vendors at the Flea now has three brick-and-mortars,” says Porto. “Maria has driven a huge customer base for everyone. And if you’re new, she’ll make suggestions about your display to help you draw in customers. She wants everyone to excel.”

A new vendor to this year’s Flea is Cranston-based Edgewood Cheese Shop, owned by wife-and-husband team Adrienne and Casey D’Arconte. Although this is her first season as a vendor at the outdoor market, Adrienne participated in some of the Flea’s winter indoor markets. “We weren’t sure what to expect,” says Adrienne, “but it’s been a great experience. The other vendors are so welcoming and helpful. And it’s a great group of customers.”

One of Adrienne’s favorite things to do is introduce people to new flavors. She’s done this with great success at her Edgewood shop – and during beer- or cocktail-and-cheese pairing nights she regularly organizes in partnership with local breweries and distilleries – so she’s excited to spotlight New England cheeses for Flea attendees this season.

“So often, specialty food is put on a pedestal, but I think it should be fun and experience-based. You don’t have to know anything about cheese to enjoy it. If you can taste, you can have an opinion,” says Adrienne. Along with bringing home Edgewood’s cheese and charcuterie for oven-free summer snacking, Flea patrons can create a spontaneous picnic on the lawn with market finds.

“The Flea is such a positive and fun experience,” says Adrienne. “It feels like a party! We’re so happy to be part of this great community. People are so excited to be there supporting local businesses.” Tocco, whose mission is supporting the community and local, small, and micro businesses, agrees. “Showing support is particularly important now with the economy, inflation, construction, and traffic woes,” she says. “You can’t always buy local, but it’s important to try to buy local first.”



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