Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Faced with the threat of tickets and confiscated goods, vendors struggle to find legitimacy and make ends meet.
On a recent sticky July afternoon, Nazim Uddin wasn’t open for business on the corner of Broadway and Prince Streets, where he’s been selling hot dogs, pretzels, and cold drinks for the last decade. Instead, the 60-year-old food vendor was marching past the intersection with a few dozen other sellers and advocates.
The protestors stomped up Broadway, banging drums and slapping rulers against each other, chanting: “No more tickets! Vendor power!” The slogans were printed on signs, too—in the shape of coffee cups, hotdogs, and pretzels. Another said, “Support NYC’s smallest businesses,” and one, in Spanish: “It’s not a crime to feed my family.”
Disrupting the sidewalk traffic patterns, allies say, was a way to draw attention to the struggles of a demographic—generally, low-income immigrants—whose voices are often absent from discussions about what to do with urban space.
Street cart foods, and the vendors who sell it, are woven into the fabric of the city sidewalks; to-go coffee cups and braided pretzels are token emblems. But what some people view as central to the city’s character, others see as eyesores, roadblocks, or public health hazards. And that’s what Uddin and his allies hope to change.
A recent article in Crain’s New York Business laid out the history of vending in New York—one that, since the days of Jewish pushcart peddlars on the Lower East Side, has been tangled up in issues of race, class, and concerns about urban aesthetics. In the 19th century, resentment simmered between restaurant owners and cart vendors, whose wares were priced lower; by Ed Koch’s mayoral tenure in the 1970s and ‘80s, vendors’ carts were often viewed as pockmarks clogging the sidewalk. Here’s Crain’s, quoting Koch speaking to The New York Times about midtown’s busy sidewalks: “This is not supposed to look like a souk.”
New York City capped the number of street vending permits in the 1980s; that number has held steady since. At any given time, the city has issued around 3,000 permits for year-round vending; an additional 1,000 permits are green-lit for the summer months.
It’s not unheard of to wait two decades for a permit, says Sean Basinski, the director of the advocacy group The Street Vendor Project, an arm of the Urban Justice Center. Uddin has been waiting nine years. Some vendors pad the waiting list with the names of everyone in their family to increase the likelihood that someone will obtain a permit, the Wall Street Journal reported. “Maybe you could get a permit in five years, if you were the luckiest person in the world,” Basinski says.
Through official channels, permits cost around $200. But the scarcity has fueled a lucrative black market trade. One vendor told the New York Daily News last year that he paid $6,000 for a permit to sell smoothies in midtown from April to October; it took him months to recoup the spiked cost. Illegal transferring and swapping is an open secret, the WSJ reported.
Risking fines and confiscation
Uddin has a food vending license, issued by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; it’s a photo ID badge that he tucks into a wallet. But since he’s still on the waiting list for a permit, he has no city-approved access to the corner he’s staked out. As a result, he says he often receives citations and fines for working without the proper documentation. Vendors are also ticketed for violating other rules, such as setting up less than 10 feet from a crosswalk or subway entrance, or encroaching within 20 feet of a building’s entrance or exit. Those penalties, Basinski says, can be upwards of $1,000 apiece.
And some stakes can be even higher. By vending without a permit, Basinski says, Uddim is risking arrest. He could also have his goods confiscated and tossed into a garbage truck.
Uddin works 8-hour shifts, and brings home about $80 a day—enough to cover the $1,500 monthly rent for the apartment he shares with his family in Long Island City, unless he has to deduct money to pay off the tickets he’s been issued. Appearing in court to contest the tickets also amounts to time he’s not out earning money on the streets.
Working towards solutions
For the last two years, SVP has been campaigning with the aim of convincing the city council to lift the cap on permits. Basinski views the issue as one of equity and dignity. “Of course, you have to get your proper licenses, pay your taxes—there are lots of other rules you have to follow,” he says. “But you should be able to have a legal business, and permit in your own name.” He says the solution is simple: strike through the portion of the law that outlines the cap.
Basinski says the number of tickets issued over the last few years is trending downward—something he attributes, in part, to the interventions staged by SVP. Still, he sees an ongoing need to view vendors as city stakeholders: “less as a problem, and more as a group of small business owners who should be respected and are contributing so much to the city,” he says.
Those who dismiss street vending as an inconvenience, he adds, overlook the extent to which sellers can bolster local economies. In 2015, street vending in New York City provided 17,960 jobs; vendors paid $71.2 million in federal, state, and local taxes, according to a report prepared by the Institute for Justice.
Some street food has become trendy cuisine—but Basinski draws a distinction between the a haute ramen burger and the $1 pretzel sold from a generic street cart. The cache afforded to the trendy vendors, he says, isn’t impacting the average peddler.
Across the country, vendors face a number of hurdles—as well as some modest victories. In 2011, the Institute for Justice catalogued vending regulations in the 50 largest U.S. cities, and found that 19 cities barred vending close to brick-and-mortar shops selling similar goods. Moreover, 11 either banned vending entirely or issued strict guidelines about selling on private property or in active commercial zones—often the high-foot-traffic places where vendors stood the best chance of making a sale. Los Angeles, for instance, has a blanket ban on vending; still, an estimated 50,000 vendors work illegally. It was just last fall that vending street food was legalized in Chicago; the first license was issued in April, to a pushcart selling crepes.
A handful of smaller cities, though, have wooed vendors, and reported an increase in foot traffic strengthening a sense of vibrancy and vitality on the sidewalks. In the East Liberty community in Pittsburgh, for instance, “there always seemed to be a lot of activity and life on the blocks where the vendors were set up,” a spokesperson from East Liberty Development, Inc. told the IJ. And instead of diverting foot traffic from local brick-and-mortar shops, one retail manager noted that the relationship between vendors and stores was a symbiotic one.
A way forward for vendors
When some opponents—largely developers, Basinski says—imagine lifting the caps on permits, they envision “a chaotic, sky-is-falling picture.” Basinski doesn’t think the streets would suddenly be impassable, choked by carts.
Still, the results of a recent poll conducted by a local business improvement district may attest to that fear. In a survey performed by the SoHo Broadway Initiative earlier this year, three-quarters of respondents indicated that they were concerned about congestion on the local sidewalks, DNAinfo reported.
But Basinski doesn’t anticipate that lifting the cap would translate to a scramble for permits. “A lot of people already vending without permits would still be vending with permits—[it] might not increase numbers very much at all,” he says. “Certainly, there would be an equilibrium reached.” Uddin, for one, would no longer be at odds with the law.
Coupled with a lift on the caps, Basinski thinks the city could tweak existing infrastructure to make the streets more hospitable to vendors. He points to bike lanes as an example of tailoring spaces to fit users’ needs. Vendors, he says, could benefit from storage space in public markets, or designated vending areas in urban plazas. In Singapore, he adds, permanent hawker centers guarantee reliable real estate for vendors—and pop up on tourists’ to-do lists.
As street vendors like Uddin struggle to eke out their living, Basinski says, this sort of plan seems hard to fathom. “We can’t even really imagine [New York City] spending money to help vendors,” he says. “They spend a lot of money trying to hurt them.”
Navigating the permitting system has left Uddin frustrated. Sometimes, he says, police officers tell him to close his umbrella and pack out. Uddin says he sometimes pleads with them, assuring them that he’s measured the distance to the curb and the doors.
“I told them, ‘I’ve been here a long time…I have a family. I’m not illegal,’” he says, rubbing a close-cropped white beard and adjusting a baseball cap shielding his eyes from the sun. “I’m an American citizen. I’ve voted for senators. Why are you stopping my work?”