The Smallest of Small Business: New York City’s Street Vendors

ALEKSANDER MILETIC

Credit: Marc Ella Roy

“I’m all out today, see?” Ben showed me the empty metal container in which he keeps butter. I had been getting breakfast infrequently from Ben for several months as my office slowly reopened. Although I only visited on days in which I failed to prepare breakfast myself, he was friendly and we would always talk. He had become a friend, a confidant of sorts. It was unusual to see a street coffee cart vendor without a breakfast staple before 9am, so, naturally, I inquired: “Busy day today, huh?” as he prepared my breakfast. “I haven’t been busy for months,” Ben replied as he spread a generous helping of cream cheese onto the bagel. “I’ve lost 80 to 90 percent of my customers.”

What Ben experienced over the past 20 months is, unfortunately, not unique.[1] Street vendors rely entirely on foot traffic and pedestrians for their business.[2] A report during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic last year revealed that street vendors lost as much as 80 percent of business as a direct result of the closures, work-from-home orders, and citywide economic depression. A report from January 2021 detailed that by June of the previous year, street vendors’ daily earnings had fallen to 20 percent of what they were pre-COVID, while 74 percent of street vendors were still not back on the job. “I spent the first week [of lockdown] crying every day because I would get maybe one or two customers a day,” Ben once told me. The same report detailed that 26 percent of street vendors did not receive any sort of government aid, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), or the Small Business Administration (SBA) debt relief. Reasons range from ineligibility related to migration status to insufficient documentation to unclear guidance. All factors in tandem have forced street vendors to find alternate means to support themselves and their families; over three-quarters of street vendors have had to borrow money from banks or families, tap into savings, or sell off personal items. Some of this has to do with vulnerability of street vendors; gathering accurate information on street vendors’ demographics is difficult for several reasons. As such, without proper quantitative statistics, providing assistance is made more difficult. The process to become a licensed street vendor depends on the type of good one chooses to sell, and one does not need documentation to receive a license to be a street vendor. However, applications, laws, and regulations are all in English, which makes comprehending the process difficult, even for native speakers. Furthermore, as street vendors are classified as essential workers, they are not subjected to stay-at-home orders. For those whose financial and work situations took a hit at the start of the pandemic, street vending was a means to provide for themselves and their families. City agencies continued to target street vendors, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise that regulations would no longer be enforced. However, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the decline of an industry that has been under threat for nearly a century. Outside times of global economic recessions and pandemics, street vendors usually have a target on their backs at the hands of commercial real estate, big businesses, business improvement districts (BIDs), and local governments. They falsely view street vendors as threats to neighborhood safety, business, beautification, and cleanliness, and attempt to displace them by enlarging tree pits or placing plants and decorations in strategic locations to eliminate the sidewalk space from which they could sell legally. More overtly, the New York City government has imposed “restricted streets” from which street vendors cannot operate, including large parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. They are concentrated in areas where BIDs and commercial real estate dominate. The Hudson Yards developers, for example, have cracked down on street vendors by implementing all three tactics: redesigning sidewalks and keeping an NYPD presence to prevent street vendors from selling on the unrestricted streets near the development. City agencies also seemingly collaborate to take advantage of street vendors. There are no fewer than seven city agencies with the power to regulate street vendors and impose fines. Approximately 50,000 fines of up to $1,000 are levied and several thousand street vendors are arrested annually in New York City. With very tight profit margins, a few fines could wipe out months of earnings. And incarceration could have lingering effects on one’s ability to provide for their families, improve their job prospects, or feel safe. In one egregious instance in the Bronx, a fruit street vendor’s products were discarded by three city agencies (Department of Sanitation, Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, and New York City Police Department). The reason: she failed to provide a permit. The total estimated value of the produce: over $10,000. What this amounts to is that the New York City government – with the help, or pressure, from special interests – has continued the tradition of criminalizing poverty in the form of targeting street vendors.

In order to understand how vulnerable the industry has become and why the threats that street vendors face are pertinent, we must understand how street vendors in New York City have reached this point. Street vendors in New York City arrived in earnest with the influx of Eastern and Southern European immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century. The first recorded street vendors operated pushcarts on Hester Street in 1866. By 1900, an estimated 2,500 street vendors – mostly street carts – were in operation throughout the city. By 1920, there were in excess of 7,000 street vendors. By 1925 approximately 72 percent of street vendors were ethnically Jewish and 22 percent were Italian, most sold food from their home countries. These street vendors weren’t driven to sell on the street out of desire, but rather out of necessity. It was an informal economy that afforded immigrants the opportunity to provide for their families in an unequal and inequitable city where opportunities were limited.

By the early- to mid-1930s, an estimated 14,000 street vendors lined New York City’s streets – almost entirely in immigrant communities in Manhattan such as the Lower East Side. Given the sheer number of street vendors, the connections to the immigrant working class, and the street congestion, calls to reform, or formalize, this industry were espoused in earnest. As with most other reformation of early 20th century urban life, reformers believed that improving street vending was directly correlated to a more livable, workable, and sociable urban environment. Reform was also a means to regulate the industry. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia took up the issue, calling street vendors a “menace to traffic, health and sanitation.” In an effort to remove vendors from the streets, the Department of Public Markets was created following World War I. The Department’s 1936 annual report argued that “I can nevertheless think of no reasonable argument to support the sale of food in the City streets. This practice, in addition to creating a definite traffic and fire hazard and impediment, is unsanitary and a menace to the health of the City.” As such, a concentrated effort to move vendors from the streets and into enclosed, public indoor markets went into full effect with the blessing of Mayor La Guardia. The Essex Street Market and Arthur Avenue Retail Market are two of the many La Guardia-era indoor markets constructed during the 1930s and 1940s.

Since the days of Mayor La Guardia’s early crackdowns on the street vendor industry, no subsequent mayor has done anything significant to support street vendors. Mayor David Dinkins declared “illegal vending has become a thorn in the side of small business” despite having been an illegal vendor himself in his youth; Mayor John Lindsay had 171 street vendors unlawfully arrested in a single night; Mayor Rudy Giuliani targeted street vendors during his reign of broken windows policing in an effort to expand his “quality-of-life” crusade; Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed a bill his final year in office to reduce fines on street vendors, calling the idea to reduce fines “stupid.” It is hard to assume that business- and real estate-friendly Mayor Eric Adams will be any different.

Despite the consistent attacks the industry has faced throughout history and continues to face today, it is a vibrant, important industry that contributes immensely to New York City. According to a 2015 report, street vendors contribute as much as $71.2 million in taxes, nearly $300 million directly to the city’s economy, and nearly $200 million in wages. The contributions surely increase when considering the number of customers street vendors bring to brick-and-mortar stores and the street vendors who may not report earnings.

Credit: Marc Ella Roy

Although the number of street vendor workers is unknown, the Street Vendor Project, a group advocating for better conditions for street vendors, estimates there are in excess of 10,000 street vendors, with an estimated high of as many as 20,000. That could comprise anywhere between approximately 0.3 and 0.7 percent of the city’s workforce of 4.6 million. On average, street vendors make $14,000 annually and often work brutal hours (“I’m here at 4am and leave at 11am,” Ben told me one morning), or sometimes 24 hours a day in all types of weather conditions. “You get used to [the weather],” another street vendor told me. Furthermore, street vendors actually help contribute to the local economy and commercial real estate –  in direct contrast to the false narrative that street vendors take away from local business – by providing additional foot traffic, shoppers, and safety on commercial corridors. According to Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, Deputy Director at the Street Vendor Project, the narrative of street vendors as competition for brick-and-mortar stores is false; it’s not based on applied research or fact. “There’s no study ever conducted that shows that street vendors are siphoning business from brick-and-mortars. Rather, it’s the opposite. It’s about what makes a successful commercial corridor, and that’s variety, options, and liveliness.” In May 2001, a portion of Fulton Street in Brooklyn forcibly removed street vendors. Local brick-and-mortar stores reported that, without the street vendors, their sales declined by as much as 20 percent. In addition to bringing additional foot traffic, street vendors serve a dual role: as public safety agents. They are the first “eyes on the street” and could help deter crime. They make people feel safer and are often located in places that are neglected by officials. There are countless instances of street vendors preventing crime, including a failed car bombing in Times Square.

Street vendors also help provide fresh, affordable fruits, vegetables, and prepared food in neighborhoods lacking viable, healthy options. Approximately three million New Yorkers, almost entirely in low-income neighborhoods, live in places with high need for supermarkets that provide fresh fruit and vegetables. Street vendors help to provide fresh food to these neighborhoods. Fordham Road in the Bronx has more street vendors than brick-and-mortar stores, and a trip down Fordham Road reveals that several of these street vendors sell fresh fruit and vegetables at affordable prices. “There’s just so much food insecurity in my community…” said Diana Hernandez, the street vendor in the Bronx whose fruit and vegetables were discarded by the city. “I would have preferred that day to give away food while they were throwing it away.” 

Credit: Marc Ella Roy

What is clear is that street vendors are under threat. A global pandemic has put the industry on life support, although it has been attacked for decades in New York City. Why, then, does it matter if street vendors survive or not? Put plainly, proper treatment of street vendors is a key component to a more equal, equitable, safe, and inclusive city. This can be achieved in four parts.

One: make it easier to be a street vendor. Remove any and all caps on the number of licensed street vendors and eliminate unnecessary  regulations that hurt street vendors. Anyone who chooses to operate any form of street cart, service, or otherwise should have no hurdles to doing so. We shouldn’t have to laud slow progress – such as the City Council bill to expand the number of licenses gradually – but should instead advocate for the immediate abolition of caps. Additionally, there are several laws and regulations that hamper the ability for street vendors to operate. Renia Ehrenfeucht, Chair of the Community and Regional Planning Department at the University of New Mexico, argues that many street vendor regulations are dictated by three assumptions: protecting property interests, preventing congestion, and keeping the street organized. For example, a street vendor cannot have their stand less than ten feet from a crosswalk, and stands must be 18 inches from the curb. Some organizations believe that clearer, defined, and simpler regulations in multiple languages are necessary. Regulations should be conceived on the assumption that street vendors are compatible with other street activities. Since the current regulations are a patchwork from the past 100 years, street vendors are often fined incorrectly for regulations that are unclear or do not exist. Furthermore, since approximately 80 percent of street vendors are not native-English speakers, it is important for the regulations to be clear, and in languages that street vendors can understand. A comprehensive, organized, and multilingual manual of rules and regulations would amend these issues. 

Second: treat street vendors like the small businesses they are. This includes offering many of the same protections, regulations, and support small businesses receive. Street vendors who sell food have been asking the city government to assign cleanliness letter grades for their carts in much the same way restaurants do. It would also help vendors avoid unnecessary fines; approximately ten percent of ticketed violations street vendors receive are for health violations. This would help to disprove the nearly 100-year old narrative that food from street vendors is dirty or unclean. Furthermore, legitimizing street vendors as small businesses would afford protections they do not currently have. It would also allow them to be eligible for certain benefits such as the PPP legislation. Activists believe that street vendors and brick-and-mortar stores are not mutually exclusive entities, but rather should be treated and protected in the same fashionas part of a comprehensive cityscape. 

Third: design cities and streets with street vendor input. The perception that street vendors cause congested, dirty, or blighted public space is a misconception; they are used as scapegoats and are caught in the “crosshairs of conflicting views of the proper use of public space, urban image, and neighborhood futures.” Street vendors help to activate streets and bring in foot traffic. Successful conversions of streets to public open spaces carve out areas for street vendors. Corona Plaza in Queens is a hub of street vendors and helps to activate the street network. The city demapped the street in 2012, and in its place created a public plaza, which street vendors use. The several dozen street vendors organize and collaborate to beautify and maintain the plaza; they clean it, organize vending locations, make concentrated efforts to keep walkways clear, and meet regularly with each other. State Senator Jessica Ramos, who represents Corona Plaza, said of street vendors: “What I would like to see is for the city to take street vendors seriously and work with them to provide them with the infrastructure and the resources they’ve been lacking.” Continuing to adapt spaces for street vendors would be beneficial. Installing sidewalk furniture, such as bike racks and benches, is surely a good thing, but can have harmful effects on street vendors if done without their input. The Street Vendor Project argues that “unless the city explicitly includes street vendors in all plans, the unequal history of enforcement of our public streets will continue.”

And fourth: change the negative, false, and detrimental narrative being espoused about street vendors. These narratives date back to the early days of street vending in New York City. Historian Daniel Burnstein argues that  tropes that linked immigrants to squalor, dirtiness, and decay can be traced to early 1900s street vendors: “there also was a tendency — generalized from interrelated fear about public health and individual and social disorder — to anxiously associate the haunts of the poor with foulness in general.” Furthermore, with over 100 years of street vendor enforcement at the behest of NYPD, the association between crime and street vendors is perpetuated when the police department arrests and fines street vendors for complex, confusing, or, in some cases, nonexistent offenses. The result is an overwhelming distrust of law enforcement by street vendors; in a small sample size, as many as 24 percent of street vendors fear the police and law enforcement while only ten percent fear robbery and violence. As discussed, street vendors are not conduits of uncleanliness or crime, but are most often the victims of these narratives.    

Credit: Marc Ella Roy

Ben and I continued talking for a while after he handed me my breakfast. We would talk about everything: his kids, work, commuting. Talking with him would bring me comfort and a feeling of being vulnerable with a stranger, unique to the New York experience. There is nothing unique about Ben’s breakfasts; the coffees and bagels don’t have special powers. I could choose at any time to never see him again and visit a new coffee cart. But I don’t. I don’t choose to get breakfast from him because it’s the best. A coffee, a bagel, or a roll is replicable on almost any Midtown block. I chose to go to Ben because we became friends in much the same way people have relationships with the people at their corner store, or mom-and-pop shop, or favorite bartender. People like Ben are important. The bond one has with them is irreplaceable, and its destruction would be an irreparable loss in our city’s fabric.

After about two more minutes of talking – an eternity in street vendor time – another customer arrived. “Boss, I’ll come by as often as I can,” I said to Ben as I fist-bumped him. “Hey, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Ben replied to me with a wink. “I’ll have butter, too.”


Notes:

[1] Not his real name.

[2] There are five different types of street vendors: food vendors, general vendors, First Amendment vendors, veteran vendors, and unlicensed vendors. All street vendors share similar experiences. Where necessary, the type of vendor, or goods being sold, will be specified in the text.  


​​Alek Miletic graduated from the Hunter College UPP program with an M.U.P. in December 2020. He is the former Chair of APA-New York Metro chapter’s Student Representative Committee and the former Treasurer of GUPPA (fka GUAPA). He currently works as an environmental planner in New York City.

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