While selling burritos on the corner of 52nd and Park Avenue in 1998, Sean Basinski experienced the troubles that New York City street vendors faced firsthand. It was the Guiliani “quality of life” era, and despite their iconic status, street vendors were harassed, unfairly fined, and banned from many areas. Three years later, and armed with a law degree, Basinski founded The Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, a 1200 vendor member organization dedicated to creating a vendors movement.
There are 10,000 licensed and unlicensed street vendors in New York City, everyone from food, book and flower vendors to street painters and performers. 83% of vendors are immigrants hailing from Senegal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Morocco, China, Mexico, El Salvador, Tibet, Russia, Brazil and dozens of other nations. Native-born Americans and United States veterans are also well represented.
Since its founding in 2001, the Street Vendor Project has fought to improve working conditions for all vendors in New York City. Campaigns and programs include training about vending rules and actions to take if harassed by police officers or store owners, providing legal representation and counsel to street vendors, connecting vendors to financial training and small business loans, the Vendy Awards, and Street Food Vending 101.
At heart though, The Street Vendor Project is a membership organization committed to strengthening the voice of New York City street vendors through grassroots organizing and outreach. All members of the board are working street vendors, and campaigns are developed and implemented by the membership. At present, a major battle is the Lower the Fines Campaign, aiming to reform the existing vendor fine structure by which vendors can be charged up to $1,000 for violations such as selling from a table longer than eight feet, being too close to the curb, or leaving your cart for a few minutes to take a restroom break. You can hear the stories of affected vendors here.
The Street Vendor Project is also tackling the limited number of vending licenses allotted by New York City; 853 for general vendors and 3,100 for food vendors—numbers set in 1979. (This does not include vendors selling books, cds, movies, etc who do not need a license in order to sell their wares). The decades-long cap has created a black market where vendors no longer using their permit rent it at grossly increased rates. It is estimated that two-thirds of food vendors rent their permits, paying up to $8,000 for a permit with a $75 cost. Intro 324, a bill filed in the 2009 City Council session, would increase permit numbers to 15,000 and 25,000 respectively. This would go a long way to accommodating the roughly 13,000 people currently on the waiting list for a vending license.
There is a reason that street vendors are noteworthy figures in the history of New York City. Not only have they provided services and wares to New Yorkers through time, they have also been integral to both immigrant and street life. Exorbitant fines, police harassment, sky-high prices for permits and increasing pressure by Business Improvement Districts to restrict the presence of street vendors threaten street vendors, and the use of public space in New York City. All these issues taken up by the Street Vendor Project not only protect this New York tradition, but strengthen it by creating better working conditions for the people involved. You can help by volunteering. All volunteers are welcome, but Cantonese speaking volunteers are especially needed.