Friday, October 30, 2009

Misplaced Sympathy

Our good friend Albor Ruiz covered a vendor protest last week, and we believe that his sympathies are misplaced: "New Yorkers are a famously contentious bunch. But there is one issue everybody agrees on: Unemployment in the city is far too high. So, it is difficult to understand why, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the city decided to go after street vendors with a vengeance. But vendors are not taking what they consider unfair treatment by the Police Department sitting down."

Now this may be a case where two disadvantaged groups are being unfairly pitted against each other; but our primary sympathies lie with the store owners-something that Ruiz knows a great deal about. As he pointed out earlier this year: "Small, friendly and convenient, bodegas are more than businesses - they are veritable neighborhood institutions. Yet they are disappearing faster than you can say "stimulus package." Ramón Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the United States, and a bodega owner, is sounding the alarm about the state of the business to which he has dedicated 24 years of his life - and that has allowed him to raise four
children."Bodegas are family businesses, and every time one closes, two or three families suffer," he said at his Red Apple Grocery, at 134 Hamilton Place in Manhattan. "Last year, 137 of them went down only along Broadway from 230th St. to 197th St.," Murphy added. "Hundreds of bodegueros [bodega owners] are throwing in the towel. Every day, two or three bodegas close in New York."

So the stores are hurting badly-and it's not just the little guys, although they have the hardest time. As the NY Daily News reported in January: "Now is the worst," said Ramon Murphy, a bodega owner for 24 years and president of the Bodega Association of the United States.
The recession added another burden to stores already facing rising rents, Murphy said, causing a surge of bodega closings across the city last year - including 137 bodegas along Broadway in Manhattan."

So while we sympathize with the plight of vendors, it is important to stabilize the city's small business base-and in many areas vendors setting up shop in front of stores are bleeding the revenues away from retailers that depend on these lost sales to survive. That is why we oppose the measure to increase the number of street vendors that Ruiz touts in his column.

As Ruiz tells us: "With unemployment at 10.3% in the city, higher than the national rate of 9.7% according to the state Labor Department, some City Council members like Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan) and Charles Barron (D-East New York) believe that instead of punishing vendors, the cap on street vending permits should be raised. Barron recently introduced a bill that would do exactly that...The vendors' demands are reasonable: End the disproportionate fines, open more streets to vendors and increase the number of permits."

Until there is a coherent regulatory and enforcement mechanism to control existing street vending, we believe that any increase would be a disaster, not only for the small businesses that are forced to compete with these low overhead peddlers, but also for many local communities whose quality of life is being eroded by vendor proliferation.