Monday, January 04, 2010

Vendor Van Bomb Scare

The fact that cops on New Years failed to notice an illegally parked van near Times Square, highlights the issue of peddler proliferation in the city-the vendors are so commonplace that their vans, trucks and carts are allowed carte blanche by the police that are supposed to enforce the peddling laws. As the NY Daily News reports: "The owner of a suspicious van that triggered a bomb scare in Times Square surrendered to police Thursday night as the city's top cop ordered a review of why the vehicle was allowed to sit illegally parked for two days. Street peddler George Freyre, 36, turned himself in at the NYPD's Midtown South stationhouse about 6 p.m. and was hit with a felony rap for allegedly forging the expiration date on the van's temporary registration."

What this incident dramatizes is just how brazen the street vendor community has become-a sense of impunity that has devolved from the city's lax enforcement of the aggressive-and illegal-proliferation of these miscreants all over the city's commercial streets. With the vendor van bomb scare at the end of the year, we have come full circle.

What we have witnesses over the past year is the consequence of the city's inaction: Corruption over vendor permits, phony rent-a-veteran schemes, turf battles over street locations and, most egregious, a deadly gun battle with police. And let's not forget our pet peeve-the proliferation of produce peddlers, now under city sanction in misguided "Green Cart" legislation.

The Times Square van is symbolic of the entire panoply of peddler non enforcement-and 2010 needs to be different so that the streets can be returned to the neighborhoods and the small businesses that are vital to, not only local commerce, but to the economic health of the entire city.

It will be up to the city council to hold the mayor's hand to the fire-after all, in eight years Mike Bloomberg has yet to exhibited even a soup├žon of concern for neighborhood quality of life. And all of the criminality and fraud should be enough to prompt an investigation (are you paying attention Andrew Cuomo?) of the entire peddling industry-and the shadowy empires that lurk behind the scenes while benefiting from the false public impression that these street businesses are representative of immigrant entrepreuerism.

The reality is that street vending is exploitative of legitimate businesses on any number of levels-from the counterfeiting that rips off genuine manufacturers, to the wholesale suppliers who rip off the peddlers who are forced to work without any employee protection whatsoever. But leave it to the NY Times to continue its romanticizing of the intrepid vendors-and to hell with the legitimate store owners. Last week we read the heart wrenching story of the hardworking fruit vendor, who just happened to be in the country illegally: "Mr. O’Shaughnessy soon learned that Mr. Alam, who came to the United States 17 years ago but had long ago been denied political asylum, had been detained by immigration officials early one October morning."

Nothing about who actually owned Mr. Alam's cart, who supplied him, or the supermarkets and fruit stands in the midtown neighborhood who are forced to compete with the no-overhead peddler. And, of course, no speculation about his illegal status-and a proper labeling of it-beyond this tear-filled narrative: "As is often the case with immigrants trying to build full lives while hoping no one will notice, Mr. Alam has no voice in this story. Largely unknown to his clients, he became a fully fleshed figure only in absentia, no longer a neighborhood perk, but a person, someone with children, a past life in Bangladesh, and now, a big heart’s worth of heartache."

The New Year should-and will with our help, and that of Councilman Garodnick and his colleagues-see the beginning of the end of this form of blatant exploitation; one that threatens the right of the city's neighborhoods to have streets that are made for unencumbered walking and legitimate small business activity-and not for intrusive and economically destructive vending. And hopefully as well, the deconstruction of the false lachrymose narratives that distort the issue at the expense of tax paying small businesses.