As the largest and most important city in the United States of America, New York is internationally known for its world-class museums, its financial sector, and its nightlife. However, it is also known for the widespread presence of another fixture: Street vendors. When one thinks of street vending, the idea of hot dogs being sold from a cart come to mind. However, street vendors are known to sell much more than just hot dogs and pretzels.
The first law regulating pushcarts in New York City was enacted in 1694. Since then, this entrepreneurial activity has been a fixture of the city’s landscape. At the turn of the 20th Century, New York was the entry point for millions of immigrants, predominantly from Southern and Eastern Europe. These immigrants were generally poorer than earlier arrivals and came to the United States with nothing other than their possessions and the dream to succeed in their adopted homeland. As they were, for the most part, unskilled, poorly educated, and unable to speak English well, if at all, they had poor job prospects. Thus, many of them started their own businesses selling food and other merchandise from carts they pushed through the streets.
Like the street vendors of prior times, today’s street vendors are generally immigrants, usually from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. They sell all types of food, from hot dogs and nuts to kebabs and pita sandwiches to even quick lunches. But they do not sell just food, and indeed they sell merchandise from books and stationary to clothes and souvenirs. According to the Street Vendor Project, depeding on what is sold, street vendors may need a license, which is limited in number. In addition, food vendors have to complete a course on safe food handling. However, vendors who sell artwork, books, and other printed material do not need a special license as they are considered “First Amendment” vendors.
The street vendor can be found throughout Manhattan in particular. In the area east of Grand Central Terminal, I can find at least 10 street vendors and their carts. For many, the street vendor is a place to grab a low-priced lunch, with carts selling hot dogs for $1.50 or $2 and rice platters for $5, sometimes including a can of soda.
As someone who works in New York, I find that the street vendor is an important part of New York’s identity, despite the conditions and restrictions that today’s vendors have to deal with in this day and age. For many, it is an opportunity to eat on a budget. But, for some, it represents the first step towards realizing the American dream.
The Street Vendor Project (last accessed on January 13), The Urban Justice Center, www.streetvendor.org
“N. Y. C. Street Vendors,” MacAulay Honors College of the City University of New York, http://macaulay.cuny.edu/student-projects/2007/neighborhoods/11/fernandes_site/PeopleofNY/Site/Street_Vendors-_Main_Page.html