Image by Sarah Khan
The borough of Queens, New York, is one of the most diverse places on the planet, with more than 138 languages spoken in the public school system. More than half of the borough’s population over the age of five speaks a mother tongue other than English, including not only Spanish and Chinese, but also Bengali, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Italian, Tagalog, Greek, Urdu, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, and Hebrew.
You can experience that diversity by eating from one of hundreds of different food carts lining six-mile-long Roosevelt Avenue. The carts are run by some of the many immigrants who turn to street-food vending as a way to get an economic foothold in a new country.
But it’s not an easy path to security, in part because of New York City policies that cap the number of legal permits for food vendors. Although there are more than 20,000 street vendors in New York City, according to the Street Vendor Project, the city council caps the number of legal food cart permits at just over 4,000. This means that many people vending food are doing so illegally, or with permits obtained on the black market. Vendors can pay up to $25,000 for a black market permit—or else they sell food illegally and risk being fined and even arrested.
That may be about to change as a result of years of pressure to lift the cap. The city council plans to take up a proposal to gradually double the number of available permits over seven years, so that 600 more vendors will be able to sell legally each year.
“Queens has a dizzying assortment of vendors catering to almost every taste and nationality, depending on the time of day,” journalist Sarah K. Khan explained recently during a visit to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Khan has created a series of films highlighting the cultural and economic contributions of diverse food producers as well as the challenges street vendors face in their struggle for economic justice.
“We just want the simple right to work,” says Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center in one of Khan's films. At an April 2016 demonstration Basinski told the crowd, “We’ve been asking the [New York City] council for two years to lift that cap on licenses, lift that cap on permits, and give us the right to work.”
Muhammad Attia, a food vendor at the rally declared,
“There is a big problem in New York…No vendor nowadays can go get a permit from the city. You get arrested. You get a $1,000 ticket.”
Attia and Basinski are working together on a campaign to convince the New York City Council to lift the cap on the number of vendors.
This is far from just a New York City issue. Many large U.S. cities, citing fears of congestion, sanitation, competition with brick-and-mortar businesses, and noise, have refused to revisit outdated laws, as in New York; create a plethora of barriers as in Chicago (where rules state vendors must move every two hours); or even ban street food vending altogether, as in Los Angeles. Dislike of street vending can also be thinly veiled discrimination, recently exhibited in the “taco truck on every corner” comment by Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group Latinos for Trump. Nor is this a new issue. Progressive era urban reformers in New York infamously described vendors as “The Pushcart Evil.”
But street vending may be gaining a foothold. Advocates describe it as a key avenue for people who don’t have access to the capital to start restaurants to otherwise build a business. They point out that street vendors create jobs, pay federal and city taxes, contribute enormously to the cultural and culinary vibrancy of a city, not to mention fulfill a need in rapidly expanding cities of urban dwellers seeking a quick bite.
In her films, Khan puts human faces to this issue, showcasing the tenacity and drive of diverse immigrant food vendors in Queens, as well as their vulnerability. In one film a young woman named Évelia, from Tlaxcala, Mexico, describes her efforts to sell tamales near Roosevelt and Junction Avenues in Corona, Queens, New York. “I worked near the twin towers and lost my job when they came down,” the young woman explains. “I had to do something. I had to send money to Mexico and didn’t know English.”
She says she was arrested more than six times in 2001 and 2002 for selling food illegally.
“They yell at you to get out and throw your tamales in the garbage,” Évelia remembers. “When they arrested me, I felt really horrible. I cried. But I had this courage inside. I would sell and see the police and take everything and run.”
After saving for several years the intrepid Évelia was able to purchase a cart and a legal permit for $8,000. At least she thought it was legal. Two months later she was told, upon an inspection, that is was a fake. Her cart was shut down.
Évelia is now “renting” a permit on the black market.
“It’s very expensive,” she says, “but I have my little cart and now I can work. I’m mas tranquila, mas tranquila.”
New York’s “Street Vending Modernization Act” would aim to protect vendors like Évelia by making it easier to obtain legal permits. It also includes rules to create a dedicated enforcement unit to help ensure that rules are followed. Approximately 2,500 people are currently on the list for full-time permits.
“While it is not everything we wanted, City Council is proposing a major step forward that will change the lives of 4,000+ vendors and their families,” the Street Vendor Project has announced on their Facebook page. The bill is being introduced at a rally this Thursday October 13, at 10 a.m. at City Hall. The New York City Council meets October 26th.
Mrill Ingram is online media editor for The Progressive.