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Vendor Rules Promise Less Art, More Cupcakes in City Parks

street vendors
Mohammad Ali sells hot dogs Downtown.

Spring in New York means cherry blossoms in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Yankees home opener and the return of vendors to city parks. But while the cherry trees are performing as usual and the Yankees returned to the Bronx to defeat the Angels yesterday, fewer vendors may peddle their wares in city parks this year.

New rules proposed by the Department of Parks and Recreation would limit the number of artists selling their goods in Manhattan's most popular parks. These restrictions on vending come as the city has begun auctioning park spots to food vendors and cracking down on cart and table owners who leave their goods unattended. The rules and penalties, which the city argues are needed to combat irksome and sometimes dangerous congestion, complicate the already difficult situation for thousands of men and women who sell everything from paintings to pretzels on New York's busy streets.

Art in the Parks

For decades, parks have provided a safe refuge for artists to sell their work. Stroll through Battery Park or Union Square on a weekend and you will likely see over a hundred artists displaying their work. But as the parks department proposes new rules to ease congestion, many artists will need to find a new spot or a new job.

Unlike vendors who sell hot dogs or handbags, those who vend "expressive matter," such as books, paintings and photographs, are protected by the First Amendment. This has allowed art vendors to display their goods inside city parks, while purveyors of more mundane goods, such as hot dogs, cannot.

The department has tried repeatedly to rid the parks of art vendors, but always lost in the courts. Its latest attempt would restrict the number of art vendors to 9 in Battery Park, 18 in Union Square, 5 on the High Line, and 49 in Central Park’s high-traffic areas. If the new regulations pass, the spots will be distributed on a first come, first serve basis, potentially pitting artist against artist.

The department will hold a hearing on the proposal on April 23.

"The three park locations that the proposed rules effects … have seen a dramatic increase in street vendors," Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro said. "This has caused the parks department to come up with new regulations to find a balance between vendors and visitors."

The rule changes could mean the end of a way of life for many artists. Two years ago, Samira Deroucha lost her job tutoring French. To pay her bills, she began selling her paintings in Union Square.

Deroucha, who emigrated from France in 2001, said the new rules would create more than just a financial loss. "Union Square is one of the only places where local artists can express themselves," she said. "The street artists market is on every single tourist guide, and it would be a loss to the city if they got rid of us."

street vendor
Jampa Jordan sells photos in Columbus Circle. While selling of food and clothing is restricted, photos and other "expressive matter" is protected by the First Amendment. The city, though, wants to put some limits on the art vendors, as well.

"If these rules pass we're going to defy them and sue the city," said Robert Lederman, the president of A.R.T.I.S.T., or Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics, an advocacy group that represents about 1,500 street artists. Lederman and fellow art vendors will protest the rule changes before the parks department’s public hearing next week.

Castro said the law is on the city's side. The proposed rules, he said, don't "violate anyone's first amendment rights. Government has the right to place restrictions based on time, place, and manner."

Hold the Mustard

Many of the art vendors, though, suspect the limit is an attempt to privatize city parks and get vendors to bid on spots.

Recently, the department granted Cake & Shake a permit to sell gourmet cupcakes in front the Metropolitan Museum, an area that has been off limits to most food vendors. In return, Cake & Shake will pay $108,000 to the city. The cupcake vendor also will pay $27,000 for a spot in Washington Square Park.

For years, the city auctioned spots around the Metropolitan Museum of Art to food vendors. The permitting more or less fell apart, though, when military veterans set up shop, saying they could sell without leasing the spot from the city. Last summer, the city cracked down, forcing out most of the hot dog vendors.

Now the parks department wants vendors back -- but not just any vendors. After reportedly saying it was looking for "healthy options," the administration selected Cake & Shake, a Long Island based company that sells $3 cupcakes and $5 shakes.

Mean Streets

Castro said any vendors forced off the museum steps or out of the major Manhattan parks still will be allowed to "sell their goods in other city parks and the thousands of miles of city sidewalks." Hakim Elnagar might tell him that's not as easy as it might sound.

Standing on 42nd Street, two blocks west of Times Square, Elnagar watches as the flow of pedestrians quietly pass by his cart. In over half an hour only one person stops to ask for a pretzel.

Elnagar left Egypt 13 years ago to find a better life for his family. As he has tried to build his business, he has found that the life of a street vendor is not easy. He and his fellow vendors must contend with rival pushcarts and local businesses, with tickets and police, and with a system of licensing that has created a black market of illegal permits.

On Friday, Elnagar will appear in court to contest a ticket he received for vending in a bus stop. Elnagar said he will argue that the bus in question is a private tour bus that parked illegally and that his cart remains more than 100 feet away from a city bus stop.

The stakes for Elnagar are high. The maximum penalty for such violations reaches $1,000, a lot of money for the average street vendor, who typically brings in about $14,000 to $17,000 a year. In the past year alone, Elnagar received 17 tickets, most, he says, he did not deserve.

"The biggest problem that vendors have is tickets," said Sean Basinski, the director of the Urban Justice Center's Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group that provides legal representation for street vendors. Shuffling through a large pile of tickets, which has been growing over the past two months, Basinski picks out a few he views as particularly ridiculous: a shish kabob seller who left his cart window open, a fruit vender with a moldy blueberry, and vendor whose cooler stuck out from under his table. Police officers fine these slight infractions, Basinski says, because street vendors are "easy targets."

"The vendor probably won't speak English, probably won't complain, probably won't file a complaint and probably won't even be able to read what the ticket is for," he said.

To combat the ticketing, the Street Vendor Project provides measuring tape and cameras while encouraging its member to take down the names and badge numbers of police officers. Basinski admits that this is sometimes easier said then done. Some police officers roll up their windows and write tickets from inside their patrol car without giving vendors a chance to get names or ask questions.

Elnagar has contested tickets before and knows how the process works. He is confident the charges will be dropped, but even if he wins, Elnagar will still take a loss. "The captain says, 'I'm sorry for the wrong violation,' but what does sorry do for me?" he asked. "You take a day away from me, and the 50, 60, 70 dollars I make for my kids."

"We work hard, we want a good life," he said. "We try, we try, but we get nothing,"

To further complicate the picture, in January, the health department began to enforce its policy of removing the license sof vendors who leaves their carts unattended. Under the new policy, "Any mobile food vending unit which is found to be unattended or which a vendor has abandoned shall be considered an imminent health hazard."

The policy has come under criticism for leaving vendors unable to answer when nature calls. On Feb. 23, street vendors protested outside the health department's offices after peanut vender Mohammed Shirajul Islam lost his license for taking too long a bathroom break.

According to the health department, "The department’s rules do not prevent vendors from taking short breaks, but leaving food unsupervised poses a serious health hazard as it subjects the food to possible tampering." Critics, though, claim that anyone who wants to tamper with food does not need to wait for a vendor to relieve himself, but only to walk to the salad bar at the local grocery store.

Crowding the Streets

While the vendors see themselves as small businesspeople struggling to make a living and provide a service, many brick and mortar businesses have a different view of street selling. "It's a huge problem for our commercial and retail businesses," said Joseph Timpone, the director of operations for the Downtown Alliance. "It’s a problem for pedestrians trying to get around."

"We have areas where there is no vending allowed at all, and every day we have people setting up in the World Trade Center, a problem for the thousands who take the PATH," he said.

Unlicensed vendors and those who ignore vending laws cause dangerous "traffic conditions," according to the Manhattan district attorney's office. On Canal Street, pedestrians often must step into the road to avoid sidewalks clogged by handbag, t-shirt, and luggage vendors.

In 2009, the First Precinct, covering much of downtown Manhattan, arrested 810 unlicensed vendors. The Midtown North and Midtown South Precincts arrested 284, and 416 unlicensed vendors, respectively.

Black Market

In 1979, the city placed a cap on the number of licenses available, about 3,000 for food vendors and 853 for general merchandise. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to get healthy food into poor neighborhoods resulted in the approval of 1,000 new "green carts" for fruit and vegetable vendors.

There is a loophole, though. The cap has not applied to veterans since World War II veteran Joseph Kaswan cited a Civil War era law to challenge a ban on street vendors in midtown.

Even with that exemption, the competition for licenses remains strong. At one point the city established a waiting list for individuals wanting to obtain a vending license. So many applied, though, that the city has not accepted any new names 2002.

With the market largely frozen, vendors who retire or move on to other occupations, continue to renew their licenses every two years for a $200 fee, and then rent them out for upward of $12,000. By some estimates, nearly two thirds of the food licenses are obtained in this way.

The health department has taken steps to combat the practice, but some feel their efforts have not gone far enough. To encourage people to report the illicit sales, the Street Vendors Project has proposed that vendors who report illegal license brokers receive a chance to obtain their licenses legally, and become sidewalk entrepreneurs.

Then, though, they would be on their own.

Dozens of Parks Would Close Under Paterson's Budget

parks, riverbank state park
Anne Schwartz
Under Gov. David Paterson's budget, Riverbank State Park in Harlem would see its hours reduced and some programs cut.

As state legislators and Gov. David Paterson negotiate next year's budget, for the first time in the state's history the possibility of closing state parks and historic sites is on the table.

To help address a $9 billion shortfall in the budget for the coming year, Paterson is proposing a $29 million cut to the operating budget of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, on top of a $49 million reduction over the last two years -- a total of about 40 percent. The agency says that $11.3 million of the cuts can be achieved only by closing 91 state parks and historic sites and reducing services in 40 additional locations.

The cuts would sharply curtail hours and programs at several parks within New York City, as well close all or part of a number of parks, including Jones Beach State Park and Minnewaska State Park Preserve, popular with city residents.

The Senate and Assembly budget resolutions restore enough money to keep the parks open, for this year at least, though anything can happen when the final budget resolution is negotiated by the Senate majority leader, Assembly speaker and governor.

That the state is even considering closing half of its 178 parks and historic sites is deeply troubling for the future of the state park system, which already has an estimated $650 million capital backlog of repair and rehabilitation projects. Its 325,000 acres include roads, dams and bridges, more than a thousand miles of trails, 5,000 buildings (including dozens of historic structures), more than 8,000 campsites, and golf courses, pools, beaches, marinas and boat launches.

A National Trend

New York is not alone. Facing crushing budget shortfalls, many governors and legislators around the country want to sweep the pocket change spent on state parks and use it toward closing budget deficits, as detailed by a recent article in Parks & Recreation magazine. (A notable exception is Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose austere budget proposal keeps parks open "so that struggling New Jersey families will have an affordable, in-state place to vacation this summer.")

Arizona already has begun shutting down state parks, striking fear into towns dependent on tourism and raising questions about securing archaeological treasures. Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed eliminating nearly all of the California park system's operating support, which would have closed 80 percent of state parks, although that drastic action has been forestalled for the time being.

The prospect of shuttering New York State parks has generated outrage and set off a wave of rallies from Long Island to Buffalo, as residents have organized to defend their local park. According to a Siena College poll released March 22, voters "strongly oppose" closing the parks, by a 9-1 margin.

"No one disagrees that we have a severe budget shortfall," said Sen. José Serrano, chair of the Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation. "But if you look at the numbers, over the past years, parks have had to bear the brunt. Even in good stock markets and budget surpluses, the state never did enough to maintain the capital structure within parks and increase programs."

It may not even be legal to close most of the parks or facilities on the list. Most of the state's parks have received grants from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a dedicated funding source for land conservation, parks and recreation. One part of the program provides matching grants for state and local projects. To protect the federal investment, the law governing state grants contains strong protections to assure that project sites remain used as intended. In response to a question on this issue by New York Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey at a recent congressional hearing, National Park Service director Jon Jarvis confirmed that parks funded in part with federal money must remain open to the public.

Advocates fear that if parks are closed it might be years before they can be reopened. Leaving parks unstaffed and minimally maintained makes them vulnerable to damage from neglect and vandalism, putting at risk decades of public investment. Getting bathrooms, buildings, pools, trails and other facilities back in usable condition would likely cost many times the minimal amount saved by the closures.

"Closing parks would cause more harm than any problems it would solve," said Shawn McConnell, director of the Campaign for Parks at Parks & Trails New York, a statewide advocacy group. "Even during the Great Depression, our government did not close parks. In fact, the president felt parks were important enough to invest in and made them part of the plan to revitalize the economy and nation. That's what parks could be today."

Costs and Benefits of State Parks

Asked why the parks agency received a disproportionate cut thought even it represents a quarter of a percent of the total state budget, Matt Anderson, spokesperson for the New York State Division of the Budget, said that even small reductions add up to "an important component of our deficit reduction plan. While parks are certainly important, it doesn't have the same health and safety issues" as health care, law enforcement, prisons or other "direct care environments."

Advocates say this view is shortsighted and ignores the importance of parks and recreational programs for public health, especially at a time when the government is trying to address increasing rates of obesity.

Park programs can also reduce crime and other social problems. When park programs are cut, "one of the things that's lost is the potential to address jobs creation for at-risk youth," said Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy at the National Recreation and Park Association. "Park programs have been a traditional source of part-time and summer jobs. They have produced tremendous value for a minimal amount of money spent. It's healthy outdoor work that teaches basic jobs skills and instills self-discipline, self-reliance and a sense of self-confidence."

Aside from these benefits, studies show that state parks, in New York and throughout the country, generate quantifiable economic benefits for a minimal cost.

A study by the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts Amherst last year found that every dollar invested in state parks (both operating and capital expenses) returns $5 in economic benefits. Direct spending by the parks agency and by visitors to state parks supports up to $1.9 billion in output and sales, $440 million in employment income and 20,000 jobs.

Analyses conducted in other states, including Tennessee, Maine and New Jersey, showed that the parks are vital generators of direct and indirect spending, tax revenues and jobs far in excess of the money the states spent on operating the parks.

Last year, 56 million people visited New York State parks, an increase of 2 million over the previous year. Closing parks would wreak havoc on upstate towns that depend on tourism and further depress tax revenues.

The Impact on New York City

While the majority of parks slated for closure are upstate, New York City residents would also feel the effects of park closures and service reductions.

Riverbank State Park, for example, is slated for a budget cut of $785,000 that would reduce its operating hours by 40 percent, close the outdoor swimming pool and eliminate all programs for seniors as well as musical and theatrical performances. Riverbank was used by more than 3.4 million people in 2009, making it the fourth most visited park in the state, close behind Jones Beach State Park. The Paterson budget also would close Bayswater Point State Park in Queens; cut operating hours at Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx; and shut Clay Pits Pond Park in Staten Island two days a week. Numerous parks in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Putnam and Ulster counties that are popular day trips for city residents also would be completely or partially closed.

Community advocates say reducing operations at Riverbank State Park would break the agreement the government made with residents to provide a park in exchange for their accepting the sewage treatment plan in their midst. Manhattan Community Board 9 passed a resolution opposing the cuts.

The 28-acre park was built on top of the controversial North River Sewage Treatment Plant to appease the community. Though at first dubious of the park and its high price tag, neighborhood residents have come to embrace it. In addition to providing recreation and relaxation, the park has become a nexus of the community, with sports teams, a summer camp, holiday events, senior programs, and activities and outreach for youth.

"The state promised us an Olympic-sized pool, hockey rink, football field, running track, and all kinds of indoor gym space, the cultural center. That was the deal. We take the sewage and we get the park," said Brad Taylor, a local activist. "And now, they're saying they are going to cut back on the hours, open at 11 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. It's completely reneging on this commitment that they made, that as long as we're treating sewage for a good part of the city, we're going to have a fully operational park."

On an unseasonably mild Friday afternoon in mid-March, the park's esplanade and winter-bleached lawns attracted mothers with strollers, children in their school uniforms, teens practicing dance routines, and various people sitting on benches soaking in the sun and the spectacular river view. Soccer and baseball games were in full swing, while the sound of hockey pucks reverberated from inside the rink.

A couple sat a picnic table while their sons, 6 and 8, ran around on the grass. "Last year our kids came here for the swimming classes," said the father, who said his name was Amado. "They are going to close the pool and cut hours. We come today to see if we can register them for baseball. Because of the cuts they can't register anybody."

A mother taking her two girls to the playground said, "My husband and I both run here. My kids swim in the outdoor pool. We come here on weekends. I like the park because it's so safe, and honestly, I'm worried that the cuts will reduce safety."

Less than two years ago, at the 15th anniversary of the park's opening, a state official said, "It's hard to imagine life in Harlem today without Riverbank State Park. … Families have come to rely on Riverbank as a place for healthy recreation, spirited competition, and inspiring arts and entertainment. It is a tremendous community asset, and we need to make sure it remains vital and accessible for many years to come." That official was Gov. Paterson.

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

Washington Considers Funding Parks to Rebuild Cities

Photo from

Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would provide federal funding for urban parks and recreation for the first time in eight years.

The Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act (H.R. 3734), introduced by Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, reflects the current thinking that parks and recreation are integral to broader efforts to rebuild the economic and social fabric of cities.

At the same time, the Obama administration has created a partnership among federal agencies to promote urban sustainability and Congress is considering a number of bills to promote smart growth, bicycling, walking, mass transit, green infrastructure, historic restoration and the reduction of carbon emissions. Together, these initiatives signal new level of federal interest in improving the quality of life in cities.

"We need to look at the ways in which we can improve and enhance the communities where we all live, work, learn and play to truly address national issues such as climate change, water conservation and obesity," said Stacey Pine, chief government affairs officer at the National Recreation and Parks Association. The association, a national not-for-profit dedicated to advancing park, recreation and conservation efforts, played a key role in developing the Livable Communities Act. It is lobbying to move the bill through Congress, together with other members of the Urban Park Coalition, which includes national planning, bicycling, conservation, sports, health, youth and other organizations.

The Ripple Effects

Over the past few decades, the restoration and creation of parks has helped spark a revival of cities around the country. In New York City, fixing up parks, beginning in the 1980s with Central Park, and building new open spaces, such as the High Line and Hudson River Park, has transformed neighborhood after neighborhood and boosted the city’s economy as a whole.

As numerous studies have shown, well-maintained and used parks increase real estate values in the surrounding area and generate tourism and other economic activity. Access to parks and recreation also improves the physical and mental health of residents, lowers crime, connects children to nature and brings neighbors together. By cooling and filtering the air, absorbing stormwater runoff and providing habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife, parks and natural areas make a city more environmentally sustainable.

"There should be mechanisms that encourage cities to think about their park needs in the broadest possible terms of city revitalization, and not just a park here and there," said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land. "I think we’re on the cusp of some major changes. Some of the new parks, like Millennium Park in Chicago, or refurbished parks like Central Park, are really giving impetus to this kind of thinking."

Federal Help

Beginning in the 1970s, two federal programs administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior provided funding that made possible many significant state and local park projects as well as inner-city park rehabilitation, maintenance and recreation programs: the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program.

But spending from the two funds has almost never reached the level authorized: $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and $725 million over five years for Urban Park and Recreation Recovery. Over the last eight years, Congress appropriated just a fraction of the amount authorized for the land and water fund. The urban park recovery program has not received any funding at all since 2002.

In early November, Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Max Baucus of Montana introduced legislation to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Park and recreation advocates are working to find congressional support to update and broaden the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program and authorize new funding.

The Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act ties funding for parks and recreation infrastructure to revitalizing communities, improving public health, reducing crime and promoting economic development. The bill authorizes spending $445 million over 10 years in grants to states, local governments and community-based non-profits to rehabilitate existing parks and recreational facilities and construct new ones. The Department of Housing and Urban Development would administer the program.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, whose district in Brooklyn could serve as a prime example of how a lack of park and recreational options exacerbates a host of social ills, including crime and obesity-related health problems, was one of the original co-sponsors of the bill. He said in an email, "For many urban areas that suffer from deteriorating community facilities, limited green spaces and juvenile delinquency, this bill helps to develop a widely needed recreational infrastructure."

The legislation has 89 co-sponsors so far, with support from both parties. It has the backing of the TriCaucus, made up of members of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses, as well as the recently revived Livable Communities Task Force of the Democratic Caucus. The task force, chaired by the leading smart growth proponent in Congress, Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, aims to develop a legislative agenda to address how federal policies can support local efforts to improve citizens' quality of life in areas such as transportation investments, tax incentives and environmental protection.

Last spring, the Obama administration announced a new Partnership for Sustainable Communities between the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments, since joined by the Environmental Protection Agency. The partnership aims to coordinate federal support for sustainable growth and integrate transportation, housing and land use planning.

Federal funding for urban parks and recreation is all the more important given the financial straits of the states and cities. Tying parks to a whole slew of related initiatives to make cities more livable and economically viable is a good strategy for parks supporters. And improving and increasing the number of places where children can play outdoors, get involved in sports and experience nature and where city-dwellers can exercise, meet their neighbors and get a breath of fresh air is a good strategy for renewing America’s cities.

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

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