Omar is mad. He grabs a hot dog, quickly slices it in two, and presses the meat down into the sizzling aluminum grill of his Halal food cart in New York's Times Square.
"They treat us like garbage," he says. "I'm not garbage. I'm human."
The "they" Omar is referring to is the city police, who he claims often harass, arrest, and fine street vendors for alleged violations of street space. The "they" is the city government, which imposes a host of licensing rules that make it hard for low-income workers and immigrants like Omar to turn a decent profit and develop their business. The "they" is storefront restaurants and businesses that vending activists say have been vocal advocates for keeping these restrictive rules in place.
"I'm the economy!" Omar insists. He has bulging brown eyes, slick black hair and the week-old beginnings of a beard. “I give people good cheap food that they can afford.” He emphatically points to the factory-made bulk goods in his cart — the bags, straws, wipes, pretzels, condiments, meats and more. “I buy these things and help to employ the people in those factories,” he says. “I am important. I’m like security, I see everything that goes on in the streets!”
It's 9 at night and Omar opened his cart two hours ago just as an October chill set in. He'll stand at the corner of 42nd and 8th until midnight selling cheap drinks and Americanized versions of “Eastern” dishes like kabob and chicken and rice. He knows all the vendors in the area, and many of the customers who go by.
Omar came four years ago from Port Said, a coastal town in Egypt, seeking stability for his family, including four kids. For centuries street carts have been a part of the American immigrant story. Each vendor has a different impetus. For Omar, it’s his family. For them he has learned the ins and outs of a bureaucracy that most Americans never have to think about: what hours and days certain streets are banned, in which zones the police officers are friendlier, how to navigate certain courts for different fines, and more. He’s just trying to make decent money.
Omar is not alone in his frustration. Across the country activists warn that America's street food venders are under threat as the public munches along unaware of the continued criminalization of a practice integral to local communities and economies. The conditions vary from city to city: In New York City there's a crippling cap on permits put in by the Legislature that creates a black market for carts and keeps vendors like Omar down. In Los Angeles food vending on sidewalks is illegal. Conditions are somewhat better in spread-out and liberalized Portland, Ore., which regulates street vendors as small businesses rather than as criminals. But in major cities like Chicago, Atlanta and Milwaukee -- and small towns like Roanoke in Virginia -- vendors face a host of restrictions, including bans on cooking on premises and vending in public places.
City authorities like the Health Department and police do provide a public good by ensuring food and safety standards. In statements, city officials have argued that strict enforcement is necessary to keep the sidewalks and streets clean and protect law-abiding merchants. "New York City has a fair and equitable enforcement program," the NYC Health Department told Salon in an email in response to alleged police violations. "Vendors who feel that they were inappropriately cited for violating rules and laws have an opportunity to present their case at a hearing."
But that's not enough for Omar and others. They are mad that these “quality of life” regulations in practice undercut their economic and entrepreneurial opportunities, criminalizing their right to be a part of and benefit from the public street. A comprehensive 2011 report “Street of Dreams” by the Institute of Justice found that of America’s 50 largest cities, 33 had no-vending zones, and five went as far as forbidding vendors from parking unless flagged by a customer. The report argues that these zoning and duration restrictions come at a real loss for neighborhood livability -- and for some people's right to public space.
“It’s about the American dream,” argued Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, a NYC-based group that works to improve the collective rights of street vendors. “There are a lot of ways that vendors are good for the city and the economy. But for me it comes back to the opportunities for people to make a better life for themselves.”
The SVP is the largest and best-resourced of several growing groups in cities like L.A., Chicago, Atlanta and Toronto that are building a national vendor alliance. In October the groups met together for the first time at the United Workers Congress in Chicago. There they strategized about funding and organizing structures. While every city’s vending situation is different, they coalesce around one goal: vendor power. Activists argue that good regulation and city planning can improve the climate for small businesses, enhance street vitality, and provide opportunities for mobility, particularly in immigrant and low-income communities.
That’s why Omar joined in. “Whenever I have a problem, now I go straight to the union and they help me out,” he said. Omar joined SVP after the fines, costs and humiliations became too much for him to bear on his own. “Together we are stronger.”
The average American seeking a cheap lunch break does not see these hidden costs. But two months ago Basinski felt the lesson firsthand. On Sept. 19 Basinski, a trained lawyer, was leaving the Midtown Community Court after representing a vendor, when he witnessed the police confiscating another vendor's cart and preparing to issue a ticket. So Basinski pulled out his video and started documenting the incident. He urges vendors to document incidents like these to use in court; in this case, he wanted a record of what goods the police confiscated so the vendor could be compensated.
In NYC it is legal to record police activity in public places as long as it does not interfere with police duties. A video Basinski posted to YouTube clearly shows Basinski several feet away from the incident. But the police felt differently. They arrested Basinski and charged him with disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental administration. He is contesting the arrest.
“If this happens to me — a white guy, wearing a business suit, a lawyer, 6-foot-3, not easily intimidated — it can certainly happen to our members,” Basinski told the New York Times after the incident.
And it does. New York City food vendors work each day under two major constraints: a citywide cap on vending permits, and the cost of fines for various violations, which they say are often arbitrarily imposed. NYC food vendors need to apply for a vending license (which the city then taxes) before they can work: The process usually takes several months, and involves filling out many forms, some of which are only in English. But receiving a license doesn't mean vendors' troubles are over. They need a separate permit for a cart — and most vendors, like Omar, cannot afford a cart permit these days. This is because in the 1980s NYC set a cap of 3,000 (with more added over time for special exceptions) on the number of permits for carts and trucks. With such a high demand and limited supply, a black market developed in which those lucky to own a cart permit (the “mafia,” as Omar calls them) license them out for two-year periods at $10,000 to $20,000. Why are there so many food carts selling the same cheap eats, like Halal chicken, in New York City? Because it’s the tried and tested formula for a system resistant to innovation.
Vendors like Omar therefore don’t own their own carts; some bosses treat their workers respectfully, but others can be exploitative. When it comes to the fines, it's often the vendor working the street that day who has to be pay. The Village Voice reported that in 2012, the city handed out more than 26,00 tickets to street vendors — many for $1,000. The problem is that many of these infractions were minor and not related to health and safety, like vending too far from a curb, or not wearing their vending license visibly around their neck. Given their limited profits — on average about $100 a day — most vendors cannot pay.
In February, after three years of intense lobbying, the SVP achieved its biggest success yet: The City Council voted to cut the maximum fines for street vendors in half, from $1,000 to $500, as well as to ease fines for smaller violations. Next on the agenda, says Basinski, is cutting down the permit cap. The New York City Food Truck Association has joined with the SVP and several other groups in these collective actions. (Food trucks face a slightly different situation, but many of the same labor issues apply.) In response to Basinski’s arrest, SVP organized a rally at the precinct. The vendors waved placards — “Keep calm, camera is on” and “respect our right to film” — as several officers looked on.
In other American cities vendors have even fewer resources and rights. But in Los Angeles, the food truck capital of America, groups like East LA Street Vending Work Group are starting to make a mark.
"We believe that land use in the city of L.A. should benefit those who work there," explained Janet Favela, of ELACC, in a phone interview. "We see street vending as an entrepreneurial opportunity for thousands of folks in L.A. There's lots of potential in terms of income if their work is decentralized." Favela explained that they are making strides through community town halls and trying to gain constituencies of supporters and City Council members committed to decriminalizing street food vending on sidewalks. "A lot of folks don’t know a lot of our work is informing the public,” Favela said. “They don’t know what happens to people out there trying to support their families. They don’t know that people can be arrested, deported, harassed. With the lack of jobs and a lot of opportunities, it makes sense that vending happens so much in the neighborhoods."
L.A. is a particularly paradoxical case: The city is known for popularizing many culinary innovations, but street food vending still largely remains a criminalized practice. Favela sees the troubles every day. She recounted the story of Martha Garcia, a vendor in her 60s who just had her whole savings confiscated in an early morning raid. The women sold food to support herself after her husband passed away. In early October she was setting up her cart of tamales, oatmeal and champurrado for the morning rush. She already had four dozen orders, ensuring a good day’s profit. But then the Health Department showed up. They threw out her food and confiscated her cart, cooler and thermos. In one swoop she lost her whole investment. Favela estimates that Martha probably would have made $275 that day. But to start again she needs to find a way to buy another cart, and more coolers and thermoses, averaging $60-$80 each.
“There’s just no opportunities for her for other work,” Favela said. “What’s worse, is that she wasn’t cited and there’s no paperwork. There is a real emotional and psychological impact.”
Basinski understands why street food vendors often get a bad rap. City authorities complain about their health and safety violations, restaurants and businesses fear their competition, and people say they are frustrated by crowded streets and sidewalks, and not enough healthy options. But he responds that criminalizing them is not the solution. Basinski explained that studies have debunked many of these claims: Vendors attract different customers than brick-and-mortar restaurants, they pay taxes and they would sell healthier foods and follow the rules more strictly — if the rules also took their interests more into account.
Basinski grew interested in street vending after traveling abroad in Africa and seeing the phenomena there and at home through different eyes: The 2011 Tunisian Revolution, he added, was started by a frustrated fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire. Basinski said he hopes that street vendors in America will soon gain national recognition, like day laborers and domestic workers. He knows it’s an uphill battle.
But little changes to laws and their application can make a big difference. And they would surely make Omar a little less mad.