Once, long before Whole Foods and even Gristedes, New York City was home to dozens of thriving public markets where people did their daily and weekly shopping. Sadly, over the years, the number of these markets has dwindled to just four — at Essex Street, Arthur Avenue, Moore Street, and La Marqueta, in East Harlem. While today we can order all our food online, people still yearn for the market experience. Smorgasburg, Hester Street Fair, LIC Flea, and other successful examples have proven that much. We want delicious, authentic food and we want to meet the people who make it.
Thus came about our new venture. With the massive help of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, we created Vendy Plaza, an outdoor, covered food market at La Marqueta, one of the city’s most storied public spaces. We hope this idea, which we will be trying out each Sunday in November, will become a neighborhood gathering spot and an incubation space where new food entrepreneurs – from E. Harlem and across the city — can get their start. Stay tuned!
While Mayor De Blasio has generally received high praise for his progressive agenda, one area we think he is getting legitimate criticism is with the NYPD.
The problem is that he appointed as Police Commissioner one of the original architects of “broken windows” policing — Bill Bratton. Bratton’s theory may have made sense in the early 90’s, when New York was nearly spiraling out of control. But nowadays, with crime way down, “broken windows” looks a lot like targeting low-income people of color for minor offenses like subway dancing, jaywalking, marijuana possession, and, yes — even vending.
This was seen, most tragically, in the case of Eric Garner, who was killed by the NYPD in July while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes on a quiet street in Staten Island. And a recent video from some great Copwatch advocates in Brooklyn shows NYPD officers treating vendors with neither courtesy, professionalism, nor respect. Instead the officers needlessly escalate an encounter with degrading language, an unwarranted arrest, and even a kick to go along with it!
Street vendors are not broken windows, but rather hard-working people, usually immigrants, who are contributing to their neighborhoods and serving their customers. If Bratton doesn’t realize that, then Mayor De Blasio should find a commissioner who does.
As we often recognize, street vendors are far from the only beleaguered group of self-employed workers in public space. In New York, we also have subway dancers, pedicab drivers, bicycle delivery workers, and …. Elmos.
Yes, Elmos, and also Spidermen, Batmen, Doras the Explorer, and just about every other cartoon character you can imagine. These enterprising folks (mostly undocumented immigrants from South America) have realized they can make a few bucks posing for pictures with tourists in Times Square, then asking for a tip afterward. With the city having “cleaned-up” the neighborhood and added spacious pedestrian plazas, these performers have plenty of room to work. They have become tourist favorites, especially with kids.
Just one catch. Big businesses, like Disney and Viacom, don’t like the costumed characters. The local Business Improvement District — the same one that sold much of Times Square to huge corporations during the Super Bowl — doesn’t either. Some bad news involving a couple of the characters recently hit the press, and now a City Council Member from the Bronx is proposing legislation.
The good news is that these costumed characters have now gotten organized and are working with our partners at La Fuente to make sure their voices are heard. Today they held a big press conference where they announced they will be fighting back. SVP will be right beside them.
Los Angeles is the second most important city for street vending in the United States.They have an amazing history of immigrant vendors. They have an exciting, edgy food truck scene. Vendors there are currently getting organized in a very important campaign (spearheaded by our friends at the East LA Community Corporation) to legalize sidewalk vending. And, as the NY Times recently discovered, LA officials are even starting to embrace vendors as an expression of that city’s strong immigrant culture.
All this means we never miss a chance to go to Southern California, as we did this past weekend! For this year’s LA Vendy Awards, we decided to link up with street food expert (and 2010 Vendy LA Judge) Bill Esparza, who puts on a little event every year called Tacolandia. Forty taco-makers in the taco capital of the US, with a few more traveling in from Mexico? We were there! And quite thrilled to present Raul Ortega from the legendary Mariscos Jalisco with this year’s LA Vendy Cup for best street taco 2014.
We’ll say it – organizing street vendors can be isolating. Vendors are often not seen as workers, and since they have never (really) been organized until SVP came along in 2001, people don’t know what box to put them in.
That is one reason we are so lucky to be a member of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition started in 2009 to do exactly what we need — make connections with other groups who are doing similar work. Here, the common theme is the food chain; FCWA organizes along the entire food system, from the farm where our food is picked to the distribution center where it is shipped to the restaurant (or food cart) where it is eventually served to us. With so many people caring about where their food is grown (but often not how the people who pick and serve it are treated) this issue seems ripe for progress.
We also need inspiration. So last weekend, two of our vendor leaders (Pauli and Mohammed Altaf) got to go to sunny Miami for the FCWA annual retreat. We took a trip to the fields, learning about how the Florida Farmworker Association organizes workers around pesticide use and other issues. We also took part in a big march against Publix Supermarkets, who are still refusing to the pay the Coalition for Immokalee Workers an extra penny a pound.
Sometimes intellectuals like to sip wine and debate whether street vendors are “workers” or “self-employed” people or “entrepreneurs.” We say yes to all of the above!
Thankfully the US labor movement is starting to realize that work is changing and these intellectual distinctions don’t make much sense. People who go to work every day, and get screwed, need to stick together. In recent years, organized labor has forged important new alliances with taxi drivers and domestic workers, for example.
And the tent is getting bigger. The Murphy Center for Labor Studies, a prestigious institute at CUNY, invited us to kick off our newest “Lift the Caps” campaign and hold a panel discussion this week entitled Taking It to the Streets! Street Vendors in the New Labor Economy. What a morning! The panel was moderated by Ed Ott, who just released New Labor in New York, an important book that includes a chapter on street vendors. The Speaker of the City Council — Melissa Mark Viverito — gave the opening remarks. And many allies in labor forged new ties to workers who happen to sell food on our streets and sidewalks.
Pictures from the event are here and (if you are really serious) you can watch the full video here.
For weeks, everyone in town has been excited — the Superbowl is coming to New York (or at least New Jersey) this year!
As part of the celebration, the city created Super Bowl Boulevard — a big street fair — along a 13-block stretch of Broadway in midtown. Pro football is big business, so it was no surprise to see huge corporate tents, football-themed games, video projection shows and even a toboggan ride! Great way to get people excited before the big game!
However, as we so often see, when big corporations come to town, they kick out the little guys. In this case, vendors who have worked for years on those blocks have now been ticketed and evicted from their locations. Instead of having a chance to share in the proceeds (estimated to be $500 to $600 million) from this big event, they are losing money! The local business group didn’t even notify the vendors, much less work with the police to find spaces for them to work in the meantime.
Out of work, a group of the evicted vendors decided to hold a press conference today to express their outrage. A lot of media are in town — we got good coverage. The vendors got to vent. And hopefully next time a mega-event comes to town, our city leaders will include not just the multinational corporations, but the neighborhood small businesses who are there every day.
We were quietly getting ready for a new Mayor last month when we heard the Parks Department was kicking hot dog vendors out of Washington Square Park! Why? Not due to “congestion” (like they bogusly claimed at Union Square) but because rich people, heiresses, and celebrities from the new Washington Square Park Conservancy thought the vendors were “unsightly.” Funny, but we’d use words like “offensive,” “elitist” and “racist” instead. Either way, we don’t have enough people to be at every Community Board meeting where decisions about public space like this are made. Thank God a local blogger activist was on the case!
Together with neighbors concerned about private control of their public park, parks advocates, and the affected vendors themselves, SVP held a rally and press conference to draw attention to the issue.
As usual, direct action gets the goods! Just after the new year, the Parks Department reversed course, announcing that the vendors could stay. A huge victory for people who care about immigrant workers and public space. And a good start to a new year, and hopefully a new era, for vendors in NYC!
Working with vendors is so unique that it can sometimes leave us isolated from other movements. But together we are all stronger, right? And lately, more than ever, we have been working in solidarity with other groups. This year, we joined the Food Chain Workers Alliance, and were proud to stand with FCWA and Brandworkers recently in their support of the workers at Amy’s Bread Company in Queens. Good food and good treatment of workers should go together!
We also recently collaborated with the NY Civil Engagement Table on an excellent NYC Council Speaker Forum, where they even asked a question about street vendors! And to top it off, this week we stood in solidarity with Chinese Staff Workers Association, who are working to organize restaurant delivery workers, a hard-working immigrant population that often overlaps (and faces similar race and class-motivated targeting) with SVP’s own members.
Of all the patches that make up the quilt that is vending in NYC, veterans are one of the most beautiful. U.S. military vets have been granted a special license under New York State Law since the 1890s, when it was discovered that vending provides a flexible means of self-employment, especially for the disabled. In other words, after serving our country, the least we can give you is the right to set up a table on the public sidewalk!
That state law remains, and as a result about 10% of vendors in NYC are military vets, including many SVP members. To recognize them, we marched today in America’s Parade up 5th Avenue, about 30 vendors and four vehicles (including an ice-cream truck!) strong. Thank you, veteran vendors, for your service to our country! May the police and politicians show their respect today and every day of the year.