As the racks for the Citibike bike-share program have been installed around New York in recent weeks, New Yorkers have become aware of their public spaces in a whole new way. Suddenly, people are feeling proprietary about the sidewalks they usually walk over without thinking.
Many of the complaints about the new racks do look like classic NIMBYism. In Fort Greene, some people are disgruntled about the aesthetic impact on landmarked blocks (although they're apparently unconcerned about the way all the big fat cars look on those same blocks). In Manhattan, some co-op residents say they simply don’t want racks so close to their building entrance.
But there’s one rack that is causing a different kind of problem, and revealing some deeper cracks on the contested sidewalks of New York. On Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan, outside an office building at 140 Broadway, five food carts employing fifteen people have been displaced by a rack installed on the sidewalk there. (In 2011, with the help of customer petitions, vendors on the site successfully fought an attempt by the management of the building at 140 Broadway to get them to leave.)
The Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group that claims nearly 2,000 of the city’s 20,000 mobile vendors as members, says that while five carts might not seem like a lot, the move raises questions about who has the right to use the streets of the city.
"It's about how we design public space and who we think about when we do that," says Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project. "What claim do we as vendors, as working people, have on public space?"
The vendors staged a protest outside New York City Department of Transportation headquarters last week, and are asking that the city move the racks into the roadbed, freeing up the sidewalk for the carts again. Basinski says that the DOT won’t meet with his group to discuss the placement of the racks, which he says has endangered the livelihoods of "15 immigrant families of color."
A DOT spokesman said in an email that the sidewalk area in question is private property and that the owner had requested a Citibike rack there "to serve those who work there and nearby." He did not respond to a question about relocating the racks in the roadbed.
Street vendors have been an integral part of New York for pretty much as long as there has been a city here. Their popularity is in part a function of the legendary New York pace: why waste a minute and a half walking into and out of a deli to get a coffee if you can just get one from a street cart instead?
But it's about much more than speed. Vendors selling everything from biryani to sugared nuts to sunglasses give New York's streets much of their character and liveliness. And they often provide a business opportunity for recent immigrants who don't have the educational credentials, English language skills, or capital to find other kinds of work.
In acknowledgement of the contribution street vendors make to the city, New York City law on their rights is unusually liberal. Many cities allow vending only in designated locations, but in New York, if you have a license and all the proper permits for whatever you are selling, you can set up shop anywhere except on streets that are explicitly closed to vending.
The list of restricted streets is long, though. While the reason given for closing streets is usually that they are too crowded with pedestrians to be safe for vendors, Basinski says that often, the closures come at the behest of powerful Business Improvement Districts that want to maintain a certain appearance. "There are class issues that are aligned with how the streets look," says Basinski. "It's about what is appropriate and what do we want this place to look like."
On streets that are open to vending, prime placement for carts is closely guarded. Once you stake out a prime spot, according to the unwritten code of the carts, you have earned the right to be there regularly. Customers know where to find their favorite carts. Rival vendors keep their distance. I learned that lesson the hard way when I sold ice cream from a cart my first summer out of high school, and unknowingly set myself up on a corner that was already taken. I didn't stay there long.
Basinski says his group is in favor of bike-share and bike lanes generally. He rides a bike for transportation himself. But he's worried the way this group of immigrant vendors has been pushed out by CitiBike plays into some old perceptions about the bicycling community as overwhelmingly white and affluent.
In a way, controversies over sidewalk use are a good problem to have. They show the value of New York's streets and public spaces, something of an anomaly in a nation where so many downtown sidewalks are desolate, unproductive, and unloved, in some cases to the point that developers bypass them with elevated skywalks.
This being New York, prime sidewalk real estate will undoubtedly remain at a premium. Who gets that space is still to some extent a function of money and political power, something that vendors don’t have much of, says Basinski. Their well-employed, American-born customers are more likely to get the attention of elected officials, he says, although it's unlikely they'll take the trouble. "Even though you feel strongly about your falafel vendor, are you really going to call your city councilor about it?" he says.
And so the Street Vendor Project is working to educate and organize the vendors themselves. "You have to think about all users of the city," says Basinski. "And the most marginalized first."