Soho street vendors

At its January full board meeting, Community Board 2 unanimously passed a resolution calling on Mayor Bloomberg and the city to take steps toward dealing with chaotic street congestion caused by the massive number of street vendors along Broadway in Soho.

The board wants Bloomberg to finally convene the Street Vendor Review Panel — something he has failed to do over the course of his three terms — in order to draw up and implement sensible new regulations.

We agree that convening the review panel — which would include representatives from the departments of Small Business Services, Transportation and City Planning — is the right first step toward solving the vendor and pedestrian congestion along Broadway. The mayor and city basically chose to ignore this issue for more than a decade, as inconsistent or nonexistent enforcement of current laws compounded the problem, so the ball truly is in their court at this point.

The C.B. 2 resolution came out of the board’s Environment, Public Safety and Public Health Committee — and the committee chose to tackle this difficult problem because they wanted to do the right thing by responding to the concerns of Soho residents.

But as Committee Chairperson Bob Ely and neighborhood activist Pete Davies have pointed out, this shouldn’t be seen as a fight against the everyday people working as street vendors. These are simply people who have to make a living and feed their families. The point here isn’t to sweep hard-working people into the gutter.

This is, plain and simple, a beef with the sluggishness of Mayor Bloomberg and the city. Now is the time for them to sit down and put some real effort into making Soho’s Broadway a safer, cleaner and more enjoyable place for everyone to be — whether they’re locals, tourists or vendors.

These sort of street conditions might be the sort of things the proposed Soho Business Improvement District could focus on, were it ever to come into existence. However, many local residents are dead-set against the BID. Regardless of whether there is or isn’t a BID, though, there’s no reason the panel can’t be convened — now — to take a fresh look at the situation on the ground.

If vendors-rights activists like Robert Lederman of ARTIST (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics) feel that any review of the current conditions will only lead to an infringement of liberties and an overstepping of authority, they are free to make their case, and should do so. Defending art as free speech is one thing. But is a chicken kabob sandwich on a pita — or a hot sausage with onions and relish, or a potato knish — free speech, especially when purchased and eaten?

Lederman rarely loses in his court challenges, but if sidewalk crowding and other issues attributed to food carts are real concerns in Soho, then let the vendor panel take a good look at them and make its own, studied determination. The panel’s purpose, after all, is to achieve a positive result. But the failure to even convene the body means there’s no oversight whatsoever, except for sporadic penalties against the carts and vendors by city inspectors. And perhaps the vendors themselves have issues that they’d like to air in this sort of forum. In short, this can be a win-win for all concerned.

Above all, we cannot fathom why the city blatantly refuses to respond to the pleas of Soho residents and C.B. 2 to convene the Street Vendor Review Panel. Why does this panel even exist at all if its only purpose is to remain dormant, toothless and invisible?

Convene the panel.

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5 Responses to Soho street vendors

  1. "Defending art as free speech is one thing. But is a chicken kabob sandwich on a pita — or a hot sausage with onions and relish, or a potato knish — free speech, especially when purchased and eaten?"
    _________________________________________________________

    Now don't get me wrong. I love the Villager. It is my favorite newspaper on the planet. I read every issue with relish. However this single statement above illustrates a profound lack of understanding of the law and the situation it effects as far as street vending. In fact it is so far off the mark it astounds me.

    Food vendors are licensed by the city to sell food. They have strict rules that define the places and times they can work. They are not considered to be "art" by anyone in authority or on the street. In fact all legally licensed vendors have the same time and space restrictions that if disobeyed can lead to a removal of their license. This is a burden that illegal vendors do not face. They have no license to lose.

    On the other hand artists are covered by the constitution's freedom of expression statute and can display their artwork where other vendors are allowed to set up their stands.

    Seems simple, right? Well not in NYC. It is amazing to me when I look out on the streets and see how NYC is totally blowing it. I personally applied my constitutional rights to use the sidewalks to display my photographs for over a decade. The direct contact with the public was crucial in my development as an artist. This communication between artists and the public is the exact reason the courts decided the legal case in artist's favor many years ago.

    However as I have stated many times in the Villager, the courts did not give the right to profiteers to illegally steal artists copyrighted work and sell it at stands all over the city as a way to generate huge sums of income for themselves at artists expense. It did not give bootleggers the right to illegally copy clothing designers or hand bag designers and sell cheap knock offs on the city sidewalks. I could point out many more examples where the city has dropped the ball and not defended legal vendors and artists but you get the idea.

    In the end a commission is not needed to generate commons sense or to get the city to enforce the laws on the books right now. No commission in the past has been able to do so. This one will likely do no better. If those in power desired to halt illegal sales of bootleg and illegal goods on the sidewalks of Manhattan it would stop and the congestion would stop as well. However it is clear that the desire is simply not there and that is the single reason why is the situation goes on unabated to this day.

    For decades I have dealt with those on all sides of this issue and with that experience as my guide it is my strong feeling that some in power are making big bucks from illegal street sales and they simply desire to keep things the way they are. After all of these years I simply see no other reason that is plausible.

  2. With due respect, Mr. White, I feel your pain and indignation, but I think you are mixing knishes and Kandinskys, so to speak. There are two separate problems, which will likely have to be dealt with separately: 1) the glut of vendors, resulting in chaotic congestion; and 2) "profiteers" and "bootleggers" among the legit vendors. For starters, convening the panel in order to address the emergent concerns of Soho residents seens like a promising tack.

    • Ms. Reiss, Thank you for your civil response with just a slight twist of sarcasm. Nothing wrong with that.

      However please take note that there is nothing "emergent" about the vendor situation in Soho. There have been committees, commissions, mayoral level meetings, city council hearings, community board meetings, police board meeting, neighborhood committees, private consultations with police and city council members, confrontations on the streets and legal actions in response. The list goes on and on and on and on for a couple of decades and then some.

      In the end the result was no result. If anything the chaotic status quo was empowered and emboldened because they knew they were safe. They knew nothing would happen and they were right. Unfortunately the legal vendors were effected but to a very large degree the bootleggers were not.

      So here we are with another panel that will address local "concerns." OK. That is good. It is not going to harm anything. It might be therapeutic to get together and commiserate. On that level it will certainly be a positive. But excuse me for being frustrated with this circular process that never goes anywhere except the wrong direction. Often inappropriate enforcement action is carried out against legal vendors or no action at all is performed. I wish I could say this was not true but it surely is.

      The ironic thing is that the solution to the so called (illegal) vendor problem is as simple as reading a name. It involves common sense and little else. It has been printed in detail in the pages of the Villager so many times I bet the editorial staff could recite it to you like bohemian poetry.

      So after all of these years and by process of elimination I have come to the conclusion that it is all about the money. What is new about that? The chaos you object to is enormously profitable to others and that that defines the problem. The overcrowding, as it has been called, is only a symptom and now a distraction. The cause is the money. I find this thesis to offer the only plausible reason for this particular outcome.

      So I hope you enjoy the meeting and get something out of it Ms. Reiss. I will be here not holding my breath.

  3. While I appreciate the thoughtful consideration of this editorial, from where I site between Houston and Prince, this horse appears to be long out of the barn. It may be counter-intuitive, but isn't it better to forge forward in the cycle of a business district rather than fight to restore things back to the way they were?

    Enough with trying to conviene panels, start BIDs, and enforce laws — let's invite in more and more vendors! Allow them to flood the streets, and they will gradually chase out the highend stores. Stack the kebob carts on the knock-off goods tables on the art stands until the sidewalks are so congested tourists will avoid this area like the plague.

    The vendors didn't bring the tourists here; the tourists brought the vendors. Allow the vendors to ruin the tourists shopping experience, and eventually, the tourists will go elsewhere. The vendors will soon follow.

    …(cont. …)

  4. (…cont. …)
    There once was a cool place on Broadway called Canel Jeans. It got discovered and soon chased out of the area, only to be replaced by a highend chain. Evenutually, this highend store will be replaced by a middle-$ store, and then a lower one and lower… . This is the sad cycle of a business district. Tourist abide by these cycles. And maybe this is the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to get back to what Broadway was like before Dean & Deluca ever moved from Prince St. to Broadway.

    My mom always said to be careful what you wish for, so maybe we should give the vendors their wish. Let them do the hard work of clearing our sidewalks of congestion. It seems much easier than trying to put this hungry jeannie back in the bottle, cuz at this point, we're gonna need a bigger bottle.

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