The World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan has become something of a Rorschach test for the city since 9/11: To some, it’s a hallowed site of historical tragedy; for others, it’s a high-tech commercial hub; for many others, it’s the seedbed of their American dream, where they hawk steaming kebabs and coffee to earn a dignified living. But some city legislators think that these corners just aren’t big enough for all its denizens, and as usual, the workers on the margins are the first to be pushed out.
As the summer tourist season gets started, the City Council opened a recent session with a legislative proposal to push street vendors out of selected areas of downtown Manhattan and Flushing. Carrying on a proud tradition of working-class immigrant pushcart entrepreneurs, these vendors are already operating in a tight regulatory space, often squeezed by cops overzealous about ensuring “quality of life” on pedestrian walkways. Because of the citywide cap on vendor licenses, many must also share carts in shifts to eke out a living. Now the new law aims to bar them from their own turf. Though the legislation purports to only affect a few dozen local vendors, labor advocates call it a discriminatory policy to make the streets “safer” for big business and gentrifying developers.
A campaign led by vendor-activists with the Street Vendor Project (SVP) of the Urban Justice Center (where the author once interned), along with grassroots community groups and civil-rights organizations, has mobilized to help the vendors stay put. They believe that the measure, while perhaps well-intentioned, seeks to “clean up” the streets at the expense of the basic rights of the city’s most marginal tradespeople.
At a recent City Council meeting, Carla, a Mexican-born veteran who sells hats and knickknacks by the World Trade Center site, showed how workers like her need the street as much as it needs them. A recovering PTSD survivor, she told HRW researchers in written testimony, “This job allows me to meet people every day. It has helped my depression. I desperately need this location for my own health and my family.”
Others see vendors as a nuisance, perhaps a safety concern. The city’s police department has lobbied for the bills by raising the possibility that vendors crowding the sensitive Ground Zero area could invite terrorists to slip into the crowd with weapons of mass destruction masked as halal food carts. A former local fire captain in the neighborhood lamented in his testimony: “What was supposed to be a place of reverence and solitude became a mega [sic] for vending…from selling hot dogs…to vending clothing.”
In Flushing, the second zone targeted for reform, business-friendly City Council member Peter Koo raised concerns about sidewalk obstruction and pollution hazards that were allegedly emitted by gasoline-powered carts concentrated in busy commercial areas.
But those promoting the bill, critics countered, ignored the fact that the vendors themselves are an attraction, engaging locals and tourists while giving them a taste of a side of New York developers often try to obscure. And they are certainly neither a nuisance nor a safety threat.
Mohammed Attia, former street vendor and now the co-director of the SVP, stressed that these are not vagabonds or transients invading the area; many have been street vending for several years, even decades, powering a core migrant microenterprise, while helping to enrich the food culture of this city of immigrants. Moreover, vendors serve a public-safety function when they alert cops to a pickpocketed wallet left on the pavement, or, as in one case in 2010, spot a real incendiary device, planted by a real terrorist, and intervene soon enough to save Times Square from catastrophe.
Attia emphasized that in the area targeted by the legislation, “18 out of 22 vendors are Muslims, and as a Muslim American I feel so offended by this bill…. are [the police] scared of these 22 vendors themselves becoming terrorists one day?”
In response to the NYPD’s safety concerns, he added, “We know these vendors.… They know their neighbors and customers. They all know each other as part of their communities.” Since they’d be the first to notice a suspicious new vendor among them, he told the council, “I invite you and the NYPD to meet these vendors and work with them instead of kicking them out.”
Other neighborhood activists pointed out how food vendors, far from being a nuisance or a safety risk, are a positive force in the community. Lena Afridi of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development argued that, “In a political climate where the lives of working-class people of color and immigrants are undervalued, [the bills] further undermine the livelihoods of hardworking immigrants who already struggle against displacement in New York.” According to Afridi, “My fellow Muslims are here fighting not only for their livelihood, but to prove that they’re not a threat.”
When Attia made the rounds in the streets the week of the City Council hearing with his SVP co-director Sean Basinski to talk to vendors about possible eviction, reactions were mixed. Some peddlers shrugged off the news with resignation, saying they didn’t know where they’d go but that they would find a new place sooner or later—though they might struggle to readjust to a different area lacking the clean streets and peaceful atmosphere of their corners.
As the afternoon sun dissolved into a light drizzle, Ibrahim, an umbrella seller who had been plying his trade since the mid-1990s, chafed at the news, noting that he keeps the streets safe when no one else is out. He recalled spotting a drunk driver nearby one night and halting him: “I said wait, wait, don’t go nowhere. You can’t drive the car, the people will be mad at you.” He kept him talking, not driving, and eventually the cops rolled up. “We don’t hurt nobody, we don’t bother nobody.… Why you gonna give somebody a license to work and then you kick them out?”
Good question. Sean told him to come to the next City Hall meeting a few blocks down; the City needed to hear from people like him, he said. Ibrahim said he would think about it. For once, after establishing himself over his 20 years of working the streets, he considered taking a morning off to make his voice heard.