Friday, March 16, 2007

Racial Diversity and the Vexing Vendors

In this week's New York Observer the paper's Azi Paybarah "exposes" our actions in defense of tax paying store owners against the proliferation of street peddlers. It seems that someone took one of our strategy memos that went out to some of the BID leaders and "leaked" it to the Observer. Why this was so newsworthy is somewhat mystifying.

What is newsworthy, and what Azi fails to emphasize, is the fact that it is necessary to pull out all stops to prevent the store owners and community residents who are fed up with the proliferation of vendors in their shopping strips from being stigmatized as racist or anti-immigrant if they don't want their streets overrun by vendors. This is necessary because there is simply not enough of a bedrock of support in this city for the rights of tax paying businesses-unless of course they are part of the permanent government elite that has carte blanche in the political process.

The needs of local neighborhood store owners is simply not an attractive component of the dominant political narrative, and this is true at both sides of city hall. Health needs, immigrant rights, regulatory necessities to raise money through fines and fees, all take presence over the retailers who employ hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and help to enliven and make safe hundreds of neighborhood shopping areas.

This anti-business bias can be seen in some of the comments to Azi's post on the Politiker blob. As one commentator put it: "Lipsky has no conscience or shame. He is so obviously pro big business, anti minority..." And this about someone who has spent twenty five years defending minority businesses when absolutely no one else would.

But this particular commentator really caught the city's zeitgeist when he went on to say "Who cares" even if these vendors are competing with multi-million dollar food chains, they can afford it. Of course our learned observer wasn't thinking about the more than ten thousand workers who are employed in the Manhattan supermarkets, workers who are losing their jobs right along with the shrinking sales being lost to the street vendors.

And he wasn't thinking about the possibility that some of the very vendors that he extols as hard working entrepreneurs may in fact be nothing more than exploited workers who are being paid, unlike the unionized workers at the A&P, Gristedes or Associated stores, substandard wages with no benefits.

Of course the reality is that the store owners themselves are becoming predominately minority. We have over a thousand supermarkets in the city and over 500 of them are owned by either Dominicans, Koreans or Arab-Americans. Go down 181st Street in Washington Heights where the store owners are mostly Hispanic, the same is true for Corona and Third Avenue in the South Bronx. The way to wealth in this country at the retail level is to raise enough capital to open a store and build that one store into many; just as so many immigrant and minority business people have done, not just in the supermarket industry but in the restaurant business as well. Just ask Louis Nunez who leads the 4,000 strong Latino Restaurant Association.

What is remarkable in all of this is that there is not a visceral understanding of the basic unfairness of allowing people with little or no overhead, folks who are avoiding paying any rent or real estate taxes, to compete against store owners who are playing by this city's over-taxed over-regulated rules. When the city raised the commercial real estate tax in 2002 it amounted to a 25% rent increase for every store owner in this town, It was needed in order to make up a greater than $2 billion dollar budget deficit. Street peddlers coughed up not a penny but continued to freeload on every one else's dime.