Why Street Vendors are Vital to NYC Food Culture

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Over the weekend, the New York Post wrote about a licensed hot dog vendor on Montague Terrace in Brooklyn Heights who was pressured out of the neighborhood by anger from local residents. The reason? A hot dog vendor doesn't belong.

As far as the law is concerned, the residents were right. Montague Street between Court Street and the Promenade prohibits street food vendors (you can check out all the restricted streets in this PDF). But the story also highlights some incredibly negative attitudes and prejudices toward street food, and a case of jingoistic NIMBYism* that repeatedly finds itself at war with street vendors across the city.

* NIMBY: Not In My Backyard

When Chuck Taylor reported on Brooklyn Heights Blog that the vendor was setting up shop in the neighborhood, he received comments ranging from the annoyed to the downright vitriolic.* Among the most disturbing: "Disgusting food, served by disgusting people to disgusting people." And: "What next? A big top? Circus animals? Clowns? Cotton Candy?[...] Is there no peace for neighborhood residents who work long, hard hours?"

* There were also several comments in favor of the cart, and many commenters who defended the vendor. Yes, this piece is, in a way, a reaction to people being wrong on the internet. But this isn't the first time I've heard remarks like the above.

These aren't comments on the legality of mobile food vending on a specific street; they're combative reactions to the supposed audacity of street vendors to invade a community they shouldn't have a right to access. If he parked on a nearby street where vending was permitted (the legality of that specific street was barely actually discussed in the post), I suspect the reaction would have been much the same: that he somehow doesn't have the right to that public space.

The comments divide themselves into two main concerns: food safety on hot dog carts and the supposed "invasive" nature of street food in a community.

Is Street Food Safe?

As to the first issue, do you take a health risk eating street food? Sure. But most home kitchens wouldn't score great marks by city health codes, and restaurants of all kinds are just as bad. (Even the ultra-meticulous Fat Duck in the UK saw a food poisoning outbreak in 2009.)

Think those Health Department A grades are a free pass to safe eating? Think again. Take a look at this New York Times map of health violations in restaurants. A restaurant can still earn an A grade despite improper refrigeration, a "facility [failing to be] vermin-proof," or featuring "pesticide use not in accordance with label use or applicable laws."

All eating out poses a health risk. Licensed street vendors have to obey strict protocols for food handling, and unlike restaurant kitchens, you can see much of their food prep in public view. It's easy to denigrate a dirty water dog or a chicken and rice cart, but calling it "unsafe" or "questionable" without specific reasoning as to why smacks of unwarranted prejudice.

Street Food and Public Space

The other negative comments center on the idea that it's unacceptable for a hot dog vendor to set up shop in a ritzy residential neighborhood. The more measured commenters point out that he could have sold at the nearby Promenade, the public park that overlooks Manhattan. But the ire of other voices seems to surpass questions of legality and veers into outrage about the very nature of what street food is.

The most interesting remark to me: "Ours is a quiet residential neighborhood. This is not the place to live fir [sic] people looking for 'street life'."

Here's the thing about street food: it's not just about the food. It's about bringing a sense of life and activity to urban spaces. It's a gathering point for a community. And it's ultimately what living in cities—and frankly, neighborhoods in general—is all about: the interconnected network of public space and public activity that everyone is welcome to partake in.

That kind of culture is important, especially in New York. Street food helps transform sidewalks and public spaces from transit ways to destinations. "Street life" is just that: a manifestation of public energy. And it's a democratic energy, one that's open to everyone and treats everyone equally. In midtown, $100,000 salary-earners wait in line with bike messengers and construction workers for $5 plates of chicken and rice. That's a healthy, necessary thing in a city where it's far too easy to get siloed in socioeconomic subcultures. Street food helps to build and maintain community across economic, ethnic, and regional boundaries. It's a vital part of urban life here.

That doesn't mean every street corner in this city needs a taco truck; some neighborhoods should be quiet, residential areas. But it's the right of street vendors to sell food in public spaces where they're legally allowed and not grievously disrupting someone's quality of life. Harassing them out of that right with mean-spirited speech ruins the very idea of public space and its importance to city living.

Friend of Serious Eats and Brooklyn Heights resident Vittles Vamp crystallizes what this issue should be about, and what it isn't about:

It seems that this hot dog vendor didn't have the appropriate permit, but that didn't appear to be the main focus of commentary up on the Brooklyn Heights Blog. I have lived in the area for years—now owning my apartment, in fact—and was surprised about some of the vitriol that bubbled up. Street vendors have long been a part of the food scene in New York City. Just go to the main branch of the New York Public Library to check out the "Lunch Hour" exhibit and you'll see that these types of carts are steeped in history. Nonetheless, this vendor had no right to park where he did. That is the issue at hand. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Why Street Food Culture is Important

If you need an illustration of street food's effect on public life, check out the spiffy residential sections of the Upper East Side during the afternoon, when the streets get dead quiet. Except, of course, for the street vendors, present on many a corner, selling cheap, tasty meals to locals and passersby. It's a vitality boost to the streets, and it looks like the residential community there hasn't crumbled from the presence of some dirty water dogs.

There's also the more concrete point: street food is an awesome part of our city's food culture. It's our fast food, our on-the-go food, our daily lunch, our pre-theater dinners. People of all walks of life enjoy it and buy it regularly. Street food is an enduring New York icon because it's something everyone can—and does—enjoy regularly.

If there's a problem with street food, it's this: it's a constant thorny reminder that none of us truly owns public space, and that we as New Yorkers are forced to live shoulder to shoulder with people who may not be like us. When a community closes itself off to a democratizing influence on public life, it does so at the peril of becoming isolated from what makes New York such a great place to live: the mind-boggling diversity of human capital that our population boasts. Our best- and worst-off neighborhoods could use more of that diversity, not less. Fair, equal use of public space is one of the ways to achieve it.

Residential zoning exists for good reasons, and I'm not against community members raising complaints with city officials when business owners operate outside those zoning restrictions. To be clear, I do agree that the vendor didn't have a right to park at that spot, that he should have left, and am fine with neighbors asking him to leave. But unless a hot dog cart is right outside your window—which this wasn't (it was on a street corner), or unless it's spewing smoke or bad smells into the air (which it didn't; hot dog vendors actually can't cook on their carts without a permit, and they don't give off exhaust), the only thing harassing a street vendor accomplishes is protecting a sense of "community" from one of the very staples of New York life.

So how about this: let's not hate people for trying to earn a living by participating in a vital piece of New York culture. If exacting regulation of community is important to these critics, there are gated communities aplenty in the suburbs, where they can structure their public space however they like.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the editor of Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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