In the mid-1980s, a group of New York City businesspeople—including one Donald J. Trump—complained to then-mayor Ed Koch about street vendors, claiming that they were an unwanted nuisance who didn't pay taxes, stole business from brick-and-mortar retailers, and sullied the atmosphere of otherwise pristine city blocks. "The Mayor is not doing his job with the peddlers,'' The New York Times quoted Trump as saying at the time. "New York City has become a disaster area as far as this topic is concerned."
He was still complaining about street vendors in 2004, writing to then-mayor Michael Bloomberg about the "deplorable situation" on Fifth Avenue. “Frankly, I have no idea how [building owners] can be doing business with the mess they have outside their front door,” he wrote. Although Trump has (temporarily) moved about 230 miles southwest of Trump Tower, a different group of businesspeople in a different block of Manhattan have pretty much picked up where he left off, describing street vendors as nuisances and eyesores. "Ask any business owner. They all hate the vendors,” Daniel Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership, told the Wall Street Journal.
According to the Journal, this most recent fight started when a home-healthcare organization moved out of their space at 1250 Broadway, and renovations on the building began. The street vendors—including some food cart owners whose family had worked that block for decades—say that the 34th Street Partnership immediately started pushing them off what they considered to be their sidewalks, by putting bike racks and massive planters where they used to put their carts.
When Wahede Whab, whose dad founded a fruit stand on that same spot more than 35 years ago, started moving the planters so he could set up shop, the 34th Street Partnership responded by bolting them to the sidewalk. "They are trying to kick me out of here, but I have kids and responsibilities to take care of,” he said.
Whab's voice is being amplified by the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, a non-profit organization that advocates for immigrants and marginalized communities. On Monday, the Street Vendor Project held a rally in front of 1250 Broadway, where they shared their concerns, and urged the New York City Department of Transportation to remove the planters from the sidewalks.
"We are still waiting for a response from the DOT, who are in charge of obstructions on our public sidewalks," Street Vendor Project founder Sean Basinski told VICE. "We are hoping that this public pressure will get them to act. If not, alongside these vendors, we do intend to move these planters ourselves."
Basinski says that the group will continue to fight until the vendors are allowed to return their carts to their previous locations. (One coffee vendor said that he'd been forced to move a half-block away—but even that small change cost him a noticeable percentage of his customers).
The 34th Street Partnership doesn't deny that it placed the planters and benches on the sidewalk, but it says that they're just the same "beautification elements" that can be found elsewhere in its business district.
"Unfortunately the Street Vendor Project continues to conflate and confuse the myriad of issues surrounding street vending regulations and is doing so because of stalled and unpopular legislation in the City Council that would dramatically increase the number of food carts on the city's streets," a spokesperson for the 34th Street Partnership told VICE in a statement.
"The issue at 1250 Broadway was due to ongoing renovations of that building, where extended construction barriers created a choke point along the sidewalk, making it very difficult for pedestrians to navigate." (We're not sure how adding giant planters, benches, and bike racks make it easier to navigate the sidewalk—or how they're less tricky to sidestep than a food cart).
Despite the Street Vendor Project's enthusiasm for removing those planters, the DOT said in a statement that they were placed there under a longstanding agreement with the 34th Street Partnership, which allows the group to position planters, benches, kiosks, and bike racks on the sidewalk. "We will review the concerns of the street vendor community and work closely with our partner on this issue," a spokesperson said.
Right now, the only thing the two groups can agree on is that they don't seem to want to talk directly to each other. "We frankly have little desire to speak to the 34th Street Partnership, who have also said vendors are 'bad citizens,'" Basinski said. "We are also preparing a lawsuit against 34th Street Partnership for interfering with these vendors’ businesses. However, lawsuits take a long time."
It's probably quicker to remove some of those planters.