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. “ o D you want your regular, Jh? asks the vendor, smiling at the familiar face. As John nods, on” 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. “ odg o m t a,shouts a customer. “wlt e lt f e acs H to fr eo y d ” I i a a h i sue, lk lev ” another orders. “ May I have a vegetable falafel,says a third. The voices ring out in all ” 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. “ n yt sh l g ai lto vending A d e a t o w in i fr , e n tg s 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? “ eeea e i m gatrvs Whnvr nw m i n a i r re in New York, it depends on who he knows, and what business others from his country a eggd n Smsy. T e h de t sm t n.For Sam, this link was r nae i ” a as “ hn e osh a eh g e , e i ” 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 vehicleeir i ,c ri EiF Rl , working r sao ” l ie r . iy g ttn afs c e in the communications office of the DOHMH. “ is for the person and the other is for One 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 eob ate o $00 o rcra edr e i” xrin f f 30 tpoue vno pr t t e m. 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. “ is go so vnos a r l m k ao ” l za I t a od pt edrcn e l ae l ,Su k says. f’ , ay t s 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 qee aMays ui T akg i sl . uus t c’dr g hnsi n a s n vg e “hd rb m i t beginning when I came here five years ago. Other vendors I a pol sn h e e hr sd et d et a t isoad intem ke m crhr” as h u a s m , lm iw sh rptn d o l e ep y a e ,sy T i ae o e d t t e r 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 r i frucs useted g“ o hv ttko ut e . n yu aeo e p o sces lt evni .Y u aeoa t cs m r A d o hv t ce f r n l o s maintain the same price and quality to keep yu cs m r aeoa” orut ebs l l o y. 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. “ ’a Is l t l aoto e” as en ai k ha o t Sr t edr rj t“ep who have bupw r sy Sa B s si ed fh t eV no Po c Pole , n , e e e. l d o’w nt vnoso ehr There are very powerful business interests in a dnt ath edrtb t e n e e. 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 themdntvn pa go E g s. hy trying to stay on the streets and work and o’ee sek od nlhT e are i all they have is the goodwill of the pep . ol” e 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 ’di m c btr s to g uh eeeither. “ l m e ints a a t o e bt e n n t Bo br s oa bd sh t r uh o g e hs ibdo,Basinski says. “ is hurting the vendors by raising the amount on f e. sa t ” o He is n ” Fines are just one of the many ways of exploiting the vendors. According to those w o i to t vnoscuee h f hfrh edr as,xploitation begins with the very decision to become a g e ’ vno.Iivr d f u fro en tgt les. ht t first form of edr“ s e ii l o sm oeo eai neT a sh t y fc t c ’ e ep it n B s si xl ti , ai k says.O c t y eai net y i ot o ao ” n “ neh gt les, e f d ustreets are closed to e c h n vending, so another form of exploitation. When they try to set up their cart, they find out police laws are difficult to understand. T a s n more form of exploitation. And after ht oe ’ 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. Idente t t p t ro city agencies are tos’hl h a lh a f p a eo 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. B t l zas oe ad .T e a f qetr s ,se as“ l o t e t s u Su k im rcni “ hr r r un a et” h sy.A o fi sh e s d e ee r s t m e vnos etkt(nsfr ey esn,n m so t t ehr sute a edrgti e f e)o pt r osad ot fh i t e j vr l c si t a em e’ s b hr s et t a ii u. a s n Is b s e a m .’ g s ” 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 w ie ee ya” ai k sy. rt vr er B s siasVendors allege that many of these tickets are not even tn y , n 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. “ sei hm m d w i My pc lo e ae h e a t sueo yu Sam says as he lifts one bottle from the colorful assortment of sauces and ac fr o, ” 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. “make a lot of friends,” I he concludes with a smile.

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