It’s hard to imagine New York City without a vital part of its landscape: street vendors. There are approximately 20,000 people throughout the city who sell not just food but also accessories and essentials like masks according to The Street Vendor Project, a membership-based organization with a mission to secure fair working conditions for vendors in NYC.
Before the pandemic, street vendors were challenged with bureaucratic obstacles. There is still a cap on the number of vendors who can sell merchandise, and while there is none for food vendors, securing a health permit is hard given the limits and long wait time — up to 10 years.
The past year-plus has added a new set of unprecedented hurdles, and the Street Vendor Project’s first NYC street vendor scavenger hunt between Nov. 14 and Dec. 14 will help the vendors who have struggled to rebound in the pandemic.
We spoke with Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, The Street Vendor Project’s Deputy Director, and Ms. Julia Urdiales, a Brooklyn-based ice cream and mango vendor, to find out what the current climate look likes for street vendors.
What are the biggest challenges that members of The Street Vendor Project are currently facing?
Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez: I think for some, the city reopening is great news for folks in Midtown. They’re starting to see a bit more foot traffic. It’s still definitely nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, but folks are starting to see a little bit more business in that sense. Same with everyday vendors who are working in the outer boroughs. The business is pretty similar and can only pick up as there’s more foot traffic. But unfortunately, reopening has not been good for vendors, regardless of how much business has increased. Unfortunately, the first thing the city has done has been to target vendors.
First, they were excluded from relief for the most part. Whether it was due to immigration status or vendors having been excluded from the formalized economy for so long, they don’t have the paperwork to apply for any type of grants or loans that were available to small businesses. Then, folks can be classified as gig economy workers. So it’s not only that it was incredibly difficult to be excluded from every form of relief, but now the only attention that the vendors are getting from the city is through fines.
How do street vendors deal with being seen as competition for brick-and-mortar businesses?
Kaufman-Gutierrez: I think that that type of view is really unfortunate because it’s not grounded in any facts. There’s no study ever conducted that shows that street vendors are siphoning business from brick-and-mortars. Rather, it’s the opposite. It’s about what makes a successful commercial corridor and that’s variety and options and liveliness.
And so really what we try to do, is to emphasize how synergistic that relationship can be when vendors also have the same sort of support rather than being consistently targeted for fines; rather than being scapegoated for any issues that may be facing brick-and-mortars. Saying, “No, if we can work together, this is the foundation of a successful commercial corridor. A foundation of bringing more people, more foot traffic, and offering different varieties.” Vendors and brick-and-mortars often have different economies of scale. Vendors are selling fewer things and different things. They have lower overhead, but they also are making less.
You are trying to people’s perception of street vendors — how so?
Kaufman-Gutierrez: There has been a lot of dehumanization of street vendors, specifically by real estate or opposition that wants to erase street vendors. And so words [are] used like, “vendors are dirty” or different narratives that are promoted that are done to erase them. And so a lot of work that we do is to change that narrative, a lot through social media, a lot through some of the food distribution programs that we were running throughout the pandemic, as well, to say, no vendors are a critical part of New York City.
Even the folks who sell hot dogs and pretzels, they’re still on every postcard. This is something tourists look for when they come to New York. And so we want to celebrate the long history of street vending in New York, celebrate the impact on the tourist industry, and at the same time, expand notions of what people see street vendors as. So highlighting some of the diverse food options, where vendors come from, to show how it’s an industry that’s very representative of New York.
How can New Yorkers support street vendors?
Kaufman-Gutierrez: That’s a great question because the only way that anything will change for vendors, is if people are expressing that they want vendors to stay. That they want vendors to have more opportunities, they appreciate street vending. And so there’s a couple of different avenues that people can take. One is calling their city council members or calling their state representatives to share with them how they appreciate street vending, and that they want more opportunities for vendors, and for the cap on permits and licenses to be eliminated.
Another thing they can do is social media. It’s a very effective tool because we’re working on a narrative change. So amplifying stories of street vendors, talking to the street vendors that they meet, getting to know them and sharing their stories, highlighting the community.
Another way, and unfortunately this is the case where vendors do get harassed by city agencies. They get fined, and oftentimes vendors are in vulnerable positions, where they are not comfortable filming, or they’re not comfortable documenting what’s going on. So, if an everyday person is seeing something like this happening, film it. That story can be shared and the vendor feels supported. It’s so crucial, the support is so needed for vendors to have a sustainable place in New York City.
How did you get started in street vending?
Julia Uriales: I’ve been selling for about 20 years now, in this spot [Fulton Street] for 15 years. When I first arrived, I had some relatives that were also street vendors, and they introduced me to suppliers. For the most part, I sell ice cream, and sometimes, I might sell mangos. Usually ice cream from April to September. When the weather gets colder, I switch to mangoes; not too many mangos.
How has the pandemic affected the cost of doing business?
Uriales: One way has been of course, that sales have been really low; people are less willing to buy food-related items. But also the area where I work, there is just less foot traffic or too many other places. Suppliers are charging a little bit more for products, not that much, but a bit. 1 unit used to go for $24 but now it’s rounded it up to $25. A slight increase. The economic impact has been great. Before the pandemic, I sold on a good day, about $200 worth of product, now I’m not selling even $100. The quality of life has gone down.
How can readers help support you and your business?
Uriales: Permits. The best way for anybody to help us in helping to get the permits to sell. It’s frustrating to deal with city agencies who are not letting us work properly.