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Vendors on the Lam

Andrew Silverstein Jun 10, 2005

by Andrew Silverstein

On a warm spring night in Jackson Heights, an older Mexican vendor was filling an order of five elotes – fresh corn lathered in mayonnaise, covered in cotija cheese and dusted with a hot pepper powder. While he pulled the third corncob from a large pot in the shopping cart equipped with all his ingredients, a fellow vendor whistled, alerting him to an approaching police officer. In a panic, he covered his cart, pushed it against a wall and told his three customers to come back in five minutes. He then ran into a convenience store.
If the police had found his cart they would have likely thrown it to the curb. If they had found him, the vendor, who did not give his name, reluctantly guessed that it would mean “a fine or even an arrest.”

Within five minutes all three customers and the vendor had returned to the cart. For two of them, the corn is a taste of home, Mexico, and for the third it is a sweet, hot and crunchy taste you cannot find in a restaurant. Laughing at how selling corn has become a criminal act, one customer stood watch. The vendor, however, did not seem to appreciate the irony of the situation; he worked fast, constantly scanning Roosevelt Avenue for police.
This is a scene from many immigrant neighborhoods across New York City. Customers, neighbors and fellow vendors serve as lookouts as corn is pulled from shopping carts, beverages are poured from coolers, and sandwiches appear from duffel bags.
Sean Basinski, a lawyer and head of the Street Vendor Project advocacy group, estimates there are 5,000 unlicensed vendors operating in the city. Without any official statistics, Basinski guesses that perhaps half are food vendors.

The city issues only 3,100 mobile food vending permits a year, with an additional 1,000 in the summer. Basinski says that the average wait for a cart permit can be 10 years, and at the very least three to four, depending on a lottery. He himself waited two years for his own cart permit.

The Street Vendor Project sees the limited number of permits, and confusing and contradictory laws as unnecessary harassment of honest and hardworking people, who are mainly recent immigrants and people of color.

The city claims the restricted number of permits and its regulations are necessary to ensure public health and safety. Joyce Hernandez Lopez, press secretary for the City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, says the city makes its best efforts to work with immigrant vendors, offering the vendors a license course in Spanish and Chinese, in addition to translating material into additional languages.

Even if a permit is obtained, street food vendors are not necessarily free and clear. Pedro, an immigrant from Colombia, has prepared avena, an oatmeal-based drink, at his home and sold it on the street for the past year. He brags, “This is just how Columbians make it in their homes.”

Yessica, an immigrant from Colombia, agrees. “It’s like a taste of my mother’s kitchen.” To many this home-style cooking is the appeal of street food.

The city, however, requires that all cooking be done on a cart or in a commercial establishment. Basinski claims the city makes exceptions to its home-cooking regulations. “They allow it at farmers’ markets where people are generally white and rural, but vendors who are mainly immigrants cannot [get exceptions].”

This is an example, he contends, of “the racist underpinnings of the city’s policies.” He believes the city makes unfair assumptions about immigrant vendors and how they prepare food.

History shows that such prejudices run deep in New York. In 1938 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned vendors from the streets, citing the desire to alleviate congestion and promote safety. Suzanne Wasserman, associate director of the Gotham Center of New York History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, asserts that LaGuardia’s policies were part of a “de-ethnicization” project on the Lower East Side.

LaGuardia wished to push the vendors from the streets into “modern” indoor markets at Essex Street and LaMarqueta, claiming to change “peddlers into merchants.”

Mayors have continued to tighten vending restrictions. Limits imposed in 1979 and 1983 dropped food-vending permits from 12,000 to 3,000. In recent years vendors have been increasingly affected by strong enforcement of “Quality of Life” crimes.

Recently, politicians and business leaders in Bay Ridge held a press conference to promote a ban of vendors on 86th Street. According to the New York Daily News, “local business leaders said vendors would clog local streets and drive out small business owners.”

Many anti-vendor attitudes based on class and cultural differences also still exist. the Daily News quoted Cristyne Nicholas, president of NYC & Co., the city’s official tourism bureau, commenting on an influx of vendors to Times Square. “Right now,” she said, “Times Square could be mistaken for a Third World bazaar.”