Volume 80, Number 48 | April 28 - May 4, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Jefferson Siegel

On Centre St. below Canal St. on Tuesday, a woman selling presumably knockoff designer handbags, at left, showed a group of women a card with photos of various bags for sale. Once the buyer makes a choice, the bag is either brought to her or she is directed to a van or doorway to conclude the purchase. These women left without purchasing anything.

Concerns rise over vending; Chin targets fake bag buyers

By Aline Reynolds

Soho resident David Bober was conversing with his son’s classmate on Broadway near Grand St. one day in March, when a street vendor accosted him.

“He put his hand in my face. I put his hand out of the way, and he punched me,” recalled Bober, who proceeded to call 911. Fortunately, he said, he only suffered a black eye.

The vendor, who was arrested that afternoon, had 13 prior arrests for participating in unlawful trademark infringement, according to Bober.

The day before the assault, Bober had asked the vendor — who was selling on the street where Bober lives — to take his business somewhere else.

“I’m ready to move,” said the perturbed resident. “I don’t want to raise my family around this threat.”

Downtown community members and politicians are brainstorming new ways to crack down on illegal street vendors and those who sell counterfeit goods along Canal St. and elsewhere in Chinatown, Tribeca and Soho.

The multibillion-dollar counterfeit industry, which costs the city an estimated $1 billion in tax revenue annually, has flourished in recent years, according to Bober and other local residents. The community members have become fed up, and are desperately seeking enforcement against the criminal activity that they say is disrupting their daily lives.

“The city has made a political decision on some level that this is tolerable,” said Bober, noting the worldwide publicity of the notorious knockoff handbag sales on Canal St.

The First and Fifth Precincts have made 1,700 vendor-related arrests in the last year, and have confiscated hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal counterfeit merchandise, according to Community Board 1 and Paul Cantor, a member of the First Precinct Community Council, who brought up the issue at C.B. 1’s April 21 Quality of Life Committee meeting.

The Police Department didn’t confirm these statistics by press time.

“It’s a very large and sophisticated criminal enterprise,” said Cantor, who along with other activists alleges that the leaders of the contraband trade have ties to child-labor trafficking and terrorism.

Illegal vendors in New York City, if charged, currently face imprisonment of up to three months and misdemeanor fines of between $250 and $1,000, according to state Senator Daniel Squadron’s Office. Unlicensed food vendors can also serve up to three years in jail if prosecuted, and are slapped with fines of between $150 and $1,000. Counterfeiters, meanwhile, can be sentenced to up to 15 years in jail and fined up to $5,000.

No city law, however, targets the demand side of the trade. City Councilmember Margaret Chin now wants to change that by proposing city legislation that would penalize the purchasers of the illegal Gucci and Louis Vuitton purses.

The law, if passed, would slam buyers caught in the act of purchasing counterfeit trademark merchandise with a misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Each item purchased would be subject to a separate violation.

“We really want to have a deterrent, so people know it’s not legal to buy this kind of stuff,” Chin said. When tourists and residents from elsewhere in the city venture Downtown, the councilwoman said, “we want them to patronize the stores, and buy the real things created by local designers and artists — not just come down and buy knockoffs.”

Chin is introducing the bill, co-sponsored by Councilmember Rosie Mendez, in the City Council on Thurs., April 28. A hearing on the legislation will then be scheduled, according to Chin’s office, before it is sent back to the Council for a full vote.

Tourist companies, in particular, help to encourage the counterfeit industry, according to Tribeca resident Brooke Larsen. Describing his neighborhood as a “hell zone,” he said he was pleased to hear about the proposed bill.

“The vendors started out as quite docile, with nobody looking at them or getting in their way for operating,” he said of the industry in the late ’90s and early 2000s. “Now, they’ve become much more aggressive and threatening.”

The sellers currently manage to circumvent the city’s heightened enforcement of the laws, Larsen noted, by furtively selling their merchandise out of large, black duffle bags on the sidewalks, then vanishing without being seen. Previously, he said, they would typically make sales inside parked vans.

Vendors and customers have been congregating on the corner of Lispenard and Church Sts. in recent months, Larsen reported, blocking his path back to his place when he comes home from the School of Visual Arts, where he teaches.

“It looked like a fair was being operated on my block — it was mind-boggling,” he said.

And one day last fall, four vendors surrounded Larsen and threatened him, trying to grab a camera he was using to take photos as evidence to present to the police.

“In a way, a part of our life has been destroyed,” he said. Once the vendors started to recognize him, he said, “It got to the point where I would have been afraid to let them see me get out of car.”

The unlawful industry also frightens and frustrates Tribeca resident Damien Loeb and his wife. Noting they pay “enormous” local taxes, they hope at least part of that will go toward counteracting the “rampant illegal activity” at the entrance to their Lispenard St. home.

Loeb said he has been spit at, verbally threatened and aggressively bumped by the street vendors, and has witnessed police officers hunting the illegal sellers down via binoculars from the rooftop of his residence. His wife, Loeb reported, has been crudely spoken to and is often diverted off the sidewalk and onto the street with the couple’s two infants in tow.

“I can deal with the fearless, super-sized rats and the flying trash, but threats and the appearance of a lawless zone is just ridiculous in the heart of one of Manhattan’s most vibrant and historical neighborhoods,” he said.

The trade has contributed to “all the known signs of urban blight,” Loeb added, including graffiti, drug dealing, littering and acts of violence.

Community Boards 1 and 2 recently teamed up to form the Canal St. Initiative, in which local residents, police officers and elected officials meet regularly to discuss counterfeit trade prevention methods.

Squadron has been corresponding with community members and local advocates in the last year to “find a legislative solution to the vending problem,” according to a spokesperson.

“When it comes to vending, today’s system simply doesn’t work,” said Squadron in a written statement. “We need a top-to-bottom overhaul to protect communities and those operating within the law.”

Squadron’s spokesperson wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the bill the senator is reportedly drafting. But Cantor said the objective would be to allow unlicensed general vending to become a “fingerprintable offense.”

“It’s a little bit of a political morass, but we’re making progress,” said Cantor of the initiative. If approved, Chin’s law, he said, could serve as a strong deterrent to the purchasing of the counterfeit goods. “A lot of laws have been generated for the supply side,” he continued, “but you need to address the demand side, also.”

The Downtown Alliance, a Lower Manhattan business improvement district, or BID, has also played an active role in combating illegal vending and the counterfeit trade. The BID’s public safety officers have been trained to track and document unlawful activity. Since 2008 the BID has worked with the Police Department to assign off-duty cops to monitor activity in and around the World Trade Center.

“Unlawful vending blocks street and sidewalk access for pedestrians and emergency vehicles, and diminishes the pedestrian experience that is so important to the people who work, live, study, visit and have invested in Lower Manhattan,” said Jeff Simmons, a spokesperson for the Alliance.

The Millennium Hilton Hotel, in the Financial District, has reportedly complained about vendors lining up along Church St. A hotel representative could not be reached for comment by press time.

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