The 30 members of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Cooperative Market are in many ways typical of the thousands of fiercely self-sufficient street vendors in neighborhoods across the city, who on any given day are hawking everything from hotdogs to mud cloth. Most of these “micro-entrepreneurs” cobble together a living without the basic legal, political and even physical protections that traditional store-front merchants can take for granted.
But the story of the Bed-Stuy market seems especially senseless and even cruel. Four years ago, some 200 vendors were pushed off a two-block strip on Fulton Street â€“ some of whom had sold their wares there for two decades -- to make way for Fulton FIRST, a commercial revitalization project. Intending to deflect public criticism and vendor resistance, New York City’s Department of Small Business Services offered the Fulton Street vendors an arrangement similar to that in Washington Heights, Harlem and East Flatbush, an off-the-curb, gated outdoor “market” -- temporary fold-up tents on a city-owned plot of concrete. The Bedford-Stuyvesant Market had built-in liabilities that included a physical plant that began to crumble the day it was erected.
Now, those same vendors are scheduled to be evicted. What happens next may function as a referendum on the role of street vendors in the development of low-income neighborhood economies.
Community Economic Impact
During the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, there were massive, coordinated police sweeps in Harlem, East Flatbush, Washington Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, designed to purge illegal street vendor activity to make way for commercial revitalization efforts. This exposed some raw tensions in these neighborhoods, with local merchants and middle-class residents of color pitted against low-income, foreign-born entrepreneurs of color. For instance, at Bedford-Stuyvesant community board meetings, predominately African-American homeowners casually disparaged the vendors for creating a “third world” atmosphere on Fulton. This middle-class antagonism created the political cover needed by the Giuliani administration to clear the vendors off the street.
These vendor relocation efforts in low-income neighborhoods beg some classic questions: Is gentrification the same as community development? Whose interests are served by community renewal?
An article in City Limits Magazine reported that Fulton Street store front owners, who used to accuse vendors of chasing away their business, admitted that business dropped significantly after the streets were cleared of the foot traffic once whipped up by curbside vending.
The Fulton FIRST project, driven by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, provided the pretext for the removal of the Fulton vendors and was supposed to turn Fulton into a shopping destination that would attract higher end chains and merchandisers. Fulton Street now has new outdoor lighting and is noticeably cleaner and less congested than when the vendors dominated the scene, but many argue that it is also no longer the vibrant and colorful thoroughfare it used to be . Either way, the large-scale transformation that was supposed to be triggered by the departure of the vendors has conspicuously stalled.
On 125th Street the change in the post-vendor landscape has been far more dramatic and impressive. The removal of the vendors did in fact pave the way for a more upscale commercial strip. What Harlem lost in the way of gritty urban charm it found in a glossy, corporate makeover.
The economic impact of unlicensed street vending is difficult to measure given the quasi black market nature of the business. Before their ranks were decimated by the Harlem vendor sweep of 1994, more than a thousand vendors made a living on 125th Street. And not only did these vendors themselves patronize other businesses, they attracted thousands of shoppers each day from across the city.
The Shabazz Market vendors, who number under a hundred, all make the same complaint as their Bed-Stuy and Flatbush counterparts â€“ that they make far less than they did on the streets. But there are upsides.
Few would deny for instance that the Shabazz market, with its abundance of African art, has become a welcomed tourist shopping attraction to 116th Street. And while the neighborhood markets hold only a fraction of the vendor populations they were established to accommodate â€“ the vast majority of street vendors opted not to join these markets and presumably become instantly unemployed â€“ they still represent sizable concentrations of gainfully employed people. In the case of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Market, most of the vendors live in the surrounding area and have a strong social, cultural and economic interest in it.
In 2003, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Cooperative Market, by conservative estimates, generated a modest, but respectable, three quarters of a million dollars in sales. Many of vendors in fact did so well that they left the market to start free-standing, “legitimate” businesses.
Perhaps most significantly, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Cooperative Market over the years has attracted a loyal customer base made up of bargain hunting, poor and working-class people from the surrounding area. In response to the news that the market might be closed down, more than a thousand petitions, over the course of a few hours, were signed by customers demanding that it be allowed to remain open.
Broken Promises, Looming Eviction
Over the years explicit promises made by city officials to help raise funds for the market and make it commercially viable with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of capital improvements were never honored. As their tents blew away and collapsed, the vendors were forced to engineer their own makeshift wooden shanties. While the majority of the vendors faithfully pay a maintenance fee that provides for basic services like electricity and security, it is not enough to stave off the physical deterioration of the market.
The winter of 2005 has only been worse. The private landlord in charge of the market announced that the vendors would soon be evicted because of rent arrears. But at a recent meeting with the vendors, Michael Smith, the assistant commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services, soberly informed them that his agency, which had been scarce since offering the vendors shelter and support in exchange for their cooperation and peaceful exit from Fulton Street, would not intervene to help the vendors develop a new market. Instead, he would, he insisted, help them get back on their feet in other ways.
Before Smith could finish ticking off his agency’s tepid offerings (like “small business training”) the vendors’ patience ended abruptly. “Time after time you guys sit here in front of us, in your suits and ties and go blah, blah, blah,” said Donovan Corniffe, a West Indian vendor who runs a lucrative electronic games business at the Market. “And now you tell us we have to leave. You ain’t never done nutin’ for us, nutin’.”
Councilmember Al Vann and State Assemblymember Annette Robinson, who swapped public offices since the vendor relocation, have been unresponsive no-shows on the issue, despite attempts from the vendors to get them involved.
Meanwhile, the small not-for-profit that used to manage the market, citing its own financial challenges, is in the process of dissolving.
The picture is not as bleak in other neighborhoods. The handful of neighborhood-based groups that have sprung up over the last few years to advocate for vendor rights suggest there is a growing awareness of the important role that street vending plays in low-income areas of color. Organizations like East Harlem’s Esperanza del Barrio , and Bushwick’s Latin American Workers Project, for instance, are both fighting for the right of their constituencies to vend freely, without penalty or police harassment.
An appreciation for the value that street vending can add to a neighborhood was demonstrated by the Imam Izak-El Pasha of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in Harlem who championed the development of the Shabbaz Market in Harlem using City money, and Jamaican-born Councilmember Una Clarke, the godmother of Flatbush vendors, who leveraged city funds to build and maintain the Flatbush market.
The struggles of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Cooperative demonstrate that, if nothing else, neighborhood markets can only be sustained through public or private subsidy, whether it be through rent-free land, grants, or a combination of both. But above all else, the laws of supply and consumer demand, as well as political demand, will determine the fate of the Bed-Stuy Market. If the vendors can get organized and prove themselves indispensable to the surrounding area, and if the Market’s customers determine that the Market is worth fighting for, then maybe neighborhood leaders and public officials will start to give a damn.
Mark Winston Griffith is the former Executive Director of the Central Brooklyn Partnership which used to provide organizing and management support to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Cooperative Market.Â