Th role of street traders in the public space of cities is constantly undermined in the extension of City Improvement Districts who see them as competition of the rate & rent paying proprietors and owners of urban land. Froth perspective of visitors and tourists and the local population street vendors add a unique ambience to the urban scene. Some problems that are used to justify the control of them and limit their spread is that they are are often not independent, but owned / financed by hidden entrprenueurs who provide the goods and services of their trade through many small vendors who are intact just employees and this result is the street vendors not supplying anything unique, but simply multiplying the trade in grey imports of commodities such as panties and face creams, or fizzy drinks and chips,a s is ht case in Cape Town, where it is difficult to see any reason for having the rows of stalls all still selling the same goods. Genuine traders not selling endless commodities or poor reproductions of tourist nik-naks are hard dot find, ye the y are obviously seeing their goods to someone, but as the stall space is limited the opportunities for real traders are limited by this competition. From Urban Omnibus a report on New Yorks traders:
For more than 200 years, street vendors have been an integral part of New York City. Department store giants Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, after all, started as collectives of door-to-door salespeople. And even more so than those institutions, New York’s estimated 20,000 vendors — by way of their highly visible sidewalk sale of food, flowers, art, books, and more — are embedded firmly in the city’s collective imaginary. When it rains in Manhattan, an umbrella is so easy to come by that a T-Mobile billboard once claimed that its network was faster than an umbrella vendor’s anticipation of rain. The public nature of vending extends to the roles vendors actively take on as direction-givers or go-to sources of change for a $10 bill.
Despite their provision of sought-after services, fellow business interests and policymakers often dismiss vendors as problematic, in part because their lack of a rent payment is considered an unfair leg-up on nearby brick and mortar shops. Regulation of the profession reflects this: vendors’ sidewalk presence is managed under convoluted rules too often used to remove them from areas where they’re deemed unwanted. Tellingly, the map of the city’s Business Improvement Districts, which are funded by local business interests, is roughly congruent with the map of streets where vending is prohibited. This bias against vending extends beyond the BIDs’ domains: across the city, vendors receive on average 40,000 tickets a year. A ticket can carry a fine of up to $1,000 for an infraction as minor as operating an inch too close to the curb or failing to display a vending license around one’s neck. Vendors are arrested roughly 10,000 times a year for reasons ranging from vending without a license to failing to comply with a police officer’s order to move, even when they are lawfully set up.
The cooperation of different New Yorkers, including street vendors in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy calls for a new emphasis on urban collaboration and symbiosis in disaster planning and city planning more broadly. Rather than offering free batteries from their Power Forward truck when the electrical grid shuts down, Duracell could partner with street vendors to distribute them, increasing their coverage area and stemming the use of short-term business tactics like price gouging. Rather than hiring an extra information guide, tourist agencies could work with vendors already performing this role in Lower Manhattan, allowing them to officially do so. Rather than deploying additional solar mobile charging stations, AT&T could invest in the social infrastructure of the city by having street vendors offer charging on the street in exchange for additional revenue.
Opportunities abound, especially when it comes to retrofitting street carts or food trucks to mitigate the pollution and noise that comes with their gas generators. Rather than invest in a project like Simply Grid, which provides on-demand sidewalk access to grid electricity through fixed kiosks, we could power vendors with energy sources like solar panels or biofuels that do not reduce their physical mobility or ability to remain operational when the main energy grid goes dark. Projects aspiring to this already exist: the solar-powered GrowNYC van in Union Square, Our Lady of Detritus’ “sunbrella”-powered mobile A/V system, the Solar Power Pops Truck, and the vegetable oil-fueled BLK Projek mobile green market in the South Bronx. Encouraging such programs and incubating new partnerships would not only lessen overall demand for energy and increase the amount derived from renewable sources, but street vendors acting as ambassadors for these models would increase the visibility of alternative energy sources in our most accessible and prominent public space: the sidewalk.
Because of their mobility, position on the sidewalk, and diverse demographics, street vendors are uniquely positioned to improve urban resilience. But if we are to build upon the unrecognized social role that vendors already play to help us further mitigate, adapt to, and recover from times of crisis, we must ensure that their multiple daily struggles are addressed. When vendors’ right to the sidewalk is threatened, not only are their livelihoods in danger, but the city loses out on this potential. Let’s build on infrastructure that already exists by facilitating strategic partnerships that will valorize, legitimize, and enable street vendors to work beyond their reductionist primary function and confront broader urban issues. It is time for the City to stop treating vendors as a nuisance, and to instead recognize their latent potential as rapidly deployable social infrastructure that can address existing and future needs.