“Everyone over here knows each other well. I met most of the people selling here a long time ago, right after I came from Bangladesh. You just kind of get to know everyone, and people help each other out. Even for my previous work, I met someone and asked them if they could get me a job and they said “okay, you can come work for me.” And all the vendors working in front of TD Bank are my close friends.”
Colorful hijabs drape over the side of MD Ramij Uddin’s table. Crates full of prayer mats are placed next to rows of prayer beads (tasbihs), azan clocks, copies of the Quran, and random merchandise like face masks. Uddin’s table sits in a corner of Diversity Plaza, surrounded by mini paan shops, Kabab King, the food court Ittadi Garden and Grill, and racks of South Asian clothing floating around the street.
When another intern Awestaa and I first introduced ourselves to MD Ramij, he outlined a map of other vendors he thought we should talk to, waving his hands to mimic the intersecting avenues and streets around his corner. MD Ramij has an endless amount of knowledge of where people’s usual spots are, including where Afghan vendors are located for Awestaa, who speaks Farsi, to talk to.
MD Ramij specifically pointed us towards his friends on the block in front of TD Bank. It became clear that this block doesn’t operate as individual vendors, but works more as a unit, with the vendors knowing not only their own businesses, but everyone’s on the block like the back of their hands. One of the vendors working on this block is Kamal Nasser, who filed the lawsuit in 2014 to offer specialized licenses to veterans with mental disabilities. When Nasser leaves briefly for afternoon prayer, his neighboring vendor, MD Munaf, always steps in to watch over his table. Munaf rattles off the prices he’s memorized for each piece of clothing when customers come up to sift through them, all while keeping an eye on his own business.
The “TD block” is a relationship-based ecosystem of vendors who protect and nourish one another, and this is made even clearer when merchandise vendor MD Nasir Uddin is able to casually walk up to one of the halal carts and grab two free cold sodas. One is for himself and one is for me, serving as very temporary relief for the hottest day of the week while we chat about why he first started vending.
“Before I would work in a supermarket in Manhattan. They wouldn’t give me my hours correctly, some weeks they’d give me 30, 15, 20, they’d change it or decrease it. Here, I can make my own hours.”
MD Nasir expressed how he felt exploited by the supermarket he previously worked at, which would either underpay him for the full hours he’d worked or randomly change his schedule without notice. Other people I’d spoken to also echoed that they started vending for more control over their own labor. Particularly, they are able to step away for prayer on time without judgment, and actually have a strong network of “coworkers” to support them. MD Ramij also added that people with disabilities have greater agency in determining their own physical and mental limits, and don’t have to fear punishment from their supervisor for needing to change their schedules. They are able to actually listen to their bodies, and put their health first (rest is resistance!)
Rather than having an exploitative and paternalistic power dynamic between boss and worker, the vendors around Diversity Plaza and TD Bank are able to work as a community of workers with respect for one another and care for the streets they work on. While vendors are often blamed for trash, many people I spoke to talked about how they worked with other vendors to collaboratively clean around their area. This coordination is not unique to Jackson Heights either, with the 90 food and merchandise vendors in Corona Plaza also coming together to write up a community agreement on managing trash, make a map of each vendor’s spot to avoid future conflicts, and elect people to form a Corona Plaza Vendors Association. For the Bengali vendors in Jackson Heights, Kamal Nasser and MD Nasir Uddin have been unofficially elected as organizers because of the trust they’ve created with each person on the block and because they’ve become familiar with people’s schedules.
The Corona Plaza street vendors’ drawn-up map of their spots, figuring out how to share space efficiently.
Vendors are putting in the work to organize themselves and share space efficiently. They have invested in and created self-governing systems out of nothing, and have shown up for each other when the city has not. However, it is difficult to make progress with their productive visions of city planning when they are constantly threatened by the NYPD and DCWP. Even just recently, the Corona vendors’ meeting on August 4 was stopped by the police and officials from the DCWP coming to fine vendors. And in Jackson Heights, the DCWP intentionally came to ticket vendors the day before Eid because that is when the religious merchandise vendors get the most business. According to vendors, the DCWP stayed until 6 PM and so they couldn’t start selling until the late evening. Many vendors I talked to repeated that while they appreciated how vending gives them collective power over their work, they obviously do not want to work illegally and in constant fear.
Something that came to mind as I was speaking with the Bengali Jackson Heights vendors was the labor movements documented in “Eat This!”, the Fall/Winter 2000 edition of the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection. The magazine covers everything from undocumented South Asian workers in New York restaurants demanding better working conditions to self-reliant and sustainable village economies back home in the countries we came from. From Bangladesh to Jackson Heights, the organizing work of vendors in New York City is part of a larger global labor movement to demand work autonomy, and demand participation in the informal economy without fear, policing, or paternalism from larger governing bodies and corporations.