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Sidewalk entrepreneurs

by Jayshree Bajoria,
Student, Master of International Affairs, Columbia University, New York

As the days become warmer in New York, the line by his cart grows longer. “ Do
you want your regular, J ohn?”asks the vendor, smiling at the familiar face. As John nods,
the vendor reaches out for the chicken, puts it on the hot plate and soon it is sizzling,
filling up the air with its mouth watering aroma. The line gets hungrier and edges closer
to the cart. “Hotdo gf o rmet oday,”shouts a customer. “ Iwi l
lt akea l
lthef ives auces ,

another orders. “ ”says a third. The voices ring out in all
May I have a vegetable falafel,
types of accents. His hands work rapidly to fulfill each order.

His customers love his easy chatter and ready smile. Some call him magician.
Others call him Shorty. Still others just know him as Sam. Not many know that his real
name is Ahmed Sadat, and that before he began flipping falafels and heating pita bread,
he was a refugee from the Soviet invasion of his native Afghanistan, a journalist, a
humanitarian aid worker, even a war-time government official. For the last three years he
and this food cart have been a fixture on the corner of 120th street and Broadway by
Columbia University. And in this time, he has become popular among students, almost
as popular as his chicken rice that sells for $4/plate and is completely sold out soon after
lunch time.

Sam is just one of several thousand vendors selling food on New York city
sidewalks, a cut-throat business dominated by immigrants, dictated by fickle weather
conditions and more than they care to admit, targeted by law enforcement authorities. In
this business, there is a very thin line dividing the legal and illegal, law enforcement and
exploitation, competition and harassment. “ An dye t,asthel o ngwa it
inglistforvending
permits suggests, the business remains a favorite among certain immigrant groups, harsh
realities not withstanding.

Before he came to America nine years ago as a guest of the NGO, Save the
Children, to participate in a conference, Ahmed Sadat had led a life full of upheavals and
challenges. Born in Kabul, Sadat took refuge in neighbouring Pakistan after the former
Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s. And there, he did many things, from
freelance journalistic writing to working for the interim government of Afghanistan to
being a communication and training manager in a NGO. It was at the time that Sadat was
participating in the conference in Washington that Taliban assumed control of
Afghanistan and Sadat decided to stay back in US.

And thus, Ahmed Sadat became Sam Ali. But what prompted this enterprising
young man to sell food on the roads of New York? “ Whe neverane wi mmi gr
a ntarrive
s
in New York, it depends on who he knows, and what business others from his country
areenga gedi n,”Sa ms ays.“ The nh edoe st
hes a met hing.”For Sam, this link was
provided by John, another Afghan who had been selling coffee, doughnuts and
sandwiches at the Columbia University intersection. Two years later, they decided to
expand the business and get into partnership. John took care of the breakfast selling
coffee and doughnuts while Sam decided to sell lunch on another cart next to it.

In this difficult enterprise, Sam has been lucky. He works in a hassle-free


neighborhood with regular clientele; mostly students. The vendor next to him is his
partner, not his competitor. With daily sales of around $ 500, Sam makes a profit of
around $200 on average everyday five days a week. After paying rent for the garage
where he parks his cart at night, his house rent, and education for his three children, he
and his family manage to scrape through.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) allows
only 3000 vendors to set up food carts. At present there are around 9000 mobile food
vendors who have license to operate but only 3000 vendors get permits for their carts.
“ Mobile food vending operator's license is similar to the concept of a driver's license
while a permit is similar to a motor vehicler egistra
tion, ”c lari
fiesEr i
cF. Ri ley, working
in the communications office of the DOHMH. “ One is for the person and the other is for
the cart or truck.”According to Riley, anyone who applies for a license gets it within a
month. But the restriction on permits means there is a long waiting list. And the waiting
list is only created every 2-3 years. This list has been closed since January last year. So
vendors have to get permits through other means. The Black market.

Sara Sluszka, a volunteer with the Urban Justice Center, worked on the Street
Vendor project for the last year and a half offering legal assistance to vendors. She says,
“Media reports have highlighted how some people profit from running a black market in
these permits. Last year, an office in Queens had been found to run a scam and charge an
exo r
bitantfeeof$3 000t opr ocureave nd orpe rmi t
.”

Sidewalk real estate is a hot market. It demands from vendors long-term


strategizing and extraordinary patience. Vendors across the city agree that securing a
profitable and sustainable vending location is probably the single thorniest part of the
business. “Ifit’sag o ods pot ,v endorsca nre a ll
yma keal ot
,”Slus zkasays.

This rings true if you happen to pass by Washington Park Square and glance at
the cart selling ethnic South Indian food. On a beautiful day in summer, the queue to eat
food off this only vegan cart in the city is long enough to give competition to legendary
que uesa tMa cy’sd uringTha nksgivin gs a les.

“Iha dproblemsi nt hebeginning when I came here five years ago. Other vendors
haras sedme ,t
oldmei twa sthe i
rs pota nddidn otl etmeke e
pmyc ar
there,”saysThi r
u
Kumar, the Sri Lankan whose face features in an inflight Airlines magazine as one of the
best street food vendors in the city. Conversant in five languages, Kumar shares the
recipef ors uccessf
ulstree tve ndin g.“Youha vet ot alkt oc ust
ome r
s.Andyo uha vet o
maintain the same price and quality to keep yo urc us t
ome rbaselo yal
.”

Location not only leads to infighting within vendors but also manages to ruffle
some powerful groups, unfortunately powerful ones. There is no system to allot a
particular place to a vendor but over time, storeowners and business improvement
districts, organizations that represent business owners in specific neighborhoods, through
constant lobbying, have managed to drive out the vendors from many areas. They lobby
for restrictions on vendors because they believe vendors crowd sidewalks and create
competition. The city obliges by closing down busy city sidewalks to vending. “ I
t’sa l
l
ab o utpowe r,
”s a
ysSe anBa sinski,he adoft heSt reetVe nd orPro ject. “Pe ople who have
lan dd on’ twa n tthev end orst obet he r
e.There are very powerful business interests in
New York city. These people spend a lot of money to get rid of vendors. They have
meetings with the Mayor, they pay money to city councils. Vendors are poor, some of
themdo n ’teve ns peakg oo dEngl i
sh. The yare trying to stay on the streets and work and
all they have is the goodwill of the pe ople.”

But the goodwill clearly does not emanate from lawmakers. For decades now,
New York city mayors have made headlines at the expense of sidewalk vendors. In 1988,
former Mayor Ed Koch passed a law banning street vendors in an attempt to get them to
accept a lottery system to decide their vending locations. More recently, former mayor
Rudolph Giuliani earned lifetime enmity of city vendors when he targeted them through
his quality-of -life campaign. His campaign closed several streets to vendors, including
large-scale removals of vendors from 125th street in Harlem. Current mayor Michael R
Bloomberg i sn ’td oingmuc hbe ttereither. “Bl oombe rgisn ota sb ada stheo the rsbu the
isba dto o,”Basinski says. “ He is hurting the vendors by raising the amount on f i
n e
s.”

Fines are just one of the many ways of exploiting the vendors. According to those
wh of ightf o
rt heve nd ors’c ause,e xploitation begins with the very decision to become a
ven dor. “Iti
sve rydi ffi
c ultfors ome o net oge tal i
cens e
. Tha t’sthefirst form of
exp l
oita t
ion,”Ba sinskisays. “Onc et heyge tal i
cens e,t
he yf indo utstreets are closed to
vending, so another form of exploitation. When they try to set up their cart, they find out
police laws are difficult to understand. Tha t’son emore form of exploitation. And after
they manage to set up, they get arrested frequently, and are put in jail.”

According to Basinski, on New York streets, there are almost as many illegal
vendors –those who operate without licenses - as there are licensed vendors. These
vendors are frequently arrested and put in jail. The next morning when they come out,
they return to their business. For most of these people, vending is the only means for a
livelihood and arrests fail to act as deterrent.

Different groups of vendors are continuously fighting among themselves to


protect their interests, veterans with non-veterans, immigrants with natives, licensed with
unlicensed, old vendors with new ones. But one issue cuts across all these groups –the
antagonistic relationship between the vendors and the police. Vendors allege that the
vending laws are enforced arbitrarily. I tdoe sn’the lpthatapl eth oraofcity agencies are
responsible for regulating the different aspects of the business; the department of health
and mental hygiene, department of sanitation, department of park and recreation,
department of consumer affairs and New York Police Department. Practically every
vendor has stories about getting tickets from police officers even when they felt they
were set up legally. But most prefer to remain silent.
Asked if they faced any police harassment, both Sam and Kumar are quick to
shake their heads in denial. They are wary about talking even on repeated questioning.
ButSl uszkai smor ec and i
d. “
The rea refr
e quenta rrests,
”s hes a
ys .“Al oto fti
me sthes e
vendor sge ttickets( fi
nes)f orp et
tyr easons,andmos toft hetimet here’sjustve rbal
harassme nt .It
’sabi gissue .”

A ticket/fine could cost a vendor anything from $50 to $1000 for a single offence,
leaving him considerably less money for food and rent. “ 30,000 vending tickets are
wr ittene veryye ar,”Ba s i
nskis ays.Vendors allege that many of these tickets are not even
fair. Gotham Gazette quoted a vendor alleging he was often ticketed for setting up his
cart too close to a store even though he had measured the distance and complied with the
law.

Despite occasional run-ins with the law enforcement agencies and all other
hardships, sidewalk vending remains a lucrative and well sought after business. Vending
life improves as a vendor gains regular customers and saves enough money to buy his
own cart. He gains some power within the vending world the longer he stays in the game,
and works up to the more prominent and lucrative locations.

Sam loves the business. He has worked hard to make his way up to owning his
own cart and setting it up at a lucrative college location. “Mys pe cialhome ma dewhi
te
saucef oryo u,”Sam says as he lifts one bottle from the colorful assortment of sauces and
adds it generously to the bread for his last customer of the day. As he wraps up, his
glance falls over the glass jar overflowing with tips. “ I make a lot of friends,”he
concludes with a smile.