Unlike taxi drivers, who are constantly in motion, vendors are usually fixed. We see the same ones every day. They become part of our neighborhoods.
That desire — to profile vendors as fixtures in their neighborhood, informs our summer market at Vendy Plaza. This fall, with support from the New York Council for the Humanities, we are offering a free walking tour of East Harlem, where Vendy Plaza takes place each Sunday. This tour covers stories from the past and present at La Marqueta, NYC’s oldest remaining public market; and stops at a local botanica and area community garden; and other sites that illuminate the neighborhood’s dynamic cultural landscape.
We are proud to offer this tour, in English and Spanish, in conjunction with Turnstile Tours. Sign up here.
Street vendors are part of our everyday lives. But on the weekends, in cities around the world, people love food markets, whether its La Boqueria in Barcelona or Borough Market in London or Seattle’s Pike Place.
We’re thrilled to be running our own outdoor public market again this summer — we call it Vendy Plaza. Unlike many markets, this one happens on public space with public support (from the NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the City’s Economic Development Corporation). Why is that important? Because private space in NYC is very expensive, driving up prices and keeping out all but the best-capitalized few. We are proud to offer the stalls at Vendy Plaza for free. We are equally proud that the vast majority of vendors there are women and/or people of color.
Just ask Elsie Darrell (above) After working for the city for 30 years, Elise opened a highly-regarded cafe in West Harlem. But after a few years, the landlord doubled the rent. To keep cooking while she plots her next move (while passing along her recipes to her son,) Elsie vends each Sunday at the Plaza. Until you’ve tried her callaloo, you haven’t really lived. Find her and about twenty other vendors each Sunday from noon to 6 pm, at 116th Street and Park Avenue.
Friends sometimes innocently ask us, “who doesn’t like street vendors?” They are hard-working people, they are honest, they provide us with stuff we need every day, etc. Who doesn’t like ’em? A fair question. The answer is easy. People like Donald Trump don’t like street vendors. Billionaire real estate developers do not like street vendors. Racists and xenophobes do not like street vendors. Arrogant, bombastic, narcissists do not usually like street vendors.
In fact, it’s not just people like Donald Trump. Trump himself has personally been a powerful voice against vendors in NYC. In 1991, and again in 2004, he lobbied to remove disabled veteran vendors from Fifth Avenue because, he thought, they would “downgrade” the area. SVP even once protested the presence of illegal sidewalk planters (visible here), displacing vendors, outside Trump Tower.
We don’t get involved with Presidential elections. But street vendors are proud to call Barack Obama our friend. And equally proud to call Donald Trump our great enemy.
Politicians always love to talk about supporting small businesses. But when it comes down to policy, sometimes they are slow to act. And that failure can affect people’s lives.
We saw this again this week when another popular food vendor – Mexico Blvd — announced they are closing their truck for good. The difficulty getting a permit, and the hassles with parking, finally got to be too much. Luckily, the Loaeza family has a brick-and-mortar, so hopefully they will be ok. But how many vending businesses quietly go under, and they don’t make the news? How many entrepreneurs look into starting a food vending business and, reading how difficult it is, never even start?
As things get cold in New York, and summer permits expire, let’s hope that many food vendors are able to survive this winter. Let’s hope that, by the time spring comes, our City Council and Mayor will have repealed the permit cap that is such a burden on small business in NYC. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake. The solution is simple. Let’s hope our politicians act.
While (note to researchers!) we’ve never seen a study done, we know that vending on the street is hazardous work. The toll on even the strongest bodies is immense. Long hours on your feet in all weather conditions. Limited ability (thanks to the DOH) to use the bathroom. An outsized chance of getting hit by a run-away vehicle. Or robbed and killed.
And we know that many vendors, especially those who work over charcoal grills for years on end, suffer from respiratory ailments. Better technology exists, but vendors often don’t have the capital to invest in their own health. With that in mind, we are proud to be a part of any venture that will help vendors work in safer conditions — for themselves and for the whole planet. A new company in town is doing just that, by way of a cleaner, safer food cart. We were proud to stand with MOVE systems today, and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, to announce their new venture.
SVP members have been hard at work on an important legislative campaign to lift the caps on vendor permits and licenses. Since the early 1980s, an arbitrary cap has been placed on the number of available food permits and general vending licenses. This cap effectively makes street vending illegal for thousands of vendors and has led to the creation of a black market where permits (originally purchased from the City for $200) are now sold upwards of $20,000. Not fair!
Last year, we kicked off this campaign at the Murphy Center. This year, we’ll be getting into full swing. We want to decriminalize vending for hard-working immigrant communities, generate revenue for the City, and put an end to this illegal black market.
Please support this campaign by signing this petition!
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.
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.