By Gary Tomei
Street fairs are supposed to be for us denizens of New York. Instead, they make millions for promoters at our expense, with a pittance thrown to “community organizations” like Democratic clubs and Republican clubs. And they send the traffic from closed avenues to our neighborhood streets. It’s time to take the streets back from the hucksters who profit from street fairs.
In the movie, Casablanca, Claude Raines said he was “shocked, shocked” to find that there was gambling in Rick’s Cafe. I too was similarly “shocked” to find that three men, producers of so-called “street fairs”, make millions off the backs of the same vendors who work every one of these fairs, selling the same old tired crap at each one, vendors, who incidentally, for the most part, have no connection with the neighborhoods in which the fairs are located.
At the same time, the City loses millions of dollars for police and sanitation services to cover these events: events that tend to erode the quality of life for those who actually live in the neighborhoods. The figures I have from 2010 are that the City collects about $1.4 million from the fairs BUT SPENDS $4 million to service them. At this time, six years later, the costs must be considerably higher.
In July of 2010, the NY Daily News reported that there were 321 such fairs operating in the City every year. We have confirmed that in 2016 the area encompassed by Community Board 2 alone has 43 such “fairs”: 22 longer than one block.
So, exactly who are the beneficiaries of these events that cause nightmares for the residents of the area in which they are held by spawning traffic jams with resulting noise and air pollution, blocked streets, and the loss of sales for local businesses? In 2010, it was reported that Todd Berman’s Clearview Festival Productions ran 106 fairs across the City, raking in $2.3 million from vendors. In 2009, Joseph Giovanni’s Mardi Gras Festival Productions ran 77 Manhattan fairs taking in $2.6 million from vendors.
In 2009, Mort Berkowitz ran just 22 fairs but grossed $1.2 million from vendors. Mind you, these numbers are from six or seven years ago. What is each of them making now, $3 million, $4 million? I saw Mort Berkowitz and the others at the City Council hearing held on October 13th to consider new rules aimed at lowering the number of said fairs and insuring neighborhood participation and control of them.
Berkowitz and the other profiteers were shepherding numerous vendors and street fair beneficiaries to testify before Council Member Daniel R. Garodnick, against the proposed changes. There were probably 130 or so of them against the changes. I was there to testify on behalf of the West 13th Street 100 Block Association, an 1100 member group, for the proposed changes.
Needless to say, at the hearing, I was not a popular figure. I testified that the street fairs were boring events where the same sweat socks and kebobs were sold, and were not connected in any viable way to the neighborhoods in which they were held. Of course, I stressed the disruption they cause, in particular in Greenwich Village, and the loss of business suffered by local stores. I suggested that we have fewer such events and if, as a result thereof, the fair vendors lose revenue, I strongly urged that the millionaire “producers” make up the difference by greatly increasing their payments to these merchants. Finally, I proposed a better system of vetting the groups who get a cut from the profiteering “producers”. While there are legitimate local groups benefitting from truly communal fairs, there are far too many that have no charitable purpose and tenuous neighborhood ties. And why are political clubs, which are essentially private organizations, benefiting from the closing of our streets and the erosion of our quality of life? Aren’t they supposed to do exactly the opposite and enhance our quality of life?
As far back as 2003, Alan Jacobs of the West 13th Street 100 Block Association, has been trying to alert our community and our elected officials of these scams where part of the proceeds go to political clubs. In the West 13th Street Gazette, Alan wrote: ‘The 6th Avenue “Festival’ in Chelsea serves to make us miserable twice a year by backing up traffic on 6th Avenue and diverting traffic onto our block. The only ‘community organization’ to be served by the next 6th Avenue Festival… is called ‘Chelsea Midtown Democrats’.” The Chelsea Midtown Democrats have such a small club that it does not even have a clubhouse. We obtained the address and phone number from two elderly ladies who sat during last year’s Festival at an unmarked card table outside of Staples. This was the club’s official booth.
This year, the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club took over the same stretch of 6th Avenue from 14th Street to 23rd Street on May 29th and made us just as miserable. Unfortunately, the Chelsea Midtown Democrats is still listed in 2016 as sponsors of the 8th Avenue Festival, held on September 24th, between 14th Street and 23rd Street. Furthermore, on April 30th, exactly the same stretch of 8th Avenue was tied up for a “fair” by another group. How oversaturated can you get??? There are many organizations, other than political clubs, that should not be exploiting our neighborhoods by running “fairs” that are not communally based and run. In all fairness, a number of those operated by political clubs are not the gigantic events that clog our streets.
Council Member Garodnick has proposed sensible guidelines aimed at returning the streets to the actual residents of each community. These rules also would limit the number of fairs in each community board. With all the political and mercantile interests in opposition to changing the street fair rules, this may be a fool’s errand, but we hope it is not. The quality of life for all Manhattanites depends on making these changes.
If you are interested in reading more about who is behind these street fairs and who profits from them, check out the following:
1. Center for an Urban Future (CUF) at https://nycfuture.org.
2. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/street-kings-fair -producers-lion-share-cookie-cutterfests-article-1.466873.
3. West 13th Street Gazette, Number 9, April 2003.