There are two ways I can walk home from the subway station in my neighborhood. At night, when I’m by myself, the choice is obvious. One route is almost entirely dark, with blank storefronts and empty sidewalks. The other is strung with lights, heavy with foot traffic, and scented with grilling onions.
While I was walking home the other evening, waving hi to my neighbors pressing pupusas into doughy discs on folding tables outside a church, I realized one of the most underappreciated ways street vendors contribute to our cities. In places where city leaders have made very little effort to improve the experience for those walking, biking, or riding transit, it’s the people selling goods or serving food in those same spaces who make streets vibrant, welcoming, and safe for all.
During the day, it’s easy to see how a cluster of carts topped with rainbow umbrellas or blankets layered with meticulously organized wares enlivens a plaza. But it’s only after the sun goes down that you can see how vendors fill a much-needed void in our cities. Vendors not only activate public space, they do so in the very places that have been willfully ignored by city planners in many neighborhoods—transit stops in disrepair, neglected storefronts, and barren, broken sidewalks.
Waiting for the bus alone at night, at a poorly lit corner in front of a vacant building, just hearing the scrape of plastic stools at the taco stand posted up outside a nearby auto body shop is comforting. I can confidently say I feel safer because people are prepping, cooking, and devouring al pastor on my sidewalk.
Which is what makes what happened in a New York City subway station this week so troubling. As shown in a video recorded by a fellow passenger, Elsa Morochoduchi, a native of Ecuador, was handcuffed by police for selling churros. Officers confiscated her pushcart—her livelihood—and all its contents. She did not have a permit. But the city has not raised the number of permits since 1983, meaning $200 permits go for $25,000 on a black market dominated by men.
“She shouldn’t have been there,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when asked about the incident. “It’s against the law and it’s creating congestion.”
Someone who doesn’t ride the subway might not know that congestion comes from delays in service and platform capacity issues, not individual vendors in stations. But it’s not surprising that people in positions of authority would crack down on street vendors. Many are immigrants, people of color, and low-income residents—the same groups that are the most heavily policed in cities. Meaning the people who are doing the most to make cities great places to be are the most likely to be marginalized by the people making decisions for those cities.
Some cities are working toward decriminalizing vending, but the process is frustratingly slow. Compare the plight of street vendors in LA, where creating a permitting system took decades, to the permitting system for electric scooters, which was put into place within six months of those scooters appearing illegally on the same city sidewalks.
What’s more, as part of LA’s permitting system, vendors are now banned from certain parts of the city, like Hollywood, that are filled with potential customers. Once again, “congestion” is to blame. Local officials claim it’s not safe to have vendors share sidewalks that are crowded with people. Then widen the sidewalks!
City officials’ claim that vendors pose any danger to people in cities is also ridiculous because it’s the vendors who need the most protection. Making cash transactions on streets at night means vendors—many of whom are women—are extremely vulnerable to robberies and violence.
When law enforcement officials see a churro cart as an obstacle, they likely don’t understand the value that a churro cart provides to the rest of us. Like most elected officials, police don’t experience what it’s like to ride buses alone. They’re not out there walking the streets. They’re almost always in their cars. When police are on the subway, they’re usually cracking down on alleged fare evasion, which often means stopping black riders in disproportionate numbers. For certain communities, it’s the presence of police—not the street vendors—which makes people feel uneasy.
The sun’s setting earlier now, which means I’m commuting in the dark. On my subway ride the other night, I didn’t see any police. I didn’t see any Metro employees. What I did see were the same group of women selling colorful towers of chips and ice-cold drinks from a cooler who welcomed me as I emerged from underground. They’re always there, providing not just a snack for the journey home, but a cheerful greeting and watchful eye. I can’t say that I receive the same comfort on a daily basis from the people who are employed by the city to perform similar services. It seems incredibly backwards that our street vendors even have to pay annual permitting fees. For everything vendors add to our streets, the city should be paying them.