Why Do French-Canadians Dominate New York's Christmas Tree Market?
Each holiday season, NYC sidewalks host fresh faces from Quebec, young bohemians hocking Douglas Firs to wealthy locals.
Photo via Flickr user Dr.DeNo
Canadians are known for their outdoorsy lifestyles. The term "lumberjack" was first used in reference to Canuck loggers, and today their reputation has become so widespread they even have their own live act at Epcot center called the Canadian Lumberjack Show. So in some ways it seems fitting that they would make up the majority of Christmas tree salespeople in New York City. In fact, after visiting an array of stands in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, I failed to find one that wasn't operated by Canadians, although I was told they exist.
Hired in Montreal, these folks are the most temporary of migrant peddler—Québécois who visit our pavement from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve every year. After all, New York City, the most old-world of American metropolises, still has professions dominated by ethnic groups. Everyone knows that our cops have historically been disproportionately Irish, our dry cleaners Korean, and to get a serious diamond, you still go to the Hasidic Jews of 47th Street. Are the Canadians but another immigrant fiefdom? Each holiday season, our sidewalks host these fresh faces from Quebec, young bohemians hocking Douglas Firs to Manhattanites. But why them?
If the trees simply came from the same forests as their traffickers, the mystery would be solved. Long ago, when Canada was the cheapest source of Christmas trees, that was the case. But today, even though the country is the world's greatest exporter of the product, North Carolina's tree farms provide many of the city's evergreens (and the state claims to provide about a fifth of trees nationwide). And the company that dominates the market, Forever Evergreen, is incorporated in Florida . It's only the staff that is foreign, setting aside their dignity to speak English in compensation for the five to ten grand they bring home for their month of work.
Born in 1978, I remember the stands closing and the trees being tied up for the night. Today, they are 24-hour operations, although few customers come after midnight. But when your business is only open for one month out of the year, it's important to clock as much overtime as possible. While firm numbers are hard to come by, it's been estimated that by the time Christmas Day arrives the average stand will have made around $30,000.
The city leases the sidewalk space for a pittance, but who gets what is a murky process—I'm told that Forever Evergreen wins the most (and best) locations. Their prime position is alleged to be the fruit of legal but unwholesome business practices like price undercutting. (I reached out to Forever Evergreen and was refused comment.) The muggings, extortion attempts, and planned robberies that plague some operators are more likely a part of the city's crimescape than targeted assaults. Rumors of mercenary homeless arsonists burning Christmas tree stands seem far from today's New York. A Vermonter who tried a three-stand operation in the city claimed that a certain "kingpin" in the industry threatened to dump trees for the taking across the street from his stand. Forever Evergreen pays for its sidewalk like anyone else, but perhaps it's not too surprising that the person signing the paperwork has been in the business for four decades— once profiled as the Christmas Tree Czar, he's been described many a time as the Man behind the Stands.
Because sidewalk space is rented by the city, the bids are public information by law. By scanning long spreadsheets in tiny fonts, anyone can learn that New York City earns around $200,000 a year from the tree trade. A few well-performing stands can take care of that bill on their own. The Canadians, often dreadlocked and universally friendly, are mostly creative types without regular careers, and can earn ten grand in cash in a good season at a prime location. Not bad for a month, even if the working conditions aren't easy—spending weeks on the street at a stand with no closing time is a challenge for anyone, even tough guys from Quebec.
When asked why they are brought down for this business, many stand-keepers insist it's their signature Canadian grit. Used to the cold and skilled in survival techniques, they are able to camp on a New York sidewalk for a month. That makes sense, but questions remain. An experienced seller I spoke to (still under 30) wondered why the trees arrive in the middle of the night. The cash transfer procedure is downright sinister: a "collector" arrives daily, or rather nightly, in an SUV with Florida plates. His appearance is unannounced, and the staff is instructed to move the envelope of cash from the stand to the car with it hidden up their sleeve. The "drop" is concluded with a financial report sheet, conveniently printed in French and English, and there isn't too much small talk.
The stands get generators and fuel, mainly for the lights that decorate them, and "shufflers" move the trees at night to keep the places fully stocked. Prices are relative—a $45 five-foot tree like mine can be promoted to an $80 special just by moving to high-rent Park Avenue. No one I spoke to mentioned taxes. While there is enough equipment to wrap trees and saw them, as well as tree-stands and wreaths for sale, there are few creature comforts on hand for the Canadians. They are expected to know how to camp, and when everything is wrapped up on Christmas Eve, the pay comes in bags of $20 bills and reflects the performance of the stand.
The tree-sellers I spoke to operated in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and were all Canadian and employees of Forever Evergreen. None of them considered a threat from outside competition. Perhaps it's no coincidence that I couldn't find any, but being unlikely to have local sympathies ensured their neutrality in a sometimes shady business. When asked why they had a hold on the business, the employees agreed on five reasons:
Since the trees once came from Quebec, the staff did too and never stopped coming. In fact, all of the hiring is word-of-mouth. While there is a list one can sign up on, only a select few get to make the trip and the money—the lucky ones are insiders. Generations take the trip, the son of a harmonica-playing tree peddler manning his own stand in a separate borough. Another Canadian said his father made the same journey in his youth.
The French-Canadians Like the Work
All of the counter-cultural youth from Montreal and tree-surgeon and grizzled pine veterans told me that this is one job they enjoy doing. Feeling appreciated and respected, even though they have to speak the English they know but do not love, the migrants told me anecdotes of the kindness of some New Yorkers. They have received home-cooked meals, knitted mittens, and a variety of substances (some not quite legal, others just hard to stomach early in the morning) to keep them warm and content.
Americans Aren't Up to the Job
It was emphasized to me that no American jobs were being poached by foreigners. Staffing is international and there are Forever Evergreen stands run by US citizens and Australians as well as the French-Canadian majority. When the trees became cheaper in North Carolina than Canada, the company changed suppliers. If more Americans wished to camp on the sidewalks of a notoriously harsh city, they can apply for the job.
The difference between what our guests feel as cold and what we do, anecdotally, is about ten to 15 degrees. One young, lithe Québécois was just fine in a t-shirt as the passersby sported parkas. The Canadians, especially experienced ones like tree surgeons, also have unique methods to deal with the cold. Ingesting enormous amounts of cayenne pepper and ginger in every form creates internal heat (although there are nasty consequences that sometimes follow). Protecting the hands is vital, as infection can destroy one's capacity to work, so mineral oil is the secret. It's sold as "intestinal lubricant" here—a laxative. But the woodsmen know to rub their hands with the stuff.
Camping and Survival Skills
With nowhere to stash and secure the trees, the stands must be 24-hour operations, so their keepers are ever-present. They take turns sleeping in their Jeeps, but also know the little secrets of surviving a hostile climate. Turns out you shouldn't wash your hair more than once a week, so that the natural protective oils take hold. Feet are delicate and precious; many of the campers change their socks several times a day, because frozen sweat on wool feels like concrete. One tree man insulated his boots with a roll of tape, and showed me the belt made of bungee that kept his tools together, and his wool pants from falling down. Dressing like an onion, so layers can be peeled before the sweat begins, is vital, and rum in your coffee can't hurt.
Of course, some New Yorkers know all these tricks. The homeless population of the city is nearly 60,000, so interactions with them are common for our Canadian visitors. In the past, theirs may have been the hands that set the infamous fires, even if their stake in the struggle was no more than for-hire. The cash trades attract our poorest, and mental illness is rife among the homeless. But for the most part, the two groups occupying our sidewalks in the weeks leading up to Christmas each year have achieved a symbiotic relationship, the tree dealers tell me.
After a day that includes lifting trees as heavy as 300 pounds, it is difficult for some of the Canadians to stay up through the lonely hours of the night. But the homeless are accustomed to nocturnal hours. They also enjoy the extra food and cash that the kindly visitors share with them. So to return the favor, they look out for the temporary residents of "their" streets. Some of these men, once suspected of burning down stands for pay, guard them today.
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