Almost a century ago, in 1915, thousands of immigrant peddlers, forerunners of today’s street vendors, marched through Brownsville to air their grievances. Their placards and banners raised their concerns: We Demand Our Right to the City Streets; Shall We Go Out and Steal?; Down with Fines.
Fast-forward to the present, and street vendor issues remain largely unchanged. While the sellers’ ethnicities have shifted—Greeks and Eastern Europeans have been replaced by men and women from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Mexico, Morocco, Palestine, Senegal, Turkey, and Vietnam—the approximately 20,000 outdoor merchants working in the five boroughs have something their predecessors did not: an advocacy organization to help them navigate the city bureaucracy and fight for their protection and rights.
Sean Basinski, founder and director of the Street Vendor Project (S.V.P.), explains that “vendors are always the poorest people, people who would choose to have a clean, dry place to work if they could.” That they work on the street—often seven days a week, regardless of the weather—and sell everything from Halal meat to wallets, hats, purses, smoothies, perfume, and mangoes-on-a-stick, is a testament to their creativity and entrepreneurial savvy.
On a daily basis, vendors confront a range of possible conflicts with merchants, police, thieves, and occasionally each other. But their customers remain loyal. And many of the folks selling goods on the streets have already overcome greater obstacles.
William, a 66-year-old Vietnam vet from Bedford Stuyvesant, says that before becoming a vendor he was homeless. “I had mental problems reintegrating back into society after I returned from Vietnam,” he explains. “I had nothing to come home to, got involved in some bad stuff, and was on the streets from 1986 until 2001. Then, shortly after 9/11, someone from the Department of Consumer Affairs did outreach to veterans and talked up selling stuff outside. It’s good therapy for me. I work three or four days a week, from 10:00 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., selling jewelry, seasonal items like gloves and scarves, and toys for the kids.”
He’s never been robbed, he says, but local merchants have been far from welcoming. “I chose a spot downtown, near Wall Street, to set up my tables because there’s a lot of foot traffic,” he continues. “The merchants in the stores pay rent so they resent the vendors, but I have my boundaries and they have theirs. I’m careful, have an up-to-date license, and am considerate and respectful to everyone.”
Joe, another disabled veteran, works on Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, selling knock-off Michael Kors and Louis Vuitton bags, belts, and wallets alongside $5.00 bottles of perfume labeled Burberry, Chanel Number 5, Gucci, Polo, and Nautica. “I live in Sunset,” he says, “born and raised here. I’ve been on this spot for 20 years, near the bank and the Rite Aid. I don’t compete with them so they don’t hassle me.” Nonetheless, Joe recalls that a few years back, members of the local Business Improvement District (B.I.D.) tried to push him and other vendors out, arguing that they were undercutting the mom-and-pop stores that line the avenue. Joe calls the B.I.D. effort harassment and his anger quickly surfaces. “I pay my taxes and have a license so I ain’t goin’ nowhere. I have a right to vend. Right now, there’s no pressure from the B.I.D.—I guess they gave up—and even the cops don’t bother me because they know I’m a vet.”
So how’s business? I ask. “Some days are good; some days are not,” he shrugs. “On a weekend I sell maybe 15, 20 bags [$35 each]. My biggest seller? Chanel Number 5. I’m here, on this corner, from noon until 6 p.m., six days a week. The only time I’m not here is if it rains or is 20 below zero. I’m here all summer, under an umbrella, no matter if it’s 95 degrees.”
Likewise, Sammy, whose Halal food cart, set up on the corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, serves meals 363 days a year—every day except Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. “We’re the backbone of the middle class,” he smiles. “Back in the day everything was sold from carts. They were the stores. We’re keeping that tradition alive. I was born in the Kensington area of Brooklyn in 1983 but I learned to cook from my mom and uncle who are from Palestine. On a nice, sunny day I serve hundreds of meals: hot dogs ($2), chicken gyros ($5), beef shish kebobs ($5), lamb salad ($6), falafel over rice ($5), or falafel sandwiches ($4). A few years ago some of the restaurants near us on Fifth Avenue tried to get us to move, but we’re good with the Health Department and have lots of friends in the community, people of all races and religions who come by for lunch or dinner a few times a week. They defended our right to be where we want to be.”
Sammy’s situation attracted attention from the media as well as local foodies, and the vendor ended up victorious. But the S.V.P.’s Basinski notes that threats against vendors are frequent and come not only from small businesses but from government as well. In fact, almost every city administration in recent memory has done something to limit the ability of vendor’s to ply their trade. Ed Koch, for example, put a cap on the number of food and general vending permits, and in the ’90s Rudy Giuliani created a review panel that recommended removing vendors from various streets; as a result, numerous busy thoroughfares, including Brighton Beach Avenue and Bridge Street (in Manhattan), ban vending either during particular months or year-round. More recently, Mayor Bloomberg added to vendors’ woes by increasing the maximum fines against them from $250 to $1,000.
This affront angered the S.V.P.’s more than 1,800 members. They fought back and scored a significant victory in May 2013 when the City Council reduced the fines to a maximum of $500. Still, S.V.P. attorney Archana Dittakavi reports that most vendors find it impossible to avoid accruing debt as a result of near-constant citations. “The rate at which vendors are ticketed is astounding,” she says. “The first time I went to court I was representing four or five different sellers who’d been given 200 tickets in the previous two or three weeks. It’s illegal for vendors to sell from metered parking spaces, even if they feed the meters while they work. These tickets are $65 each and sometimes a vendor has no choice but to take the risk since every decent work space on some blocks is metered.”
As Dittakavi continues, her exasperation escalates. “The charges are often completely ridiculous. I just represented a mango seller at an Environmental Control Board hearing. She got five tickets at one time from the Manhattan South Peddler Task Force. She works on 14th Street and told me that she’d stopped working that day and had covered her cart because it was raining. She was standing under some scaffolding and talking to a friend when she got ticketed for being too far from the curb, too close to a doorway, and not wearing a hair restraint. Each ticket was for $1,000. She is also at risk of losing her license. She is a single mom so this is potentially horrible. There are a lot of single mothers working as vendors, independent women who are just trying to keep themselves and their families out of poverty.” Dittakavi is presently awaiting a decision in the case.
Even worse, Dittakavi adds, vendors frequently complain that police disrespect them and use excessive force when they are taken into custody, something she likens to stop-and-frisk.
Another issue, say S.V.P. staff, is that vendors need to have paid all outstanding fines before they can renew their annual permits. City Council member Eugene Mathieu, who represents Flatbush, intends to introduce a bill in January to allow vendors who owe money to the City to enter into a payment plan when their paperwork expires—an effort the S.V.P. endorses. The group further intends to push the new administration to increase the number of licenses and permits issued (food vendors need both; merchandise sellers need only a license) and re-open streets that have been closed to vendors for more than a decade.
Historically, street vending has enabled immigrants to find a foothold. As Basinski explains, “Vending has been a job that people can do without speaking fluent English and without having a boss over their heads. Some people vend because they can’t find anything else. Others are strivers, hoping to start small and later make it big.”
Needless to say, the organizing challenge is enormous and is complicated by the fact that the S.V.P. works on two levels—assisting individuals who have been ticketed, arrested, or who have had their carts confiscated by the N.Y.P.D., while at the same time organizing vendors to take collective action. “There is precedent for day laborers, farm workers, car washers, and fast food workers getting organized and fighting for better working conditions,” Basinski adds. “Street vendors have never been included in these efforts and we’re working to change that and put vendors on the map. We were recently at a meeting with vendor groups from Chicago and Los Angeles and are working to establish a National Vendors’ Alliance.” An international group called StreetNet has already brought sellers from more than 40 countries together to strategize about ways to elevate their status and better their lot.
“We know that victories are built on victories,” Basinski concludes. “In New York City we’ve lowered the maximum fines, and if we can get more permits issued and open up more streets it will be a huge victory, one that will pit us against some of the most powerful forces in the city.”
Basinski and the S.V.P. know that it won’t be easy. Still, the group is heartened by the progress that has been made in other countries. India, for example, recently passed legislation—after years of agitation by that country’s National Association of Street Vendors—that gives 10 million “hawkers” numerous rights, from legal protections to immunity from arbitrary police relocation. As the capital of the world, Basinski maintains, New York City should rise with the international tide.
The 11-year-old Street Vendor Project is part of the Urban Justice Center, 123 William Street, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10038; 646.602.5679, www.streetvendor.org.