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.”