"I’ve been a part of many movements in my lifetime. I’m not unfamiliar with having to fight for my rights. I know how it is, so I’m thankful to you all for doing this work. It is really important.
I mean, if we could get permits, then we’re all good, right! But I’m not ready to put down my contact information yet. First I’m going to talk to the other vendors along 37th to see if they’ve heard of the Street Vendor Project, and then I’ll call your number.”
I met this vendor while doing outreach in Jackson Heights. His table was covered with a variety of merchandise, ranging from hijabs and tubes of henna to baseball caps and face masks.
Like other vendors I’d spoken to, he seemed more comfortable and open about his experiences selling on the street once I started talking in Bengali. Sharing the same language, the same accents and emphasis on the same words, created a greater sense of familiarity–––in an “I see you, I got you, we take care of each other” type of way. During street outreach to speak with vendors, I’ve witnessed this sense of community care over and over again. One uncle insisted on holding an umbrella open for me and another intern to protect us from the sun while we all spoke. And I’ve had to shove money in tip jars and semi-sprint away on multiple occasions after vendors with major aunty/uncle energy pushed free food into my hands. And this care goes beyond language barriers; vendors are the eyes and ears of the street, watching over each other’s carts and making folks feel safe in spaces that are often overlooked by city planners. In front of neglected train stations and empty storefronts, vendors are there, even after dark, brightening up the sidewalk with their colorful stands.
While shared language and similar identities help create a certain bond and level of trust, when it comes to organizing there is often still slight caution with vendors we’ve just met for the first time. Although the merchandise vendor gave us a lot of useful information on the presence of police and the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) in the area, he was still very careful with giving out personal information. Considering how the city targets and over-polices street vendors, most of whom are low-income immigrants and people of color, this distance is very valid and understandable.
The over-policing of vendors is evident in the ridiculously high fines for small violations, limited number of licenses and permits, number of restricted streets and limits on when folks can sell, and the many cases of police harassing vendors and confiscating their carts. Local Law 18 of 2021 helped increase the number of permits available to food vendors, and helped shift street vendor enforcement away from the NYPD by creating the civilian Office of Street Vending Enforcement; however, there still aren’t enough permits and licenses available to meet the demand, and vendors are still harassed and discriminated against by the police and DCWP. The City’s continuous investment in more police and its campaign against vendors intersects with aggressive crackdowns on homeless folks and fare evasion. This emphasizes how ultimately these campaigns are not about investing in and protecting our communities, but about policing low-income New Yorkers.
To survive in a world where they are aggressively policed, vendors rely on the relationships they’ve created with one another. When the merchandise vendor responded that he’d check in with other vendors in the area about the Street Vendor Project (SVP), I was reminded of something we do at our general membership meetings. All vendors and allies stand in a circle, throw our hands up together, and chant “Vendor Power!” in various languages.
Vendors are more powerful when they come together; they help each other survive by sharing knowledge and resources, by letting each other know who is safe to talk to, by going through “know your rights” training together, by role playing ‘what to do when approached by enforcement’ at our meetings. “Vendor Power!” is spoken with the same strength, solidarity, and love for community as the chants “Who keep us safe? We keep us safe!” and “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido (the people united will never be defeated!)” used in protest centralized on Black and Brown people and other people of color.
There is no one better to lead the fight for street vendor rights than street vendors themselves, because they know the streets and have established trust and care for each other. This is why SVP is membership-based, and why vendors drive our organizing work.
The struggles of New York’s smallest businesses are a result of larger histories of systemic racial exclusion, anti-immigrant sentiment codified into law, and lack of investment in marginalized communities. Vendors are aware of these histories and are not afraid to fight back, whether they are fighting through the courts, marching on the streets, or just establishing their right to be there by showing up at their spot day after day.
While walking along Junction Blvd or Roosevelt Avenue, I am welcomed by the comforting sound of sizzling oil, by the endless rows of bright scarves and linens, by the scent of familiar spices wafting into the air. My conversations with vendors I’ve known for a while sound like catching up with old friends. And when I check in with one vendor, I usually end up meeting the entire block, being introduced and reintroduced and offered several cups of tea during it all. Vendors are integral to making New York City feel like home —- not just for the communities they serve, but also for each other. In the face of displacement and exclusion, the love and labor vendors put into their work help hold our communities together. This blog will attempt to translate that love and labor into words and pictures, but to truly understand it, you’ll just have to visit all our wonderful street vendors!