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