‘We Are Afraid of Working Like This, but Do Not Have a Choice’

Agustina Vazquez and her husband, Miguel de la Cruz sell ices on West 125th Street in Harlem. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Agustina Vazquez and her husband, Miguel de la Cruz sell ices on West 125th Street in Harlem. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Agustina Vásquez has been trying to create a life for herself selling little things in the street for years. She says that she has sold everything in the 20 years that she has lived in the Big Apple, but lately she tries to bring some money home selling ices in Harlem and Upper Manhattan, with the help of a little cart that she pays $600 for each month.

Agustina does not complain about working hard, but looking at her is enough to see that fatigue consumes her and the sun burns her face mercilessly, but she is scared when she sees the police pass by.

The Mexican woman – a mother of two children, ages 11 and 8, both born in the United States – confesses that since she does not possess the licenses that the authorities require to make her sales in the street, she has had to begin playing a game of cat and mouse with the police and city officials so that they do not catch her. Her biggest fear is that they fine her and take away her cart.

“We are extremely scared of working like this, but we don’t have any other choice,” said the woman, while she sells her ices for $1 at a subway station. “If they get me, where am I going to get the money to pay those $1,000 or $2,000 tickets that they’re giving out and how will I take care of my children. It is not fair that they hound us like this instead of issuing more licenses already and fixing this.”

The woman, originally from Guerrero, is referring to a particular measure in New York with respect to issuing licenses to those who sell food, because although vendors are willing to follow the laws and pay for these permits, they cannot do so. Since 1979, the issuance of new permits was frozen and those who have them have developed a wild black market, charging as much as $25,000 for a paper originally worth $200.

“God is helping us a lot, because I ask him every day when I leave for work to not let anything happen to us because many of us have had our carts taken away,” said the mother.

Such was the case for Miguel de la Cruz, also from Mexico, who as a vendor was the victim of police abuse, according to him. “They arrested me twice. They took me with everything and the cart on Saint Nicholas. They left and came back. They took me with everything and the cart, with everything and the boxes of new ice cream that I had bought. They threw me in there for 24 hours as punishment and took the ice cream,” he recalls. “Just like that I lost around $500. The street is very tough and with these fines, it is even worse.”

Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project Association at the Urban Justice Center, who advocates for the city to find a solution to the crisis facing street vendors, called for authorities to stop viewing them as criminals.

“For a long time, the city has seen street vendors as a problem. This must change. Now is the time for the police department, the mayor, and the City Council to recognize that vendors are an asset to our society,” he commented. “They should give them work permits and recognize them as small business owners that need to be helped, not prosecuted, fined, or arrested.”

Similarly, activist Basma Eid called for an end to hostility against vendors that make their living on the street every day.

“No one deserves to work in a state of fear and constant harassment, in a city marked by growing inequality,” she said. “We need to see that the criminalization of street vendors ends so that our communities can prosper.”

And although the City Council has repeatedly said that it is reviewing a bill to resolve the issue of street vendors, as of now no proposal has been introduced formally and they continue analyzing the issue.

“The Council president is keeping all of the options open, including raising the limit (of licenses) completely,” said a spokesperson for the Council.

And in terms of complaints by the vendors against the police, an NYPD spokesperson said that the officers will continue their work, according to the law, and warned that those who do not have the necessary permits will continue to face fines.

“We will continue to give tickets to those vendors who do not have a valid license,” said a spokesperson.

The authorities’ answer does not surprise Mexican native María Montalvo, who sells fresh juices and popcorn in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and has received several fines that she has no way of paying.

“We do not matter to them. They gave me two tickets, each for $1,000, and another that does not have a price because I do not have a food license, but where am I going to get one if this is all frozen,” she said. “It’s as though they are making fun of us.”

Street Vendor Data

  • According to the Department of Consumer Affairs in New York, there are 2,558 street vendors with licenses.
  • Most street vendors are war veterans who receive this benefit without any limit by state law.
  • There are also 853 licenses that do not belong to veterans, a number that has reached its maximum limit.
  • Unofficial figures estimate that approximately 20,000 street vendors walk the streets in New York every day.
  • The granting of new licenses for street carts was frozen in 1979 and only 5,000, which have already been issued, are renewed each year. These tend to be rented out, promoting the so-called black market.
  • The actual cost of these licenses is $200 for two years, but vendors complain that the black market rents them for anywhere between $18,000 to $25,000.
  • Street vendors in NY bring in revenues of $192 million each year.
  • Their sales amount to $292 million each year.
  • They pay $71.2 million in taxes to the city.

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