You are on page 1of 25

Ryan Devlin

CP 290-Final Paper
Introduction
From the beginning, street vending has been a common economic strategy for

newcomers to New York City, and from the beginning city administrators have been

faced with the challenge of managing and regulating vending activity. The phenomenon

of street vending presents a unique problem, especially in a city such as New York.

Informal street vending serves an important purpose, especially in immigrant

neighborhoods. From the itinerant Irish and African American peddlers of the Five

Poi
ntsi
nthe1
860’
s,t
otheJ
ewi
sha
ndI
tal
ianp
ushc
artme
rch
ant
son the Lower East Side

i
nthe19
20’
s,t
otheMe
xic
an, Senegalese and Chinese vendors of today, vending has

served as a source of employment for newcomers and an important source of low cost

goods for immigrant consumers (Gaber 1993). As it has been for decades, informal

vending is an important lubricant of commercial and social life in immigrant

neighborhoods. On the other hand, many taxpaying, formal businesses see informal

vendors as unfair competition. Real estate interests also tend to see informal street

vendors as a blight and a detriment to property values.

From time to time, city administrators are pressured by these interest groups to


dos
ome
thi
ng”about the street vending problem. A successful crackdown takes a large

amount of resources, and the political benefits are often limited. Nevertheless,

crackdowns have occurred over the course of history. The objective of this paper is to

explore the economic, political and regulatory contexts of two vending crackdowns-

Fi
ore
ll
oLa
Gua
rdi
a’swa
ront
hep
ushc
art
sdur
ingt
he1
930’
san
dRud
olp
hGi
uli
ani
’s
c
ampa
igna
gai
nsts
tr
eetv
end
orson12
5thSt
ree
tdur
ingt
he19
90’
s,i
nor
dert
oun
der
st
and

when, why and how crackdowns on street vending occur.

Regulation and the Informal Economy

The informal economic sector is by definition created by the state. The state

makes the laws, and laws determine what is legal economic activity and what is illegal.

Before discussing how regulations and the state shape, define and create the informal

s
ect
or,
itwi
llb
eus
efu
ltoc
lar
if
ywh
ate
xac
tl
yisme
antb
ythet
erm“
inf
orma
lec
onomy”
.

In its broadest sense, the informal economy means any economic transaction that

takes place outside the regulatory apparatus. Saskia Sassen refines the definition a bit,

stating that informal economic activity involves “
thepr
oduc
ti
ona
nds
aleofgo
odst
hat

are licit, but produced and/or sold outside the regulatory apparatus covering zoning, tax,

he
alt
han
dsa
fet
y,mi
nimumwa
gel
aws
,an
dot
hert
ype
sofs
tanda
rds
”(Sassen 1988, 1).

The distinction made here by Sassen between licit and illicit goods in an

important one for both analytical and theoretical purposes. The informal economy,

according to this line of thought is not the same as what has been termed the


unde
rgr
oun
d”o
rcr
imi
nale
conomy(
Gabe
r19
93)
. The key distinction between the

informal and criminal economy lies with the good being produced or sold. Unlike the

informal economy, whose goods are licit, the criminal or underground economy involves

the production and/or sale of goods that are themselves illegal.

Although the line is important to draw, it can become blurry when discussing

informal vending. First let us look at a cut and dry example: both the production and sale

of cocaine is illegal in New York. There is no way (that I am aware of) that a person can

purchase legally produced cocaine in the city. The good itself is illegal and illegal under
any circumstances. On the other hand pirated DVDs and bootleg purses, two items

commonly sold by unlicensed vendors, can be more difficult to define. I place the sale of

these items in the informal economy based on the following rationale. Purses and DVDs

as a commodity can be bought and sold legally across the city. The goods themselves are

legal. What makes these goods illegal is the way they are produced, therefore, sale of
1
t
hes
eit
emsf
itSa
sse
n’sde
fin
iti
onoft
hei
nfor
male
con
omy.

Understanding how the state creates and regulates informality has been an

important concern of many scholars. The most influential work on this topic has been

done Patricia Fernandez Kelly and Anna Garcia. According to these authors there are

two fundamental aspects of the state which play a role in creation of the informal sector.

t
First,hes
tat
eisa
naut
onomou
sac
tor
.St
at
es“
aren
otapa
ssi
ver
efl
ect
ion
sof

s
oci
oec
ono
mica
ndpo
lit
ica
lpr
oce
sse
s”(
Fer
nan
dezKe
ll
yandGa
rci
a19
89,
250)
.Ra
the
r

they are able to enact policies in a relatively autonomous manner, paying close attention

to, but still largely independent of socioeconomic pressures.

The second characteristic involves the structure of governmental authority in the

United States. On the national and the local level, decision making power in the U.S. is

fragmented among a number of semi-autonomous, sometimes competing jurisdictions

a
nda
genc
ies
.Thi
sfr
agme
nta
ti
on“
oft
enl
eadst
ocon
tra
dic
tor
ypr
act
ic
esa
ndp
oli
ci
es”

(ibid, 250). These contradictory practices and policies in turn, open the door to informal

activity.

1
Note a contradiction here. Both bootleg DVDs and sweatshop produced clothing violate laws dealing
with production. In is interesting to note that in the case of bootleg DVDs, whose illegal production
methods injure only corporations, the sale of these products is strictly forbidden. Neither licensed nor
unlicensed businesses can sell bootleg DVDs. However, in the case of clothing, whose illegal production
methods violate labor laws and affect workers, the sale of these items is permitted. It is not illegal for a
retailer to sell clothing produced in violation of labor laws. An interesting contradiction, but a topic for
another paper.
The autonomy of the state as a decision making entity coupled with the

fragmented nature of authority are two critical facts to keep in mind when studying the

relationship between regulations and the informal economy. These two factors are

endemic attributes of states, and are present in every municipality in the country.

However, informal activity is not present to the same degree everywhere. While

variations in informal economic activity of course have much to do with local economic

conditions, local states also actively influence the degree to which informal activity is

present. Fernandez Kelly and Garcia identify three ways municipalities actively

encourage the formation of the informal economy: (1) legislation, (2) enforcement, and

(3) contradictory agency mandates.

I
ndi
scus
sin
gle
gis
lat
ion
’se
ffe
ctso
ninf
orma
lac
tiv
ityFe
rna
nde
zKe
ll
yan
dGa
rci
a

focus on the tendency for legislation to create loopholes or grey areas in the laws that

encourage informal activity to emerge. In the case of labor regulations, they show that

t
hei
nfor
male
con
omy“
canbea
lte
redde
pend
ingona
nima
gina
ti
vea
ppl
ic
ati
onofl
abor

l
egi
sl
at
ion”(
ibi
d,2
53)
.Int
hec
aseo
fst
ree
tve
ndi
ng,
legi
sl
at
iona
lsopl
aysa
nimpo
rta
nt

role in creating the informal sector, but in a different manner than that demonstrated by

t
hea
uth
ors
.Iti
sno
tlo
oph
ole
sinNe
wYor
k’ss
tr
eetve
ndi
ngl
awst
hate
nco
ura
ge

informality, but quite the contrary, it is the overly restrictive nature of the laws that drives

many vendors to do business informally. A look at the current New York City vending

regulations provide an excellent example of this process.

Immigrant entrepreneurs looking to become legal street vendors face a number of

barriers. Applications and all necessary information are available in English only and

one must be a citizen or legal resident to apply for a license. This certainly makes
obtaining a license inconvenient for some and impossible for others. There is, however,

another more fundamental barrier to becoming a legal street vendor in New York: the city

will not let you. Currently, with only a few exceptions, no one, citizen or undocumented

immigrant, native English speaker or non-English speaker can obtain legal authorization

to sell goods on the street in New York City.

In 1988 former mayor Ed Koch instituted a cap on licenses that limited the

number of legal vendors to 853 general merchandise vendors (under the jurisdiction of

the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs) and 3,000 mobile food vendors

(under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health) (Gaber 1993). The number of

vending licenses remains the same today as it was in 1988. The static nature of the

license cap does not reflect a lack of demand. On the contrary, there are over one

thousand people currently on the waiting list to obtain a general merchandise vending

license.2 The waiting time for a license is over 25 years and as a consequence, even the

waiting list is now closed. If a prospective vendor visits the Department of Consumer

Affairs (DCA) Business Licensing Guide online, he or she receives the following

di
she
art
eni
ngme
ssa
ge:“
TheDCAwa
iti
ngl
is
tforno
n-veteran applicants is currently

closed. The waiting list will not re-open for further registration until we have run through
3
e
the current pool of non-vte
rana
ppl
ic
ant
s”

The above message does mention one of the few exceptions to the general

merchandise vending cap. In 1894 New York State passed a law granting special

consideration to street vendors who are veterans. This archaic law, which has been

2
NYC Business Solutions Street Vending Guide. Available online at
http://www.nyc.gov/html/sbs/html/nycbs/pdfs/pdfs_bsc/streetvendors.pdf
3
New York City Department of Consumer Affairs Business Licensing Guide. Available online at
http://www.nyc.gov/html/dca/html/094.html
challenged and upheld several times, most recently in 1990 (Lee 1990) allows veterans to

apply for and receive vending licenses above and beyond the cap limit. The second

major exception involves the sale of printed material which is considered free speech and

protected under the First Amendment. Vendors do not need a license to sell books,

magazines or any other type of printed material.

In addition to regulations governing the licensing of vendors, there is also a

tortuously long list of regulations dictating where and when licensed vendors can do

business. On some streets vending is allowed during the weekends but not during

weekdays. On others vending is permitted only during certain hours on certain days.

Others still have total bans on vending, regardless of the day or time. To add even more

complexity, the rules differ depending on what is being sold.

The cumulative effect of space and time restrictions is that licensed vendors are

generally banned from the busiest streets and neighborhoods of the city during peak

b
usi
nes
shour
s,t
her
ebyde
cre
asi
ngc
ompe
tit
ionf
ors
tor
esa
ndr
est
aur
ant
sint
hec
it
y’s

business districts. A licensed vendor who chooses to follow the letter of the law will

often find himself relegated to quiet side streets with light foot traffic. This may prevent

crowding on main thoroughfares (the ostensible reason usually given for the policy) but

restricting street vendors to quiet streets is like restricting gas stations to jogging trails;

hardly the ideal business environment.

The current New York City vending laws make it practically impossible to

become a licensed street vendor, and make it very difficult for even licensed vendors to

do business legally. Therefore, rather than keeping vendors off the streets, New York

City vending laws, by not reflecting the actual demand for licenses and by banning
vendors from the most economically productive spaces, play a large role in encouraging

informal vending to take place.

Of course, strict laws would not encourage informal vending practices if resources

were provided for the enforcement of these laws. Regulations alone do not lead to

informalization. It is when regulations are coupled with the two other factors identified

by Fernandez Kelly and Garcia, enforcement and conflicting mandates of agencies, that

we see the full picture of how the state actively encourages informal activity to take

place.

Enforcement of certain laws is made difficult by budgetary and staff limitations

(Fernandez Kelly and Garcia 1989). Not all laws are given equal amount of resources for

enforcement. Fernandez Kelly and Garcia demonstrate how the lack of resources

provided for enforcement of labor laws in Los Angeles encourages informal labor

practices. New York State and City are also notorious for paltry resources provided for

labor enforcement, for instance in 1997 the New York State Apparel Industry Task Force

had five inspectors responsible for monitoring 4,000 garment factories (Kwong 1997,

177).

The varying amount of resources provided for the enforcement of particular laws

is an unofficial statement of priorities by governing officials. As Fernandez Kelly and

Ga
rci
apu
titi
nthec
aseoft
hema
nuf
act
uri
ngi
ndus
tr
y,“
thea
bil
it
yorf
ail
uret
oenf
orce

wage and hour legislation cannot be seen as a random occurrence or as the unwelcome

result of scarce resources. Rather, it must be seen as an expression of relative tolerance

o
nth
epa
rto
fst
ater
epr
ese
nta
ti
vesf
ori
ll
ega
lpr
act
ic
es”(
Fer
nan
dezKe
ll
yand Garcia

1989, 254).
The same holds true for street vending. In 1987, the New York City created the

Street Peddler Task Force, consisting of 34 officers (Lii 1996). While this is significantly

higher than the 5 labor inspectors in the garment industry, when compared to the number

of street vendors doing business in the city, the number of officers is grossly insufficient.

Simply taking into account the 3,854 licensed vendors we get a ratio of one officer for

every 113 vendors. If we add the commonly cited number of 7,000 unlicensed vendors to

the total, it produces a ratio of one officer for every 294 vendors. Hardly a statement of

priority by the city.

These numbers are admittedly a bit misleading, for the Street Vendor Task Force

is only a supplement to the main law enforcement arm of New York City, the NYPD. If

one adds the number of regular, uniformed police officers to the 34 officers of the Task

Force, the ratio looks a bit more manageable. But this brings us to the third and final way

the state encourages the formation of the informal economy: contradictory mandates of

government agencies.

The fragmentation of government means that within cities, the agendas and

priorities of government agencies can often conflict and even, at times, be completely

contradictory. In the case of street vending, there are no less than six city agencies with

jurisdiction over vending activity.4 The Departments of Consumer Affairs and Health

have primary jurisdiction, as they are the ones in charge of licensing vendors and

formulating the regulations. However, the responsibility for day to day enforcement falls

primarily on the Police Department.

4
The six agencies are: Department of Consumer Affairs, Department of Health, Department of Sanitation,
Department of Transportation, the Parks Department and the Police Department (Gaber 1993).
It should come as no surprise that enforcing vending regulations, which can at

times be tediously complex, is not a priority for police officers in New York. Officially

arresting a vendor can be a laborious and time consuming process for police. Police must

confiscate the goods, which may require calling a van to transport them to the station.

The officer must then transport the vendor to the station, and show up at a court date to

testify against the vendor (Gaber 1993).

Rather than enforce the laws strictly, as the Department of Consumer Affairs or

Department of Health may prefer them to do, police commonly negotiate regulations

informally with vendors, often times without a word being spoken. These informal

negotiations are manifested across the city in choreographed cat and mouse games whose

rules and rhythms are implicitly understood by both vendors and police officers (Lii

1996, Sontag 1993). Two examples of these negotiations from New York Times articles

are worth restating in full:


‘You out to play g
ame
s?’h
e[Of
fi
cerJ
effGr
ano
wsk
i]s
hou
ted
.Th
eof
fi
cerp
ick
edu
p
on ev en dor ’
sfoldingt ablea ndto ss edit by the legs into the street. As the vendor was
backing away, the officer grabbed handfuls of cassettes and hurled them at him...The
vendors understood. Officer Granowski rarely confiscates their goods, so they are willing
to tolerate some bluster. Besides it was easy enough to just move temporarily to the other
side of Broadway, which belongs to a different precinct (Sontag 1994).

The second quote is from an article about unlicensed portrait artists in Times Square.

The artists, like vendors are selling goods illegally in the street, the only difference being

that they create their goods at the same location that they sell them.

“Fo rthemo s
tp art,th ea rti
stss ay,th er
ei sa ni mp licitgivean dtaket hat has worked well
for both sides [police and artists]. The artists say they sometimes sacrifice themselves
on certain nights to satisfy a police quota, although the police deny there is a quota system.
In exchange, they say, police officers give them a break on nights when business is good,
especially on weekend nights, when they would have to be taken to Central Booking and
spend the weekend there, it is much preferable to spend a few hours in a precinct. Asked about
these arrangements, Lieutenant Johnson would say only that the police are vigilant every
day of the week (Lii 1996).
Despite strict regulations limiting the amount of vendors and restricting where

vendors can do business, vendors are still a common sight in New York. With 3,583

licenses and nearly 10,000 vendors on the streets, one can safely say that current vending

laws do not limit the amount of vendors on the street. What then, is the purpose of

vending laws? Why not raise the cap on licenses or change the laws to fit the reality on

the street? Recall that Fernandez Kelly and Garcia state that the failure of legislation is

n
ota“
ran
domoc
cur
renc
e”or“
unwe
lcomer
esul
tofs
car
cer
eso
urc
es”(
Fer
nan
dezKe
ll
y

and Garcia 1989, 254). There is a reason for the current vending laws, but it may not be

to restrict vending.

States are independent actors, n
ot“
pas
siver
efl
ect
ionsofs
oci
oec
onomi
can
d

p
oli
ti
calpr
oce
sse
s”(
ibi
d,2
50)
.Laws created by the state, while ostensibly put in place to

serve the public good, may also be in place to serve the good of the state. While the

stated goal of vending legislation is to limit and regulate vendors for the safety and

convenience of the public, they in fact serve another more important purposes from the

standpoint of the state. I propose that the primary purpose of street vending legislation in

New York is to keep the majority of street vending activity informal.

I
tisi
nth
eci
ty’
sin
ter
estt
oke
epmos
tve
ndi
ngi
nfor
malbe
cau
sei
tal
lowsf
or

maximum flexibility in managing street vending. When anti-vendor sentiment is low,

vendors operate in a environment of tacit municipal acceptance. However if political

pressure from local merchants and/or business elites grows, the existing regulatory

apparatus can be mobilized to crack down on vending activity. The great majority of

vendors, lacking licenses, can be defined in the public discourse as lawbreakers who

evade taxes and constitute unfair competition to legitimate taxpaying businesses.
Thi
s“mor
all
eve
rage
”ise
spe
cia
ll
yimpor
tanti
nNe
wYor
k,whe
ret
hes
oci
ala
nd

political culture place a great deal of value on t
hen
oti
onoft
he“
har
dwor
kin
g

i
mmi
gra
nt”
.St
ree
tve
ndi
nge
spe
cia
ll
y,i
sde
epl
yembe
dde
dinNe
wYor
k’sc
ult
ura
l

history. A crackdown on licensed vendors would involve abolishing the right of

legitimate businessmen to earn a living. In a city where many successful retail stores,

and many middle and even upper class families lovingly trace their roots back to an

immigrant with a pushcart, this would likely prove to be politically troublesome. On the

other hand, by keeping most vendors unlicensed, during crackdowns the city is able to

portray itself as doing nothing unjust, for it is simply enforcing existing laws and

cracking down on lawbreakers who themselves are injuring legitimate, hardworking,

merchants.

The criminalization of vending is a key strategy utilized by anti-vending interests

during crackdowns. Major crackdowns, however, do not happen often. History shows us

that very particular political and economic conditions are necessary for successful anti-

vending campaigns to take place. Interestingly, these conditions are not necessarily

r
ela
tedt
oth
e“s
eve
rit
y”oft
heve
ndi
ng“
pro
ble
m”.I
nfa
ct,
whe
nst
ree
tve
ndi
ngwa
sati
ts

peak, during the early 20th Century, very little action was taken to control the situation.

What drives anti-vending crackdowns is not an overabundance of vendors, but the fusion

ofp
art
ic
ula
rec
onomi
candp
oli
ti
cali
nte
res
tsi
nto“
ant
i-ve
ndi
ngc
oal
it
ions
”.These

coalitions are usually made up of two key players: real estate/redevelopment interests,

and reform-oriented mayoral administrations. Small businesses are a third, but less

influential part of anti-vending coalitions.
In order to gain a better understanding of how anti-vending coalitions form and

operate, two cases of successful crackdowns on street vending will be presented. The

first is Fi
ore
ll
oLa
Gua
rdi
a’sf
igh
tto move Lower East Side pushcarts vendors off the

streets and into public market buildings. The second case, quite similar in many respects

to the first despite the fact it occurred 60 years later, is Ru
dol
phGi
uli
ani
’sc
rac
kdo
wno
n

t
he1
25t
hSt
ree
tWe
stAf
ri
canma
rke
tpl
aced
uri
ngt
he1
990’
s. Both cases provide insight

into the political and economic conditions that give rise to anti-vending campaigns, as

well as demonstrate how anti-vending coalitions utilize the condition of informality to

legitimize their campaign.

“ThePus
hcar
tEv
il”
: LaGuardia and the Fight For the Lower East Side
The pushcart markets of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries can trace their

origins to an arcane 1761 law enacted to protect farmers from competition in public

farmers markets. The 18th Century law contained an important loophole that encouraged

the emergence of the pushcart in New York. Known a
sth
e“Thi
rt
yMi
nut
eRule”t
hel
aw

specifically outlawed retailing in the street from fixed locations for more than half an

hour, but as long as vendors kept moving, they were not technically breaking the law

(Bluestone 1991). From this loophole, the (in)famous pushcart was born. During the

first three quarters of the 19th Century pushcarts were a common sight on the streets of

neighborhoods such as the Five Points, as many Irish, African American, and German

newcomers took up street vending. It was not until the second half of the 19th Century

though, when immigration increased dramatically, that the practice of street vending in

New York exploded and made its first significant claim to space in the city.
In 1866 four pushcart peddlers decided to ignore the law stating that they had to

remain mobile, and established a fixed pushcart market on Hester Street (Bluestone

1991). The Hester Street market grew quickly as it became apparent that police were not

concerned with enforcing laws banning stationary vending. Following the“
fou
ndi
ng”of

the Hester Street market, informal markets spread across Manhattan, as pushcart peddlers

colonized sidewalk space on many of the principle commercial streets in immigrant

ne
igh
bor
hoo
ds.Byt
he19
30’
sthe
rewe
rep
ushc
artma
rke
tso
n60s
tr
eets throughout the

city (New York Times, 3/1/1935).

Between 1880 and roughly 1935, the pushcart situation was for all intents and

purposes, accepted by the city. City politicians had little interest in shaking up an

economic arrangement that worked extremely well in immigrant neighborhoods. The

pushcart markets provided jobs to new immigrants and the vendors in turn provided food

and goods at reasonable prices for immigrant families (Bernstein 1936).

Despite the lack of direct action, whether it was a concerted plan or not the city

put in place a number of regulations between 1910 and 1930 that laid the legal

groundwork for an eventual crackdown. First in 1915, the city abolished the 30 minute

rule and placed informally created pushcart markets under the jurisdiction of the

Department of Markets, in effect formalizing the pushcart markets. But while the city

was formalizing the markets with one hand, it was simultaneously pushing the vendors

themselves into informality with the other (Bluestone 1991).

In 1916, the city instituted a law stating all vending licenses would expire on

April 30th of that year, and vendors would have to renew their licenses every year from

that point on (Gaber 1993). The implicit purpose of this law was to reduce the number of
vendors. The hope was that vendors would either forget or not know how to renew their

licenses (Gaber 1993). Ten years later, citing serious traffic congestion and unsanitary

conditions, the city moved to place a moratorium on all new vending licenses in 1928,

limiting the number of licenses to 7,000. This was the most aggressive move by the city

to date, at least in a rhetorical sense, but the strong language had little effect on day to

day operations in the pushcart markets. By 1935 for instance, while the number of

licensed vendors held steady at 7,000, there were another 6,000-7,000 unlicensed vendors

o
nth
eci
ty’
sst
ree
ts(Mackenzie 1936). The law, according to its explicit objectives

(limiting the amount of vendors to 7,000 and easing congestion in the markets) was a

complete failure. Where the law did succeed was in turning the pushcart trade into a

largely informal enterprise.

By 1928 the laws were in place for a crackdown on the pushcart markets, but the

markets would remain untouched for another 6 years. It was not until Fiorello LaGuardia

came to office in 1934 that the anti-pushcart movement began to gain steam. LaGuardia

ran for mayor as an anti-Tammany reform candidate. But LaGuardia, quite atypical in

many respects, was not a typical reformer. He wa
sno
tame
mbe
rofNe
wYo
rk’
s

Protestant, Anglo/Dutch-American aristocracy, but rather, as the son of an Italian father

and Jewish mother he was himself a physical embodiment of immigrant New York. The


Lit
tl
eFl
owe
r”was a populist reformer with a genuine (if at times misguided) desire to

improve conditions in immigrant neighborhoods.5 He was also a man of his age,

infatuated with progress and the ameliorative possibilities of science and engineering

5
Somes peculateLa Gu a
rdia’
sferven tpus ht oc leanu pi mmi gran tn ei
ghborhoo dsstemme dfromd eep
seeded shame for his own immigrant roots. In an often retold story, LaGuardia was mockingly called an
“organg ri
nder”b yp layma t
esinhisyo uth ,a ne t
h nics l
u rd i
rec teda thisIt
ali
a nh er
itage
.On eof
La Guardia’
sfirstin it
iati
vesasma yo rwa st ob ano rgang ri
nd ersf romt hestr
e ets(Caro197 4)
.
(Caro 1974). It should come as no surprise then, that his two passions converged on the

project of modernizing the Lower East Side, and the pushcart vendors found themselves

di
rec
tl
yinLa
Gua
rdi
a’sr
efor
m-oriented crosshairs.

La
Gua
rdi
a’smission dovetailed nicely with real estate and redevelopment

interests. The real estate market in the Lower East Side was moribund, as the

increasingly dilapidated neighborhood was steadily loosing population. According to the

New York Times, the population in the Lower East Side dropped from 500,000 in 1910,

to 250,000 in 1935. By 1937 the population was an estimated 225,000 and 1/8 of the

property in the neighborhood produced no income (New York Times 4/25/1937). The

ma
yor
’sr
ede
vel
opme
nta
gen
dawo
uldbr
ingFe
der
all
yfu
nde
dho
usi
nga
ndi
nfr
ast
ruc
tur
e

improvements to the neighborhood, greatly increasing property value.

It was the nature of these improvements that spelled the end of the pushcart. The

1
930’
swa
stheda
wnoft
hea
utomob
ilea
ge,
andt
hec
rowde
dLowe
rEa
stSide was

simply not compatible. Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and Mayor LaGuardia

undertook the massive project of retrofitting the neighborhood. Entire blocks of

tenements were demolished to make way for parks and housing superblocks, streets were

widened, and highways were rammed through waterfront districts. Changing along with

the physical nature of the neighborhood was the vision of the proper function of the street

(Bluestone 1991). According to William Fellows Morgan, commissioner of the

De
par
tme
ntofMa
rke
ts,
“Thes
tr
eet
sare made for traffic and the sidewalks for

pe
des
tr
ians
”(Ne
wYo
rkTi
mes
,5/
9/1
938)
.Thepus
hca
rtma
rke
tswe
res
impl
ynota

compatible use, and were an impediment to progress.
“Noo nec ande n ythatp ush cartma rk eti
ngi so uto fst
epwi thmod e
rnc on d i
tions
and that its continuance would prove the greatest deterrent to housing betterment
in the congested residential districts of our city. Pushcarts are incompatible with
clean streets and clean homes....the rehabilitation of the East Side as the site for
model residential structures precludes the possibility o ft he i
rc o nt
inuance ”
I. Goldman, Greater New York Taxpayers Association (New York Times 2/7/1937).

Rather than ban pushcart merchants altogether, the city created “
mode
rn”ma
rke
t

buildings into which licensed pushcarts vendors would be relocated. The Essex Street

Market was completed in 1940 with space for 530 pushcarts (New York Times,

12/22/38). Unfortunately, there were roughly 1,300 vendors on the streets of the Lower

East Side, half of them unlicensed.6 The market obviously did not have the capacity to

house all vendors, but it nonetheless served an important political purpose. When it was

finished, it allowed the city to further draw a distinction between legitimate and

illegitimate vendors.

Once the 530 law abiding vendors were housed in the market building, the city

had the moral leverage and the political will to aggressively crack down on the remaining

750 or so illegal vendors. The public discourse on the street vending issue was framed

e
masterfully by the anti-vnd
ingc
oal
it
ioni
nthe1
930’
s.Th
eycombined a hard driving

narrative of progress and modernization with a clear delineation of legitimate and

illegitimate vendors in order to gain public support for an aggressive crackdown on street

vending.

The political will to follow through on the crackdown was the result of the

convergence of important interests groups at the right time to form a powerful anti-

vending coalition. Mayor LaGuardia was a populist reformer, and needed a project to

demonstrate his commitment to improving and modernizing immigrant neighborhoods.

6
This is my own estimate. According to the New York Times there were 670 licensed vendors on the
Lowe rEa s
tSide( NYT1 2/22/38).Itisg en er
a l
lya g re e
du po nt hatinth e1 93 0’stherewe reasma n
y
unlicensed vendors as licensed vendors on the street, hence the estimate of 1,300 total vendors.
The“
mode
rni
zi
ngl
obby
”,s
awt
hec
rowde
dan
ddi
lap
ida
teLo
werEa
stSi
dea
sthepe
rfe
ct

template to demonstrate the transformative power of highways and modern housing.

Finally, real estate interests in the neighborhood welcomed these ideas as salvation from

years of declining property value. One thing these three groups could readily agree on

was the need to rid the neighborhood of anti-modern and unsightly pushcart markets.

With the coalescing of like minded power brokers, a social and economic arrangement

that had for nearly 50 years been politically untouchable became just another causality of

the new Lower East Side.

sQual
Giuliani’ it
yofLi
feCr
usademeets the 125th Street African Market
Ever since the peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant arrived in New Amsterdam in 1647 to

r
est
oreor
dert
oac
olo
nywh
osec
it
ize
nsha
d,i
nhi
swor
ds,
“gr
ownve
rywi
lda
ndl
oos
ein

t
hei
rmor
als
”(Bur
rowsa
ndWa
lla
ce1
999)
,Ne
wYor
kCi
ty’
shi
st
oryha
sbe
enf
ullof

zealous reformers promising to clean up the unruly city and set things straight.

Republican Rudolph Giuliani ran for mayor in 1993 on that very promise. The city,

de
spi
tet
hee
conomi
cboomoft
he19
80’
swa
spe
rce
ive
dby residents and outsiders alike

a
sada
nge
rous
,di
sor
der
ly,
cor
rupta
ndunc
ont
rol
la
blepl
ace
.Gi
uli
ani
’sp
lanwa
stof
ix

New York from the bottom up.

Onc
einof
fi
ce,
mayo
rGi
uli
ani
’s“
qua
li
tyofl
if
e”c
ampa
ignt
arg
ete
dmi
nor

infractions in an effort to restore a sense of order to the city. The reasoning was that petty

crime was in fact not petty at all, but rather, it created an environment of disorder that

f
ost
ere
dmor
ese
riou
scr
imi
nala
cti
vit
y.Thet
arge
tsofGi
uli
ani
’sq
ual
it
yofl
if
e

u
crackdowns inclde
damon
got
her
s,t
urns
ti
lej
umpe
rs,
panha
ndl
ers
,“s
que
ege
eme
n”a
nd

of course, unlicensed street vendors.
Coi
nci
din
gwi
thGi
uli
ani
’sa
sce
nda
ncywa
sag
rowi
ngi
nte
res
tsbyc
orpo
rat
e

retailers and large real estate developers i
nre
deve
lop
ingHa
rle
m’s12
5th Street. In 1992,

t
hef
ir
stc
orp
ora
te“
pio
nee
rs”t
est
edt
hene
igh
bor
hood’
sec
onomi
cwa
ter
sasb
othBe
nan
d

J
err
y’sa
ndTheBo
dySh
opope
neds
tor
esa
t12
5thSt
ree
tan
d5t
hAve
nue(
Ken
ned
y

1992). These two franchises proved successful and soon other corporations were

expressing interest in opening stores on the street. Though it sputtered at first, by 1994,

the redevelopment momentum in Harlem was growing rapidly. In 1994, real estate and

business interests organized under the new 125th Street Business Improvement District.

From this new sounding board they pressured the Giuliani administration with a unified

voice to deal with what they felt was a major impediment to the redevelopment of the

area: the large, crowded, and unregulated concentration of West African street vendors

doing business on the sidewalks of 125th Street.

By 1994 the “
Afr
ica
nMa
rke
t”a
sitwa
skn
own,
hade
xis
tedo
n12
5thSt
ree
tfo
r

roughly five years (Stoller 2002). On warm weekends, nearly 1,000 unlicensed street

vendors sold merchandise from card tables, car trunks and blankets laid on the street

(Kennedy 1994). The seemingly chaotic agglomeration of street vendors was actually

quite well organized, albeit in an informal manner. According to anthropologist Paul

Stoller who spent years studying the market:

There were no formally assigned market stalls and no one paid a fee for market space.
One space was usually occupied early in the morning and kept until sunset. Vendors
rarely contested this informal rule. Over times Africans from specific countries (Niger,
Mali, the Gambia, Senegal) had appropriated specific areas of the sidewalk on 125th Street
and on Lenox [Avenue]. As in West African markets certain groups sold specific items.
When new vendors came to the market, t h eircomp a t
ri
o t
swo uld“ma k espace ”f orthem-
all informally (Stoller 2002, 135).

Though it was well organized, the 125th Street market was illegal for a number of

reasons. First, all street vending, whether licensed or unlicensed, was outlawed on 125th
Street, and second, the vast majority of vendors on the street were unlicensed vendors,

many of them selling counterfeit items.

The market was seen by small store owners on 125th Street as detrimental to

business, and as early as 1990, small business owners had mobilized to request a

crackdown on the market (New York Times, 9/24/90). Then city councilwoman and

current Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields acting on behalf of small business

owners in Harlem formally requested that the Department of Consumer Affairs enforce

vending laws on 125th Street (ibid). Nothing happened.

Three years later, still under pressure from small businesses to do something

about the vending situation, the Dinkins Administration finally decided to take action.

But mayor David Dinkins, admitting publicly that in his youth he too was an unlicensed

vender on the streets of Harlem (Sontag 1993), had little political will or moral leverage

(the loss of moral leverage being strategically self inflicted by the unprompted admission

of his own vending history) to seriously crack down on the vendors.

A half hearted attempt to sweep 125th Street of vendors in 1993 met with a

sizable protest by vendors that virtually shut down the street (New York Times 11/14/93).

The mayor decided to cut his political losses and backed off. The issue faded away, and

street vending on 125th Street returned to normal. The Dinkins Administration’
s

c
onve
nie
ntf
ail
urea
ll
owe
dthema
yort
ost
al
lont
hei
ssueu
nde
rthea
uspi
cesof“
goi
ng

back tot
hedr
awi
ngb
oar
d”.AsCo
mmi
ssi
one
rofBus
ine
ssSe
rvi
cesWa
ll
aceFo
rdp
uti
t

a
fte
rthef
ail
edc
rac
kdo
wn,“
125
thSt
ree
tisama
jora
ndda
unt
ingt
askwhe
nitc
ome
sto

moving the street vendors. We want to handle it in a fashion where we have a highly
ypr
likel osp
ectf
ors
ucc
ess
”(ibid). Translation: this is not our issue. We are giving it lip

service, but we are not acting on it again any time soon. And so the market persisted.

It was not until Rudolph Giuliani came to power, and larger real estate interests

began to organize and target Harlem for redevelopment, that the conditions for the

formation of an anti-vending coalition emerged. In 1994, the complaints of small

business owners about the vending market which had previously fallen on deaf ears were

joined by larger real estate and corporate interests who saw 125th Street as a potential

redevelopment area. With rise of the Giuliani Administration, those who had been

preaching the need for a crackdown on the 125th Street vendors had found their choir.

The street vending issue in Harlem was a perfect opportunity for Giuliani to flex

his reform oriented muscles. Most if not all of the vendors on 125th Street were

unlicensed. The administration was therefore able to frame vendors as leeches on a

struggling Harlem economy. Vendors were nothing more than selfish tax evaders who by

br
eaki
ngt
hel
aw,
wer
eun
der
cut
ti
ng“
legi
ti
mat
e”t
axpa
yin
gbus
ine
ss.TheGi
uli
ani

administration used the act of taxpaying as the definitive demarcation line between

legitimate and illegitimate commercial enterprise. In the words of Rudy Washington, the

Commissioner of Business Services, “
Weha
vet
opr
ote
ctt
her
igh
tsoft
heme
rcha
ntst
o

do business without any obstructions. We have a responsibility to the people who pay

taxes in this town and to those who go through the trouble of following the law and

o
per
ati
ngl
egi
ti
mat
ebus
ine
sse
s”(
Hic
ks19
94)
.

After a number of delays, on October 18th, 1994 the Giuliani administration

finally moved to sweep 125th Street clean of vendors. Giuliani was determined to

e
succedwhe
reDi
nki
nsh
adf
ail
ed.Wh
ileDi
nki
ns’c
rac
kdo
wnwa
sprimarily a symbolic
gesture, Giuliani was not interested in mere symbolism, or it could be said, was intent on

using a very different kind of symbolism. On the day of the crackdown 125th Street was

inundated with hundreds of uniformed officers on foot and horseback. Metal barricades

were placed all around the wide sidewalks of 125th Street to keep vendors away. The

heart of Harlem was turned into a militarized anti-vending police zone.

The crackdown on vendors succeeded. By virtue of most of the vending being

informal, Giuliani needed only to mobilize the existing regulatory apparatus to crack

d
ownon1
25t
hSt
ree
t’sve
ndo
rs.De
spi
tet
hes
ucc
ess
fulp
ort
raya
lof vendors as

lawbreakers without legitimate claims to business space on 125th Street, Giuliani did

sanction the creation of an alternative enclosed marketplace on 116th Street and Lenox

Avenue. The market, run by the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz mosque offered vendors, both

licensed and unlicensed, market space for $6 a day (Bloom 1995).

The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, like the Essex Street Market was not a

genuine solution for displaced vendors, but rather a political tactic to deflect criticism

from those who might accuse the mayor of being too harsh on the vendors. The 116th

Street marketplace had space for only 400 of the estimated 1,000 vendors on 125th Street

(Myers 1994). It was also off the beaten path, in an area with much less foot traffic than

the busy 125th Street. Most vendors initially rejected the market, choosing rather to try

their luck selling informally in other parts of the city. A year after it was created it was

not even operating at half capacity, with an average of 175 vendors doing business on any

given day (Bloom 1995). The market, while still open, continues to struggle to attract

vendors (Stoller 2002).
Conclusion
There are a two important points to draw from a reading of the two cases

presented in this paper. First, in both cases, street vending proliferated long before the

aggressive crackdown took place. Crackdowns were not the response to a sudden

degeneration of the vending situation. Rather they came about only when political and

economic conditions gave rise to powerful anti-vending coalitions. It was when interest

groups found common ground around the need to rid the streets of vendors, not

necessarily when the number of street vendors were at their peak, that action against

vendors occurred. Therefore, it can be said that the catalyst behind the activation of the

regulatory apparatus has more to do with economic and political conditions than

conditions in the streets.

Second, in both cases the condition of informality was used strategically by anti-

vending coalitions during the crackdowns. As we have seen, vending laws have an

important effect on street vending, even if they do not achieve their stated purpose. The

situations before the crackdowns, when there were 7,000 unlicensed vendors in the

1930s, and 6,000 unlicensed vendors in the 1990s were not failures of the vending laws.

Quite the contrary, while the laws did not achieve their stated objectives of limiting the

amount of vendors on the street to 7,000 and 3,853 respectively, they did succeed in

creating an environment where at least half of the vendors were operating illegally.

When political and economic conditions were right for a crackdown, anti-vending

coalitions needed only to enforce existing laws to dramatically reduce the number of

vendors. The ability to crack down on vendors without instituting retroactive policy is an
important tactic in a city with such a deep cultural connection to the striving immigrant

entrepreneur.

In closing, the examples of both the 1930s pushcart wars, and the battle against

Ha
rle
m’sAf
ri
canma
rke
tint
he1
990sp
rovi
deat
empl
atef
orwhat future vending

crackdowns may look like. For those concerned with maintaining and increasing the

rights of both licensed and unlicensed street vendors, understanding the underlying

political and economic conditions that drive vending crackdowns is critical. It is only

with a deep understanding of historic cases that one may be able to anticipate future

crackdowns.
Sources
Be
rns
tein,Victo r(
1936)“
Mor
ePus
hca
rtst
oVa
nis
h”New York Times. September 20th,
pg. E10.

Bl
oom,
Jen
n i
ferKi
ngst
on( 1995)“ Ol
d1 25t hSt reetWa r
ri o
rsf
indPe
acea
t11
6thSt
ree
t
Market
”New York Times. August 27th, pg. CY6.

Bl
ues
tone
, Dani
el(
1991)“
ThePu shcartEv il:Peddler
s, Merchants, and New York
Ci
ty’sSt
ree
ts,
1880-1940. Journal of Urban History. 18 (1): 68-92.

Burrows, Edwin and Wallace, Mike (1999) Gotham: A History of New York City to
1898. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caro, Robert (1974) The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.
New York: Vintage Books.

Fernandez-Ke l
ly,
Patr
iciaa n dGa rcia,Anna( 19 89)“ I
nf orma l
iz at
iona tt
heCor e:
Hi spani
cWome n, Home wor k,andtheAd va ncedCa pitali
stState
”The Informal
Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries. Alejandro Portes
and Manuel Castells and Laura Benton eds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press.

Gaber, John (1993) Manha tt
an’s14thSt ree tVe ndorsMa rket:AnAna l
ysisoft he
Informal Economy. Ph.D. Dissertation. Department of Urban Planning,
Columbia, University.

Hi
cks
,Jonat
han( 1994)“Gi ul
ianiBr oa densCr
ack
downt
oBa
nis
hal
lIl
le
galVe
ndo
rs”
New York Times. May 9th, pg. B1.

Ke
nne
dy,Shawn( 199 2)“ Ne wMome
ntumBui
ldso
n125
thSt
ree
t”New York Times.
November 8th, pg. 402.

Ke
nne
dy,Rand y(19 94)“ Mor eDe l a
ysKe
ep12
5thSt
ree
tVe
ndor
-La
den”New York
Times. April 24th, pg. 595.

Kwong, Peter (1997) Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American
Labor. New York: The New Press.

Li
i,J
ane(
1996)“
IsThi
sMa
nDa
nge
rous
?”New York Times. September 1st, pg. CY1.

Ma
cke
nz i
e,Ca therine( 1936)“ Th
eMa
rke
tst
heFe
edNe
wYor
k”New York Times.
January 5th, pg. SM18.
Mye
rs,
Ste
venLe e(1994)“ Ma yorRe ve al
sPl antoEn
dIl
leg
alVe
ndo
rsi
nHa
rle
m”
New York Times. October 12th, pg. B3.

New York Times. (
193
5)“
Pus
hca
rtDr
iveBe
gun”Ma
rch1s
t,pg.
3.

New York Times. (
193
7)“
Cal
lsPus
hca
rtsDe
tri
mentt
oCi
ty”Fe
bru
ary7t
h,p
g.1
87.

New York Times. (
193
7)“
ACh
ange
les
sEa
stSi
deCha
nge
s”Apr
il2
5th,
pg.
136.

New York Times. (
193
8)“
$30,
000Ma
rke
tisUr
gedf
ort
heCi
ty”Ma
y9t
h,p
g.1.

New York Times. (
193
8)“
Ess
exSt
ree
tMa
rke
twi
llOp
enJ
uly1s
t”De
cembe
r22
nd,
pg. 2.

New York Times. (
199
0)“
Peddl
ersI
rkSt
ore
sinHa
rle
m”Se
pte
mbe
r24t
h,p
g.B3.

New York Times. (19 9
3)“
Mov
ingHa
rle
mSt
ree
tVe
ndor
s,bu
tDe
li
cat
el
y”No
vembe
r
14th, pg. 767.

Sassen, Saskia (1988) NewYo rkCi ty’
sI nf or
ma lEconomyConference on Comparative
Ethnicity: The Conference Papers, June 1988. University of California Los
Angeles.

Sontag, Deborah( 1993)“ Unl
ice
nse
dPe
ddl
ers
,Unf
ett
ere
dDr
eams
”New York Times.
June 14th, pg. A1.

Stoller, Paul (2002) Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Urban Justice Center (2003) Street Vendors Unite: Recommendations for Improving
the Regulations on Street Vending in New York City. Study by the
Foo dVe ndo rs’Uni onLoc al1 69Va ndtheUr ba nJusticeCe nt
erSt
ree
tVe
ndor
Project. http://streetvendor.netfirms.com/public_html/files/
PDFs/VendorsUnite.pdf