For generations, New York's streets were an arena of second chances. During the Great Depression, 14,000 former bankers, brokers and other jobless New Yorkers were able to make ends meet by taking to the city's sidewalks and selling the iconic 5-cent apple - some say, helping popularize the city's "Big Apple" moniker.
Today, New Yorkers are once again looking for second chances - and second jobs - working as street vendors. Only this time, the streets and avenues where famous businesses like Macy's, Bloomingdales and D'Agostino once got their start now offer few opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. That's because outdated city laws stifle these once-thriving avenues of opportunity. There are no permits available for would-be pushcart peddlers, and the wait for a general vending license is several decades. The waiting list - overflowing with more than 10,000 names - has been closed since 1992.
Despite the non-existent supply, demand for permits is skyrocketing. Since the economic crisis began, interest in street vending has risen dramatically as a low startup cost, flexible path to self-employment. Leading vendor cart manufacturers are reporting 20%-30% increases in orders since the recession hit; last month, the Street Vendor Project fielded more than 240 phone calls from would-be vendors in need of a permit.
It's like we're going back to the future. During World War I and the Great Depression, the city eased vending restrictions, helping countless New Yorkers pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Although these loosened rules put New Yorkers back to work, they also incited the ire of some powerful business interests, who viewed the stands as competition, and have engaged in a vending tug-of-war with pushcart peddlers and city leaders ever since - resulting in the first hard caps on street vending in 1979.
You might be saying, "Wait a second, I still see street vendors everywhere." It's true: By setting the caps far below vendor supply and public demand, the city unintentionally creates a thriving and exploitive black market, where aspiring vendors "rent" permits from illegal middlemen for more than $8,000. Other vendors are driven underground, where they're unlicensed and unregulated. This just isn't working.
Raising the caps to realistic levels would help bring vendors out of the shadows and into the legal mainstream.
Thankfully, the City Council is currently considering a bill that would do exactly that - by raising the permit caps 10-fold. That would help eliminate the illegal black market and create much-needed jobs.
With an ample number of permits, New York's sidewalks could double as incubators - fostering innovative new start-ups for those short on capital, but large on concept. Sidewalk chefs could have the flexibility to start as mobile food purveyors, rather than diving right into costly retail space. Inventors would be able to test their creations on passersby, instead of relying on Internet word of mouth. Budding entrepreneurs could break new ground while breathing new life into our neighborhoods.
We estimate the move could quickly create 10,000 new jobs.
Mayor Bloomberg's Five-Borough Economic Plan is innovative- but its focus is entirely long-term - and New York needs jobs now. Current city laws put a stranglehold on what could be a vital source of jobs for the city's newly unemployed. By opening up our sidewalks to more vendors, the Mayor and the City Council could open the door to immediate work for thousands of New Yorkers.
Street vendors have demonstrated time and time again that if you allow honest, hardworking men and women to earn a living selling their wares on the city's sidewalks, they'll take care of the rest. Which is why city government shouldn't stand in their way.
** Wells and Fall are co-directors of the Urban Justice Center's Street Vendor Project. **
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