Like thousands of New Yorkers, Lucio González lost his job in the pandemic. As an undocumented immigrant, he did not qualify for unemployment benefits or stimulus checks, so he began selling beef barbacoa tacos on Fordham Road in the Bronx.
His work was unsanctioned: The city places strict limits on street vending. But the authorities had eased up on enforcement while the city was shut down, and Mr. González, 54, has eked out a living, one $3 taco at a time. Vendors in similar straits now line busy strips all over the city, filling its parks, plazas and boardwalks, weaving through traffic with coolers, and selling whatever they can — bottled water and mangoes, air-conditioners and knockoff sneakers.
The hustle has been a lifeline for thousands, many of them immigrants, but it has also drawn complaints. In recent weeks, as New York tries to embark on its recovery, city inspectors have been out in force, accompanied by police officers, handing out hefty fines and telling people to pack up their wares.
The crackdown on vendors coincides with an aggressive campaign to clean up the homeless encampments that proliferated during the pandemic, as the city tries to promote business and lure back tourists.
Mr. González was hit this summer with more than $2,000 in fines for violations including operating without a food-vending permit and being stationed too close to a storefront. “They’re not letting us work anymore,” he said in Spanish.
A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, which took over inspecting duties from the police this year, said the enforcement effort was a response to a surge in complaints. The spokeswoman, Abigail Lootens, said the city had focused on “problematic” areas, including Fordham Road in the Bronx and Main Street in Flushing, Queens.
The complaints, she said, have come from business owners, Business Improvement Districts, elected officials and others, who point to street congestion, noise and the unfair competition the vendors pose to brick-and-mortar businesses and to licensed vendors.
The new vendors say they understand the city has an obligation to maintain order, but they have nowhere else to turn. José Luis Martínez said he lost his job as a dessert chef at a restaurant near Columbia University in Manhattan at the outset of the pandemic, and it had been impossible to find another job, because of his immigration status. He had continued selling shaved ice on Fordham Road even after a sweep there in July — which he managed to evade — because of his four children, he said.
“They’re your engine, what makes you go out and run the risk,” said Mr. Martínez, 38, as two of his children, Citleli, 12, and Erick, 9, sat in the shade of his umbrella. It is not uncommon to see vendors with their children; many cannot afford child care.
Business owners say they are sympathetic to the vendors’ plight, but that they too are struggling to recover from the pandemic. “Business was slow,” said Ash Saadi, a longtime employee at Wireless 300, a tiny cellphone accessory shop on Fordham Road. “And then this.”
He went on: “They sell everything we’ve got — skin protectors, iPad cases, chargers — everything.” Mr. Saadi, 32, said he had complained about the vendors using the city’s 311 hotline.
There is no official data on the number of street vendors at work in the city. The number of general-vending licenses is currently capped at 853 and the number of citywide food vendor permits at 2,900 — but in actuality more than 10,000 people may make a living selling merchandise or food on the city’s streets, according to the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group that is part of the Urban Justice Center. The majority are immigrants and people of color, veterans and the disabled.
Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, said that the city’s decision to turn over enforcement to a civilian agency had represented a “huge step” toward decriminalizing vendors — who in the past had their goods confiscated by the police, and were even arrested for selling churros. Still, she said, the recent crackdown was a missed opportunity to fuel the city’s economic recovery from the ground up.
“Street vendors are the smallest businesses,” Ms. Kaufman-Gutierrez said. “They should be given education and opportunities to formalize their businesses instead of punitive fines.” Street vendors, she said, “are the city’s original outdoor dining.”
Advocates for the vendors said sending the police out with city inspectors was unnecessarily intimidating for vendors, many of whom are not legal residents or citizens. In late July, several organizations sent a letter signed by a number of state lawmakers and City Council members calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to remove the police from street-vending enforcement. Ms. Lootens, the city spokeswoman, said only police officers can compel vendors to show identification, which is needed to issue tickets.
Yuan Wenbin was among the vendors fined and made to pack up their stalls in a sweep on Flushing’s Main Street in late July. Mr. Yuan, 49, had been selling hats in Flushing, one of the city’s largest Chinatowns, to support his wife and 9-year-old child after the factory where he worked closed because of the pandemic.
“It’s a rough situation,” Mr. Yuan said as he crammed hats into boxes late last month. “There’s no way to make a living.”
It remains unclear whether ramped-up enforcement will work. A week after the authorities had cleared Main Street — where dozens of vendors had been hawking hats and scarves, kitchen supplies and tools, toys and painted vases — the strip was all but empty. The few vendors who remained wore their licenses displayed prominently on lanyards around their necks.
But in the Bronx, some vendors began to return to Fordham Road mere days after a sweep that began in late July. Mr. González, the taco vendor, was among them, stationed in his usual spot outside a discount store. He had returned not to snub his nose at the authorities, he said, but simply because he had no other way to pay off his fines.
In the city’s parks and boardwalks, where the Parks Department is in charge of regulating vendors, similar dynamics are playing out.
Parks officers have begun to regularly patrol the Coney Island boardwalk in recent weeks, according to several vendors. When they appear, on foot and riding all-terrain vehicles, vendors run, said a 60-year-old Ecuadorean woman who has been selling water there. She had fled an outbreak of the coronavirus in her home country of Ecuador, and had come to New York to get the vaccine several months ago, she said. By selling water, she earned enough to eat every day — about $40.
Vendors have other strategies to avoid fines, several said, from not staying in one place long enough to attract attention to paying a military veteran to team up. There is no cap on the number of general-vending licenses available to certain veterans or their surviving spouses.
“I’m riding around, and if I feel a vibe, I’ll stop,” said Nina Williams, 54, who said she was a nurse in Hackensack, N.J., until the pandemic forced her to stay home to protect her family’s health. Since then, she has been driving in from New Jersey to sell incense, soap and scented oil, rotating from spots on Fordham Road, Manhattan’s 125th Street and Times Square.
Still, there is a sense the clock is ticking everywhere.
In Queens, vendors had turned Corona Plaza into what resembled an open-air market in Mexico, drawing people from the neighborhood and beyond with stalls that sold everything from sizzling chalupas to embroidered sneakers.
But in the first days of August, city inspectors arrived to dole out fines there too, and on nearby Roosevelt Avenue. Andrés Velezela, 16, who had spent the summer selling masks, gloves, hats and wallets at his father’s stall in Corona Plaza, said he had been waiting for the inspectors to arrive.
“If they push us out,” he said, “I guess we’ll have to find another spot.”
Anjali Tsui contributed reporting.
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