Street vendors have been historically vulnerable to institutional oppression and lack of access to city space, a vulnerability that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2020 study on the impact of the pandemic on street vendors found that “26% of respondents received no government financial relief such as ‘stimulus checks’ and 63% received no government food assistance.” Unlike brick and mortar stores, street vendors have been excluded from business assistance programs. As a result of the severe financial burdens of the pandemic, 76% of respondents reported to have “borrowed money, drawn down savings, sought financial help from family, friends or neighbors, or sold or pawned assets”.
A food vendor outside the Museum of Sex in Manhattan (Photo by the author)
While in many ways stigmatized and marginalized, street vendors are entrepreneurs and small business owners who have a right to city space and its amenities. Street food offers neighborhoods a culturally rooted sense of place while also contributing culinary nuance and diversity to the urban landscape. Food and its associated processes of production are essential expressions, markers of one’s cultural history, “shrouded in memory and family within the narrative of contemporary migrations.” While food service workers were considered “essential” during the pandemic, food vendors were largely excluded from the conversation, likely due to high rates of informality in the sector.
A food vendor in Brooklyn (Photo by the author)
Legalizing vending will generate a revenue stream for the city and state, as well as provide tens of thousands of jobs and small business opportunities. Beyond that, New York City street vendors come from 60 different countries, meaning that further formalizing the sector could reinforce an equitable and inclusive recovery from the pandemic. As vendors and consumers make their way back to the streets, this presents the opportunity to assess how the pandemic altered practices related to food vending and how to envision a more sustainable future for the sector.
Permit Scarcity: A Pre- and Post-Pandemic Challenge
Anwer, a food vendor in Midtown (Photo by the author)
Although the pandemic underscored the vulnerability of food vendors during a health and economic crisis, little has been done to increase their stability. Anwer, a food vendor in Midtown, noted that the most challenging part about vending both before and after the pandemic was the difficulty of gaining legal legitimacy. When asked to identify one action that the city government could take to help food vendors, he answered immediately, “Permits. They’re expensive and there aren’t very many.”
According to the Street Vendor Project, a citywide association of street vendors, there are 20,000 street vendors in the city, primarily immigrants, people of color, and women. In the 1980s, New York City implemented strict limits on the number of vending licenses and permits issued to food vendors. The legislation included capping permits at 3,000, despite demand from at least 12,000 vendors. As a result of this policy, an underground market has flourished, forcing many vendors to operate in a deeply unjust system. In 2021, the City Council passed legislation, Intro 1116, to lift the restrictive and outdated permit cap by 4,000 permits. The 4,000 new permits were phased in starting this year, with 400 added every year over a decade, eventually nearly doubling the number. After suffering economic and personal devastation during the pandemic, more permits will help vendors get into the formal economy.
Even with new legislation, there are not enough permits for the large number of vendors in the city, resulting in an exploitative black market. As a result of the scarcity and creation of a black market, a permit that costs $200 can be illegally leased for $20,000 to $30,000 over a two-year period. The city effectively criminalized street vending by creating legal barriers between vendors and permits. Even if street vendors are able to purchase a permit, they have to dig through a maze of seven agencies in order to obtain the appropriate forms and guidance required.
Informal food vendors without permits are particularly vulnerable to economic shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and currently high rates of inflation. A food vendor selling Mexican food in Brooklyn, who prefers not to be named, has been hit by high product costs and a consumer base less willing to spend money. “Now, everything is more expensive…little by little we’re recovering, selling a little bit more. But people also don’t want to spend as much with the high prices of everything.”
Queens Night Market (Photo by author)
The “New Normal”: Food Vendors and Adaptation
Destination food markets such as the Bronx and Queens Night Markets and Smorgasburg in Williamsburg were put on hold at the start of the pandemic. Vendors preparing for the spring and summer seasons were forced to shut down as consumers avoided potentially crowded spaces. Mellers analyzes these markets and the impacts COVID-19 had on them, noting that they are “diverse ecosystems with small food businesses in every stage of development.” She identifies specific strategies the markets used to adapt to the pandemic, permitting vendors to sell their products while adhering to health regulations.
This demonstrates the lack of a clearly defined “before” and “after” the pandemic, but rather a continuous evolution by which vendors redefined their strategies and adapted to new norms. Or, in the case of Liz from Paradise Island Cuisine, consumers adapted to their products due to new health concerns. For a decade, Paradise Island Cuisine has been focusing on providing healthy food options from the Caribbean.
Liz from Paradise Island Cuisine at the Bronx Night Market (Photo by author)
The pandemic has made consumers more health-conscious, Liz says, turning more people towards the product her business sells, “We’ve been doing this way before the pandemic, but now people are curious, like, ‘what is that?’ So I get to educate as well. But prior to the pandemic, people weren’t as interested in eating healthy. But now they’re more concerned. They’re more health conscious.”
Critics condemn vending for its supposed lack of sanitation control and for posing unfair competition to brick and mortar restaurants. Contrary to such criticisms, however, food vending provides high-quality and affordable food options for populations who do not always have easy access to restaurants and grocery stores. Additionally, sidewalk vending improves the vitality and walkability of cities because it encourages people to engage with public space. Neighborhoods become safer as more people are on the sidewalks and even encourage patronage of brick and mortar stores.
Vendors in Brooklyn (Photo by author)
Urban space is a site for production, exchange, and consumption but it is also a place that sees the struggles that surround these processes. The pandemic was unprecedented, placing vendors in an ever more precarious situation. With little to no governmental assistance, vendors are still left facing the pandemic’s repercussions. While they are left scrambling to bring back struggling businesses, they have been hit yet again by rising food costs and the never-ending struggle for legitimacy. While some aspects of the pandemic made their jobs harder, the reality is that government policy marginalizing them is at the root of their struggles, both pre-and post-pandemic. At the same time, food vendors continuously evolve and adapt to new challenges.
The ability to shape discourse and public opinion is key to the ways that street vendors hold political power. Urban citizenship should not be strictly based on formal membership but “on active participation in, and contribution to, the urban fabric.” The pandemic has made it more important for the community to recognize the vendors as integral to the social and cultural fabric of New York City—an active component that is engaged with and vital to the integrity of the City, and one that has been a part of our communities for generations.
Street vendor mural in Brooklyn (Photo by author)
1. Sharon Zukin, Naked City: A Tale of Two Globals: Pupusas and IKEA in Red Hook (New York, 2010), 170.
2. Mark Vallianatos, “A More Delicious City: How to Legalize Street Food,” in The Informal American CIty:Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor, (MIT, 2014), 218.
3. Ryan Thomas Delvin, “Street Vending and the Politics of Space in New York City,” in Street Vending in the Neoliberal City: A Global Perspective on the Practices and Policies of a Marginalized Economy, ed. Kristina Graaff and Noa Ha, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015), 53.
Jenn Hendricks is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and urban researcher. Her work focuses on comparative urban policy, with a specific interest in regional understandings of community development and public space. She studied Urban Policy at Hunter College.