By Milad Momeni
New Yorkers. We love the hustler. We venerate the feisty businessperson who lays it all down for their dream. Nevertheless, as the city becomes more gentrified and the police omnipresent, the amount of available space for poor people who work for themselves is slowly diminishing. This tendency is even more visible if those people are brown, immigrants, or are not proficient in English—like Osama K., one of our city’s many street vendors.
An Iraqi artist based in Midtown, Osama is one of nearly 20,000 people who make a living selling food, artwork, flowers, t-shirts, and many other items on the sidewalks of NYC. Since the early 20th century, these vendors have been staples of our city’s streets and New Yorkers’ daily schedules, and essential to the heartbeat of the city. But day-to-day, despite their timeless presence in New York—where, according to a report by the Institute for Justice, they contribute $293 million annually to the economy—street vendors face an uphill battle. It doesn’t matter if one’s cart or table houses incense oils or doughnuts, halal food or cityscape photographs—vending is for the thick-skinned. The pay is inconsistent, the hours are long, competition is intense, and law enforcement fines street vendors excessively for trivial rule violations.
Navigating a byzantine and tangled bureaucracy, street vendors have to abide by fifty-plus pages of rules that regulate their operations—covering health rules, limiting them to certain streets, even prohibiting them from tucking their licenses into their shirts. If a vendor doesn’t entirely understand the regulations, an inspecting officer will most likely be even less informed, leaving a large margin for miscommunication and an opportunity to hand out a quota-fulfilling ticket. As a result, cops often slam vendors with tickets that can consume half of their gross profit.
However, misinformed cops are only part of the difficulties street vendors face. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are zones where business owners pay an extra tax to fund services. These owners employ private security to give vendors a tough time, and use their connections with agency officials to lobby for the closure of more streets. To BID members, vendors like Osama K. are pests in their abrasive movement to develop sleek corporate neighborhoods. To vendors, this presents a battle for more than survival. They’re fighting for the right to be ambitious in New York. Regarding how BIDs and law enforcement treat street vendors, Osama said, “We sell art to showcase the beauty of this great city. We are not criminals!”
New Yorkers. We are assertive rogues who live in filth, but are told that with enough drive any of us can own a unit at 432 Park Avenue (the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere). That’s a myth, of course, though, like all myths, it holds a small measure of truth. But what remains of such a truth is slowly fading away due to the unyielding forces of gentrification, corporations, and hyper-bureaucracy, and street vendors like Osama fight constantly to keep the myth grounded and our streets alive. “If I take one day off, what can I do? Relax? That’s not life,” stated Osama emphatically before setting up his table.