Street Vendors Respond to Being Treated Like Trash

A street vendor looks on as people rally for laborers’ rights on International Workers’ Day. The May 1 celebration, also known as May Day, honors those who work in food service, construction, sex work and more.

Article and photos by Yadira Gonzalez | May 24, 2023

On any other day, Sonia Perez toils in Maria Hernandez Park selling tamales and coffee to the neighborhood locals. But on May 6 she arrived at the Bushwick park with her shopping cart filled with coolers to the sight of a crowd excited to greet her. Perez was the first stop in the Street Vendor Project’s second annual scavenger hunt.

The game, which turned supporting food carts, trucks and stands into a friendly competition, drove players to visit street vendors throughout the five boroughs and purchase their wares to win a grand prize. The groups of teams were filled with anticipation but they soon remembered why they were there when Perez’s speech punctuated the afternoon.

Sonia Perez sells tamales and coffee during a kick-off event for the Street Vendor Project’s second annual scavenger hunt. Participants were sent to visit pushcarts, food trucks and stands to meet vendors throughout the five boroughs.

“What we need beyond today is also your support to change so that we can be recognized as small businesses that can work legally as street vendors.” Perez said. “We don’t come here to harm anyone, rob anyone. We come to work and bring our families forward.”

The Street Vendor Project hosts their second annual scavenger hunt on Jefferson Street, an area filled with food trucks and carts, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The Street Vendor Project hosts their second annual scavenger hunt on Jefferson Street, an area filled with food trucks and carts, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

But gaining support, especially from the city government, has been and continues to be a challenge. After two years of residing within the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, the Office of Street Vendor Enforcement became officially established within the Department of Sanitation as of April 1, according to a letter from the office of Mayor Eric Adams. In response, street vendors refused to be treated like trash.

Members of the Street Vendor Coalition, including workers, stand in front of the Washington Square Park arch on International Workers’ Day. Members of the association were calling for recognition as small businesses from the city.

Laborers, community leaders and nonprofit organizations have since buttressed their efforts towards guaranteeing protection that is otherwise threatened by bureaucratic mutability and, now, DSNY police.

“It’s just a mismatch,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of SVP. “Street vendors are small businesses and thinking about the Department of Sanitation, they do great work but their mandate is not to be involved with small businesses.”

“Our work saved lives,” reads one banner held by members of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change. Demonstrators marched down the streets of New York City calling better treatment from the government on May Day.

Members of the SVP, including many of the laborers they represent, and several workers’ unions gathered in Washington Square Park on International Workers’ Day to rally for their rights. Politicians also gathered to share their solidarity with workers.

“Y’all work too damn hard to keep our city running, to keep yourselves, your families, your blocks, your communities, your boroughs, your city safe and healthy and moving forward,” New York City council member Tiffany Cabán said at the rally. “Y’all are due to get absolutely everything you are demanding and you absolutely deserve.”

“A government’s job, to be clear, is not what it’s currently doing,” council member of New York City’s District 22 Tiffany Cabán said. “Treating workers like widgets, like fungible assets to be squeezed dry, of everything that they’ve got.”

An increase in available mobile food vending permits—currently capped at 3,000 citywide—is one of the many acts of legislation that advocates are working towards. According to Kaufman-Gutierrez, this would allow vendors greater protection while they work on the street for people like Perez.

A street vendor gives churros away for free after the demonstrators marched the streets of New York City on International Workers’ Day.

After having worked 20 years as a street vendor, Perez remains in the queue for a mobile food permit. As one of SVJ’s almost 3,000 members, though, she retains some level of security with the nonprofit providing legal services and educational training.

Just below the 7-train on Corona Plaza, street vendors sell fruit and other goods. The workers in these stalls formed the Corona Plaza Coalition in 2022 as a way to prevent constant involvement with law enforcement.

In lieu of the morass of paperwork within the city departments, street vendors have also begun to form their own coalitions, ensuring that the space in which they sell remains safe against authorities. Getting off of the 7-train on 103 Street, one’s senses are piqued by the smells of roasting meat and sweet aguas frescas in a little nook of Latin America that has flourished since its vendors formed their alliance.

The street vendors, most of whom are women of color, sell a variety of meats, treats and beverages under the 7-train every day.

The Corona Plaza Coalition, which has been named one of New York City’s top 100 restaurants by The New York Times, created an association in 2022 that established that the vendors would handle any disputes or matters regarding cleanliness internally to stave off any encounters with law enforcement.

One stand sells skewers of meat and roasted corn on Corona Plaza. The cluster of vendor stands under the 7-train was ranked one of New York City’s top 100 restaurants by The New York Times.

Since the reestablishment under the DSNY, run-ins with the police have fortunately been limited to those truly violating health and safety codes. Yet, the frequency of confrontations could subside if the proper instruction for the police and street vendors were provided, according to Kaufman-Gutierrez.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the way they have really done the 24-hour warning system with vendors before doing enforcement,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez. “But warning is not the same as training.”

Continued investment in street vendors, educational resources and the organizations that advocate for them is a tasty way to keep New York City’s small businesses alive.

Customers come from near and far to try the street food of Corona Plaza.

“We’re coming together and uniting as a community. We should focus on ensuring that street vendors are able to thrive,” Perez said.