There are an estimated 10,000+ licensed street vendors in New York City, selling everything from hot dogs to books to phone chargers. Many of the vendors are recent immigrants or military veterans for whom selling their goods on the public sidewalk represents one of the few opportunities they have to make a living. They mostly operate as independent, entrepreneurial businesses and yet face numerous difficulties including a complex legal framework of licensing, often harsh ticketing laws and a punitive system of fines that can make maintaining their economic security a tough challenge.
The Street Vendor Project, part of the Urban Justice Center, exists to advocate for more rights and fairer policies towards street vendors, as well as providing outreach services to help vendors understand their rights.
For our project we aim to partner with them and in support of their campaign objectives. We will develop our intervention strategies in partnership with them and will connect with vendors directly as well as through their volunteer/outreach program.
Background & history:
Street vending in New York has a long and rich history that is intertwined with familiar narratives of immigration into the city. Official policies and public attitudes to street vending offer a view of how this activity has changed and been viewed during different historical periods and represents in microcosm some broader socio-political debates.
This [urban planner’s] vision [of the ideal city] anticipated not only the eradication of street buying and selling but also the eclipse of earlier social uses of the street for political activity, gregarious socializing, and popular amusements.
Bluestone, Daniel (1991) “The Pushcart Evil: Peddlers, Merchants and New York City’s Streets, 1880-1940. Journal of Urban History. 18 (1): 68-92
Under the ‘quality of life’ policies instituted by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1980s, public policy became increasingly hostile to street vending. In some ways this has continued into the present, as evidenced by changes such as 2005 increase in the maximum fine – including minor violations of vending regulations – from $250 to $1000.
In some other respects the Bloomberg administration has been more supportive of street vending in migrant communities, such as introducing the 2008 Green Cart initiative that created 1000 new permits as well funding in the form of micro-credit for new street vendor businesses supplying fresh fruits and vegetables in certain areas of the city.
A significant factor in shaping public policy towards street vending is the role of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) that generally represent larger, corporate retail interests and are charged with aims that include “beautification” of the area. Referring to food carts (and their vendors) that include devices such as flashing lights to attract custom, Dan Biederman of the 34th Street Partnership said “they are unsightly, and not particularly good citizens.” The 34th Street Partnership has asked Mayor Bloomberg “to be a little more discriminatory” about what carts are allowed in midtown BIDs. Such attitudes point towards influences on policy that begin to define some forms of vending (and vendors) as acceptable and others as unacceptable. For example, vendors at the Union Square Greenmarket are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that apply to food vendors in other non-sanctioned location.
It’s all about power, people who have land don’t want the vendors to be there. There are very powerful business interests in New York city. These people spend a lot of money to get rid of vendors. They have meetings with the Mayor, they pay money to city councils. Vendors are poor, some of them don’t even speak good English. They are trying to stay on the streets and work and all they have is the goodwill of the people.
Sean Basinski, head of the Street Vendor Project
Issues & strategies:
Our project aims to intervene in this issue in support the street vendor community in several ways:
1. Vendor Stories:
using social documentary to promote awareness of the often precarious economic challenges facing street vendors as well as highlighting some of the wider social, economic and cultural benefits that accrue from street vending.
2. Like a vendor:
support the campaign for improved public policies towards street vending by developing some form of contributory/social media that enables and encourages members of the public to show their appreciation for street vending/vendors. To use this as a means of countering the ‘public nuisance’ arguments that are advanced by corporate interests such as BIDs, who argue for greater restrictions to be placed on the acceptable uses of public space.
potential use of participatory mapping as a way of making visible a hidden community – i.e. a shopping map that is focused on street vendors rather than big stores.
possibly a mobile app or text message-based system developed in consultation with vendors that enables them to photograph/log (i.e. save photo with timecode) how they set up their pitch so that if they are ticketed unfairly they have some evidence to fight their case
Intervention/Interference? Need to be aware of the potential adverse comsequences of shining a light on existence at the margins.
Who decides? Our position is not for unfettered street vending per se but to interrogate the interests that seek to control the acceptable uses of public space.