Volume 74, Number 50 | April 20 - 26 , 2005

Photo by Rosspilot

Sidewalk vendors and artists protested before Monday’s City Council hearing on a new bill on street vendors.

Street artists and vendors aren’t sold on new bill

By Amanda Kludt

A new law may pass that would radically change the way food, goods, art, newspapers and books are sold on the streets of New York. Or it very well may not.

On Monday afternoon, after a boisterous organized protest and amid intermittent cries of dissent, Councilmember Philip Reed announced Intro 621, a proposal for a new law to amend the rules of New York City vending. “Nobody thinks that what’s on the books right now is fair,” said Reed, as he introduced the proposal, adding that he wanted input from interested parties on how to make revisions.

However, a lot of the interested parties testified that they didn’t like any part of the new legislation. Many vendors dislike the bill because they think it restricts them and takes away their rights. Many business owners dislike the bill because the say it will lead to the proliferation of vending and more competition for their stores. Councilmembers and some public-interest groups are divided, and the mayor’s office said they haven’t come to a decision.

According to the proposal, the city’s current vending rules are so complicated that the police are “faced with the arduous task of unraveling a complex net of restrictions.” There are various divisions in the vending community, including food vendors, disabled veteran vendors, general vendors and First Amendment vendors, and each division has its own rules. First Amendment vendors sell or distribute paintings, books, newspapers, pamphlets, DVD’s or any other material of original content, and they currently don’t need a license. Veteran vendors have priority of where they can vend. Reed’s goal was to provide a framework to include everyone.

One of the major changes would open up all of the streets and avenues of the city to vending. Now, a large number are closed. The Department of Consumer Affairs would also increase the number of licenses from 853 to 2,000 over the next two years.

Small and large business owners voiced their opposition to this part of the proposal, because they see the proliferation of vendors as a threat to business. Michael Weiss, executive director of the MetroTech Business Improvement District, said the law would be “an attack on a thousand mom-and-pop businesses.” While he said the BID’s are not anti-vendor, they see an expansion of vendor presence as a negative factor for their businesses.

Richard Lipsky, a representative from the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, echoed Weiss’s sentiment, saying more vendors mean more competition in a climate that is already bad for small businesses. “There needs to be greater control over where and how many,” he said.

The law would also restrict vendors to three per blockface. One vendor could be a food vendor, one a general vendor— including disabled veteran vendors — and one a First Amendment vendor. Every vendor would have a priority number to resolve any disputes over spots.

Areas traditionally populated by one kind of vendor would have to have diverse vendors. Robert Lederman, head of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics), said the law would destroy the livelihoods of many artists who congregate in specific areas. “Going from 200 artists to four would be a terrible blow to the vendor community,” said Lederman. He added that since First Amendment vendors include booksellers and newspaper sellers, having one per block would restrict a large number of artists from vending in certain neighborhoods.

Kirsten Malloy, who helps her husband sell his paintings on the sidewalk at Prince St. and W. Broadway, stood at the protest before the hearing with her 19-month-old baby. “I don’t know what would happen really,” she said. “It’s dangerous for us all because we support our family with his artwork.” Malloy said that her husband may not get a high-priority number and then they might be relegated to a bad location.

The most contentious additions to the proposal are the changes requiring First Amendment vendors to obtain licenses and general and food vendors to be fingerprinted for their licenses.

The First Amendment vendors say requiring a license to vend infringes on their freedom of speech. “This means you need a license for any First Amendment activity,” said Lederman. “That’s the opposite of free speech.” Lederman, who has won four federal cases against the city that involved free speech, says there is no compromise over the proposal and said he doubts if the bill even makes it to the second hearing, on May 4, in its current form.

The introduction of fingerprinting provoked much dissent from some of those who supported the proposal. Councilmember Charles Barron of Brooklyn said that although he signed the proposal he didn’t agree with the fingerprinting or the licensing of First Amendment vendors. The Disabled Veteran Vendors also brought up the fingerprinting as an issue of concern. Representatives from the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, which represents over 300 vendors, said they supported almost all of the proposal, but took issue with the fingerprinting.

Overall, the proposal was supported in part by some groups and rejected flat out by most groups for a variety of different reasons. “Intro 621 is a little like the Frankenstein monster. It was stitched together by various dead bodies of different bad policies,” said Lederman, adding he’s afraid what would happen if it came to life and ran amok in the city.”

Whether Councilmember Reed will heed the suggestions of the interested parties and modify the proposal, or if he will leave his bill as it stands, will be known in the second round of discussion on May 4 at 1 p.m. in the City Council chamber in City Hall.

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