Vendor Bender


Many New Yorkers may think of Wednesday’s citywide vendor protest as a day without hot dogs, but the shutdown–and the controversy that spurred it–actually involves all variety of street salespeople. Book sellers, art peddlers, and sunglasses hawkers alike will be vanquished from the sidewalks in July, when the city implements the Street Vendor Review Panel’s plan to ban selling on 144 city blocks. And more street closings may soon follow.

The unprecedented enforcement of an obscure city ordinance on the grounds that vending causes sidewalk traffic congestion has left vendors of all stripes fuming at Mayor Giuliani and the panel he controls. But, while the mayor’s campaign to clean up the streets has unified its targets, many of whom have longstanding conflicts with the mayor, the coalition of street activists is an extremely loose and unusual one, each group peddling its own agenda.

Thomas Dukleth, who represents street booksellers, for instance, focuses on how the proposal to restrict sidewalk sales will further diminish the exchange of ideas. ”If someone can’t erect a stand and sell books that otherwise wouldn’t get distributed, then those ideas are suppressed,” he told the Voice. And, while many merchandise peddlers express solidarity with the vendor movement, they complain they have already been restricted from many of the blocks due to be closed this summer.

Meanwhile, free speech activist Robert Lederman, a veteran of Giuliani’s war on street artists, is using the controversy as an opportunity to promote First Amendment protests, advising food vendors to attach anti-Giuliani posters to their food carts. ”That way, every time you sell a hot dog it will be a protest,” Lederman told a crowd of vendors.

Even within the food vendors fighting the regulations, there are significant differences. Allem Alaa, who sells doughnuts on Cortlandt Street, for instance, owns his cart, while Maria Jordan and her son sell biryani rice and chicken from a leased cart on Sixth Avenue. Compounding their obvious sweet and savory differences, these situations make for different financial concerns–and have been historically divisive.

In fact, the mayor used the issue of owning a cart–and the permit technically required to operate it–to squelch vendor activism the first time sidewalk restrictions came up under his administration back in 1994, giving the organizers of the current vendor movement their own personal beef in the latest street selling wars.

Jeff Cicio, for instance, president of the Big Apple Food Vendor Association and helmsman of the day without hot dogs (and knishes, sunglasses, used books, etc.), lost his cart-leasing business in changes instituted in the last vendor go-round.

A few years ago, Cicio owned hundreds of pushcarts, which he leased to vendors. When the city began restricting some midtown blocks, Cicio organized those leasing from him. But shortly after the vendors’ first protest, the City Council, backed by the mayor, changed the city’s permit policy, restricting each person to one permit–and winning the allegiance of pushcart leasers whom Cicio had had on his side. ”He waved permits in front of their faces,” says Cicio. ”It was a good strategy to disband us.”

While the Department of Health and some vendors credit the one-permit policy change with democratizing the business, the elder statesmen of food vending disagree. ”The people who wanted permits didn’t end up getting them,” says Dan Rossi, Big Apple’s vice president and a pushcart manufacturer. Rossi says the effect has been devastating to old-style New York vending, and will ultimately pave the way for bringing in big conglomerates to vend. ”After they destroy us little guys, they’re going to contract with Disney or some other big company,” predicts Rossi. ”It’ll be like the new Times Square. They’re already talking to McDonald’s.”

But Cicio and Rossi are determined not to let City Hall get them this time. In addition to organizing protests, the two have been venting their frustrations to City Council member Anthony Weiner, who is sponsoring bills that would not only keep the streets open to vendors but also allow them to get their permits back.

Given the political muscle of their opponents in the restaurant and real estate industries, the council member is probably the vendors’ best hope. ”You don’t see many members of Democratic clubs out pushing carts,” says Weiner. ”My name is Weiner and I’m the closest thing to an ally that they have.”