Pushcart War Escalates in Midtown

(photo by Mathew Katz)

From the turn of last century, when 25,000 pushcart peddlers plied their trade in Manhattan, street vending has been a foot in the door of the city’s economy for new immigrants. These days, one can’t walk a block in Midtown Manhattan without encountering advertising-emblazoned food trucks, and the aroma of Halal meat or roasting peanuts. But not everyone appreciates this fixture of today’s urban landscape.

DNAinfo reports that the 34th Street Partnership, a business improvement district that manages in the middle of Manhattan, is launching a campaign to clear many of the street vendors from Midtown:

“The problem is really simple: the food vendors, with about five exceptions, are the ugliest collection of miserable-looking vehicles we’ve ever seen,” said Dan Biederman, who heads up both the Partnership and the Bryant Park Corporation.

“The vendors are almost exclusively terrible citizens, they litter with impunity and are generally rude to anyone who asks them to clean up.”

Midtown isn’t the only neighborhood where business owners and vendors have clashed — restaurant owners in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, have expressed similar sentiments. Meanwhile, street vendors have complained that they’re subject to unfair and excessive fines, and that they are often exploited by those they rent licenses from.

The 34th Street Partnership has asked the city to reduce the number of licenses for vending and relocate vendors to other locations:

(photo by Mathew Katz)

The group also wants the remaining vendors to beautify their carts, using the few carts it finds attractive — including popular vendor Wafels and Dinges and the Fruit-n-Juice cart that’s typically around West 35th Street and Broadway — as a template.

The group has also made presentations in front of Community Board 5, asking for its input and arguing that a crackdown would make streets in Midtown more pleasant for residents, tourists and office workers alike.

Vendors and their advocates said a crackdown would be unfair:

“It’s a little bit crazy to call vendors ugly and take them away from the neighborhood,” said Matthew Shapiro, an attorney with the Street Vendor Project which advocates for the merchants.

“They can’t afford to invest in their businesses and make them look better because they’re always getting slammed with fines.”

Shapiro argued that the vendors provide important jobs to immigrant populations, and help bring moderately-priced food and merchandise to people who can’t afford Midtown’s more expensive offerings.

“When people think of New York, they think of street vendors,” Shapiro said. “They think of the hot dog cart. It’s part of the city.”

The campaign is still in its early stages, and its organizers conceded that they face an uphill battle:

“There’s not much of an impetus to change regulations right now,” Biederman said. “Something else can be done.

“This is the biggest complaint we get now that we’ve cleaned up litter, crime, and graffiti — and the city played a role in all of those.”

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