Posted on 21 April 2010.
“Tee Gee” left this long and comprehensive reply to a short news update about Councilwoman Gonzalez’s vendor legislation for Sunset Park. I had noted it has been controversial, based in part on this article I came across quite a while ago, as well as some general tensions I know exist between local businesses and street vendors. I’ll continue to report on this, but in the mean time, here’s one neighborhood take on the proposed legislation. Keep scrolling to see the P.S. on local pols. Read and reply!
The Sunset Park Street Vending bill is one of the more amazing pieces of business to come before the City Council. For years, store-based businesses have complained about unfair competition from street vendors. They pointed out that the vendors were unlicensed, didn’t give receipts, didn’t guarantee goods, didn’t post prices, didn’t follow department of health regulations and were just unfair to rent paying businesses.
But when the Sunset Park Business Improvement District investigated on behalf of its member businesses (all store-based), they found that there were at least 3 different types of street vendors. One, were opportunistic folks who had regular jobs but came out just before holidays to sell inferior goods and knock-offs of name brands. The second type, were often recent immigrants who were selling on behalf of greedy business people who “charged” the vendors a ridiculous fee to vend their goods. These vendors were victims forced to vend aggressively just to break even for the day after prepaying the folks who sent them out. And the third type of vendor (which is predominant in Sunset Park) are recent immigrants who live in Sunset Park and are providing foods and goods that for the most part are not available in local stores.
After much investigation, the BID determined:
1. The city has not given vending licenses in so long that the wait is many years and thus most vendors do so illegally.
2. Sunset Park vendors want to be licensed and follow the regulations that stores follow but are subject to constant fines and sometimes arrest.
3. Daily sidewalk vending (not the ones who just appear before holidays) actually helps store-based businesses by increasing business throughout the district.
3. The BID and the local vendors agreed to develop a pilot program that would permit vendors on side streets (and not near stores with similar products and not on 5th Avenue). The vendors would follow a detailed list of regulations that the stores follow and in addition would provide assistance in maintaining the cleanliness of the avenue and especially the street corners. Their presence on the side streets would greatly promote the store located on side streets.
4. The Brooklyn Public Library and several other not-for-profits agreed to provide a package of free services for the vendors (mainly recent immigrants) and their families (and also for the store owners & their employees & families).
5. The BID put together this coalition of service providers that would provide these services:
a. English language development
b. Business skill development
c. Citizenship & Naturalization Assistance
d. Housing assistance
e. Assistance in navigating the school system
f. Career planning
g. Legal services
h. Health services.
The plan is much more detailed than my limited comment here. But basically it would recognize our local vendors as legitimate members of the business community and the community at large. It would embrace rather than attack these hardworking individuals. It would “jump start” our newest wave of future Americans into the role of active citizenship. Unlike the parents of many of us, who came to the U.S. two or more generations ago and had to wait for their children or children’s children to be viewed as “valid” citizens, our newest neighbors would be welcomed into the American dream. And America (I should point out that many of these immigrants are already Americans – South & Central & North, we misuse the term when what we mean is United States of America) would get a new boost of patriotism from these new citizens as they become proof that the American dream is real and not a trumped up scam.
In closing, this is not a compromise plan where everyone loses equally. This is instead, a very rare case of a true “win-win” situation. Needed services would come to the vendors, and numerous benefits would come to store-based businesses. And in the end, Sunset Park’s Main Street would be cleaner, offer a greater variety of goods, and become a fulfillment of the American dream.
I would like to add an additional comment about the Sunset Park Vending bill. The “family” of Sunset Park elected officials: Congresswoman Velazquez, Borough President Markowitz, our three State Senators – Montgomery, Adams & Savino, Assemblyman Ortiz, and City Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez are all strong supporters of the plan. Our Community Board has signed on and the Speaker of the City Council – Quinn has made its passage a priority.
But yet, the plan faces stiff opposition! And here is the reason why – street vending has two camps that have been fighting for generations. It is almost like the two sides in World War I. The sides are so deeply entrenched that “peace” seems impossible. There are vendors (not local ones) and there are store based businesses (again, not the local ones) who fear this bill’s passage. They mounted a stiff campaign of demonstrations at City Hall, letter writing and the lobbying of various elected officials.
The two sides have been enemies for so long that neither is willing to trust any changes in position except for total surrender by the other side. They have lost all ability to negotiate – and for good reason – thru the years, the City has modified the vending laws from time to time and each time, only made the situation worse by hurting both sides. So government in general has lost the trust of the two sides.
Another major problem is that Mayor Bloomberg’s advisors have backed away from the plan. When the plan was first proposed, they were in such strong support that they wanted to immediately begin the plan in several neighborhoods without even going before the City Council for passage of a bill. They were going to do it thru an Executive Order of the Mayor.
Sunset Park agreed to changes asked for by the Mayor’s people but insisted that the plan NOT be imposed on any community. We felt it was essential that a community ask for the plan to be tried – the general community and both the stores & the street vendors. Just like we wouldn’t want something imposed on Sunset Park, we wouldn’t want to impose our plan on another community.
But when the two deeply entrenched sides began lobbying the Mayor, his people dropped the plan like a hot potato. Their excitement became silence. They avoided phone calls from Sunset Park and adopted a cowardly policy worse than neutrality. They ignored that the plan was on the table at all.
For people who are fearful of the bill possibly not working as we imagine it will work, the response is simple. This is a pilot program that would end after one year if not renewed.
Some of us in Sunset Park will not forget that the Mayor had a chance to do something of major benefit for Sunset Park’s street vendors & businesses and instead took on the role of the Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion. The Sunset Park plan could have been the first step in resolving street vending problems throughout the city.