The street vendors who marched together last month up Broadway from Canal Street to E. Houston Street were used to the intense heat and humidity -- they do business in it every day.
The march was organized by the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group, to protest the harassment of vendors by businesses, community members and the NYPD in SoHo. “Despite attempts at making an honest living, vendors are subject to a litany of unjust regulations which make their work an incredible challenge,” reads an SVP petition on Change.org that has more than 160 signatures. The march was also intended to advertise the SVP’s “Lift the Caps” campaign to reform legislation that limits the number of vendor permits available.
“For the past six months or so people have seen an increase in police harassment, but also harassment from the Broadway Initiative,” Basma Eid, an organizer with the Street Vendor Project, said. “Vendors have told us time and time again that they’ve been working and someone comes out and asks them what are they doing here … basically trying to intimidate them to move.” Eid noted that it was the vendors themselves, many of whom are members of the SVP, who approached the group to organize the protest.
Pete Davies, who has lived in SoHo for 36 years and is a member of the Broadway Residents Coalition, has learned that engaging with vendors directly is not the most effective method. “That is not advisable,” he said. “I have no authority with them [and] we’re all somewhat confused by the myriad of regulations, so having a conversation about what’s right and what’s wrong isn’t always productive.” Davies acknowledged that most vendors are hard workers just trying to get by, but described others as “belligerent” when it comes to protecting their share of the sidewalk. His main concern is the congestion of SoHo’s sidewalks, which has only increased over the years as more retail stores have been added to the area.
The SVP has long been advocating for reform to the legislation governing street vendors, which caps the number of food unit permits that can be issued. Full-term citywide permits are capped at 2,800 for a two-year period, seasonal citywide at 1,000 for April to October and Green Cart permits for fruit and vegetable vendors at 1,000. There are 100 two-year permits available for citywide use by veterans and people with disabilities, and 200 are available for non-Manhattan use for a two-year term. By the SVP’s estimate, there are 20,000 vendors in the city, almost three-quarters of them are left to operate illegally or work for a permit-owning entity.
“People have to find someone who had a permit back in the day and now are renting permits from those people under the table,” Eid said. Though the city only charges $200 for the permits, there are so few available that they are selling for as much as $25,000 on the black market. “The city is really losing out on a lot of money they could be making,” she said. Among the reforms the SVP would like to see is a reduction in the 20-foot distance vendors’ carts have to be from the nearest store doorway down to 10 feet. Eid said the organization has been working with several elected officials, including Council Members Margaret Chin and Ydanis Rodriguez, and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “The council wants to increase opportunities for vendors and we are exploring our options,” said council press secretary Robin Levine, though she declined a request for an interview with the speaker.
Chin, who represents District 1 including Lower Manhattan and parts of SoHo, sees the vendors as an important part of the local economy. “They really add something special to the uniqueness of the city streetscape,” Chin said. “City Council right now is looking at legislation that could help them and support them.”
Mark Dicus is understanding of the challenges vendors face, but as the director of the SoHo Broadway Initiative he has to put the businesses and community he represents first. “Our take on it is … the vendor community is welcome to operate within the district,” he said. “We’re here to help them find legal locations … and operate within the rules they’re supposed to operate within.” Dicus has received complaints from SoHo residents and business owners who don’t care for the vendors, or who are opposed to the sidewalk congestion they contribute to.
This past January, the SoHo BID put together and published a guide to vending regulations that they distributed in an effort to collaborate with vendors in the area. “Some guys really want to find a legal spot, and others are given strict marching orders and are open to input but they’re really following the instructions of their boss,” Dicus said.
At the hot dog cart on the corner of Broadway and Prince Street where Mohamed Nazim works, it is his boss who owns the permit that allows him to operate. “The community is good, no problem -- it’s the police,” he said. Nazim has been ticketed many times over the years for questionable offenses. Once, he was issued a ticket for not having the cart’s permit prominently displayed because it was glued to the opposite side of his cart from where the officer approached. Nazim has been trying to get his own permit from the city for a decade. “Why give me the license to work but no permit?” he said. “I am a legal resident.”
As Eid sees it, allowing vendors to work without having the police called on them is “the least we can do.” No new legislation has come before the council yet, but Eid is hopeful that something will be put forward soon. Until then, vendors and community members will continue struggling to coexist.