Food Carts Carve Global Niche as New York City May Allow Them More Corners

  • City Council may increase permits in exchange for inspections
  • Pope Francis has their backs; Michelin stars for noodles

For more than a century, New York City officials viewed cart-pushing peddlers as public-health risks and threats to taxpaying businesses. Now, a new generation of City Council members courts them as a working-poor constituency.

As many as 10,000 vendors sell everything from dirty-water hot dogs to mobile-phone chargers on New York’s streets, far more than the most populous U.S. city allows. Demand for the $200, two-year food permits is so great that it has created a black market for dealers who lease them illegally for as much as $30,000, according to a council report.

City lawmakers, elected on vows to help low-income workers, are now looking to regulate and improve businesses that have defied control since 19th-century peddlers crowded Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The council is pushing laws that would more than double street-vending permits and boost their price fivefold to pay for enforcement. They’re seeking to legitimize a business that has vexed local governments worldwide, providing humble livings from Hong Kong to Herald Square.

“They add life to our streets,” said Councilman Mark Levine, 47, sponsor of the proposals. “New Yorkers’ demand for street food is insatiable. But we have an antiquated system crying out for an update.”

Taco Trucks

In the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia moved vendors into indoor markets, mindful of public-health risks posed by unregulated food purveyors, harm to store owners and traffic congestion. In 1985, Mayor Edward Koch tried to cap permits at 3,000 after Donald Trump, then head of the Fifth Avenue Merchant Association, complained about them hurting the street’s image. They only increased. In 1994, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani removed them from Harlem’s 125th Street into an open-air market, and four years later tried to ban them from parts of the financial district and midtown. He abandoned the idea after political opposition.

In the presidential election, food carts became a symbol of immigrant rights after Marco Gutierrez, founder of Latinos for Trump, warned on MSNBC that a win by Democrat Hillary Clinton would lead to “taco trucks on every corner,” a threat some Mexican food lovers took as good news.

City lawmakers now bet that increasing the number of cart permits will curb the illegal market. The price would jump to $1,000. The measures also would establish an agency to conduct sanitary inspections and ensure the vendors don’t encroach upon the community.

Stinky Garlic

There are plenty of skeptics. During a seven-hour hearing last month, residents, retailers and landlords complained that lawmakers hadn’t done enough to protect them.

Barbara Livenstein, of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, told lawmakers that for the past two years, she has coped with the “unwanted stifling odor of garlic and onions” generated daily by a vendor outside her apartment building.

“I have to assume that doubling the number of vendors would result in other vendors moving onto our block,” she said.

Michael Lambert, who heads the New York City Business Improvement District Association, representing 72 neighborhoods, said the proposals give vendors too much sidewalk space and too much latitude in locating carts near entrances to businesses, subways and residences.

“Local communities should have some say over the number of vendors, locations and hours, just as they do with sidewalk cafes,” he said.

Noodle Demand

Levine, the councilman, said the bills are being redrafted to address concerns and will probably come to a vote in the next few months.

The task of regulating vendors has vexed governments far beyond New York City.  

In Los Angeles, where sidewalk vending is illegal, thousands of carts sell food and other wares in immigrant neighborhoods, said Mark Vallianatos, who teaches urban and environmental policy at Occidental College and is on a committee pushing the City Council to allow them. Though Chicago legalized food carts last year, only a handful have been granted permits because of the law’s costs and regulations, according to the Illinois Policy Institute.

In Singapore, the government banned more than 20,000 street vendors in the 1960s, herding them into 107 regulated “hawker centers” and food courts. Two shops, selling pork noodles and soya-sauce chicken, recently inspired hours-long lines after their humble offerings were awarded a Michelin star each in the guide’s first Singapore street-food ranking.

Pope Francis

Hong Kong has almost stopped issuing new food-hawker licenses, with fewer than 300 given from July 2009 to April 2012 for so-called “fixed-pitch” street-side huts. The government has said it would issue permits for 16 trucks to serve food in some of the most popular tourist sites.

In London, as in New York, rules allowing more food vendors are gaining support, said Mark Laurie, director at the Nationwide Caterers Association, a trade body for street food vendors. The city has about 2,000, mostly in spots such as Greenwich Market, which has been around for centuries.

The vendors’ cause gained a powerful ally this month when Pope Francis gathered dozens of them, along with advocates for the homeless and working poor, for the World Meeting of Popular Movements at the Vatican. Among the attendees was Mohamed Saad Ali, who has sold hot dogs near New York’s Wall Street for most of the past decade.

Ali, 49, serves on the board of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, which represents about 2,000 sellers and has lobbied more than five years for the laws sponsored by Levine. At the Vatican, Ali said, he met vendors from Africa, Latin America and Europe and discussed how political organization pushed New York lawmakers to support the measures that may help them make a better living.

A native Egyptian who is now a U.S. citizen, Ali owns a six-month seasonal permit for which he pays the city about $35 a year, but it expired Oct. 31. Now he’s hoping to share a permit with another vendor, working odd days and different hours at another location.

“The new law will not end the black market, but it will force them to lower their price for permits because it will reduce demand,” he said. “Maybe the black market price will come down to $6,000. That’s still better than paying $25,000.”

— With assistance by John Ainger, Tim Jones, Fion Li, and Sharon Chen

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