In places like Harlem, Black entrepreneurship is a part of the lifeblood that has supported the local economy for decades, before the forces of gentrification and commercialization arrived. However, street vending, a fairly visible form of entrepreneurship along Harlem’s major corridors, has been met with resistance both historically and in the present day under Mayor Eric Adams.

A few months ago, Adams handed off enforcement over street vendors from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) to the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which the NYPD assists with. The concern arose that the shift would lead to more criminalization and discrimination since the city’s street vendors, licensed or not, are primarily Black, African, or Caribbean immigrants, and Latino migrants.

There are currently just over 2,000 licensed general vendors, according to the DCWP. Under the law established by the City Council, the number of “non-veteran general vendor licenses” is limited to 853, but there is no limit on the number of general vendor licenses available to certain veterans who reside in the state or their surviving spouses/domestic partners, said the DCWP. 

That law has done little to stop people from vending wherever they can to make money.

Near the corner of West 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, street vendors can regularly be seen setting up tables to sell their wares. Men and women up and down the boulevard sell all kinds of goods to passersby: wholesale sunglasses, scented oils, belts, handbags, and custom clothes. Even more have some sort of food or treat. 

One woman, who identified herself as Kady, is a Nigerian immigrant who lives in the Bronx. She traveled down to Harlem on a recent morning to display her collection of kente-cloth hand fans and jewelry near the bus stop of this busy corner. She has been doing this to make money for about three years, she said, as she unfolded an array of bright-gold–looking chains from boxes stored on a large handcart. She didn’t say that she was licensed.

“They take stuff,” said Kady, when asked about her relationship with local law enforcement. She claimed that she has also been ticketed at least three times in the amount of $250 for her setup. A few minutes after she spoke with the Amsterdam News, a police squad car and three officers showed up to question her. Kady, seemingly accustomed to the routine by now, remained calm and kept unpacking her goods as she spoke with them. At least two departed, but one officer stayed to stand across from her table. The squad car stayed parked near the corner.   

Salou BB, 39, is a street vendor with his sunglasses table set up outside of H&M on the same block. He said that he has been vending all kinds of things for years in Harlem and hasn’t experienced that same level of harassment. He claimed that he had a license and a tax identification number, though. He said the real issue with vending is that newcomers to the neighborhood who live on 125th Street don’t necessarily buy from street vendors the way Black residents have in the past. 

Still, he said very loudly that he was determined to stay on the block. “[I’m] planning to fight,” he said. “Not going anywhere.”

Various creatives look to street vending on 125th Street as a vital option to operate their businesses and earn income.

Karan Menardy, 52,  is well-known with her business, “Lucian Dolly,” in front of the Apollo Theater. She sells jewelry, T-shirts, purses, hats, and more. Menardy expressed frustration that store owners often call the police on vendors like her and others with “ridiculous complaints” because they believe the vendors are stealing business from their stores. She also attested to feelings of harassment from NYPD and other agencies that regulate the vendors.

“We don’t want to break the law, but in the meantime, our kids are in school. We got to feed them. It’s like we’re taking chances. There are so many other crimes that are happening in the city. We’re not doing no harm to anybody. Why don’t you go after the real criminals? Why are you so focused on us?”

Dante Pelayo, aka the Divine Styles, is a poet and rapper who recently turned 41 and operates “The Divine Styles Pop Up” bookstore. Pelayo can be seen on different corners along 125th Street, selling his books and engaging in conversation about books and other topics with his customers. He vends to fundraise his virtual open mic platform, Original Poets Open Air Open Mic.

Pelayo, who currently stays in a shelter, uses his business to help encourage literacy and inspire Black pride among his customers. 

One of Pelayo’s common spots is in front of the Victoria Theatre, which is under renovation to become a Marriott Hotel. Like many vendors, Pelayo expressed concern that his business is being pushed out to make way for the new renovation.

“The Marriott says we have to move. We’re actually better if we stay right here. Why don’t you put a little box or a stand for us? Come on, we belong here! Build upon what we already got. We’ve been here so long, how about we grow upon that?” Pelayo said. “It would be dope if we could build upon those spaces so we can have a strong vending community here. Because we make Harlem.

“Provide funding for us so we can apply for loans to help grow our vending business to make it great, because it is going to make the city great. Give us the money to grow,” he continued.

Laronz Murray, an artist out of Brooklyn who began vending in Harlem two years ago, sells his pieces of artwork, including paintings and drawings. He also hosts exhibitions along with running his own LLC.

Murray said that as a vendor protected by the First Amendment, he has had more leeway than other vendors in the area.

Originally from Trinidad, Franklyn Grenaway is a Vietnam War veteran who first came to Harlem in the early 1970s and began his 50-year career as a designer and artist. Grenaway sporadically vends on 125th Street, selling his “HBCU Knowledge” line of apparel products. Despite never having attended a Historically Black College/University (HBCU), he was fascinated with the history of these schools and noticed there was a need for more HBCU promotional products. He was amazed by the level of pride and community that those who attended HBCU schools feel.

Grenaway shared his fond remembrance for “Mart 125,” the open-air vendors’ market across from the Apollo Theater built in 1986 that ran until 1997. He said a space that provides shelter and support for vendors such as that is much needed today. 

“The bank is not giving you any loans, especially if you are a vendor on 125th Street,” Grenaway said. “Vending is the only way [for] many of us who are trying to continue thriving and continue being successful small business entrepreneurs. It is the only place we can turn to promote or sell.”

District 9 Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan’s office developed the Evolved Harlem Merchants Coalition, a group dedicated to supporting “merchant culture” and Black entrepreneurship. Nova Felder, who is a lead organizer of the coalition, said he used to sell books with his father as a child. He helped create the task force focused on issues in street vending about a year ago. “I came to understand why Black people vend on the streets,” said Felder about his childhood. “One, because it’s lucrative, but two, a lot of times we’ve been pushed out of traditional business, especially in New York City where rents are too damn high. This was a way for people to survive.”

Lloyd Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of Harlem Week, spoke to the Amsterdam News about the situation with street vendors in Harlem, as well as Adams’s recent decision. Williams said the transfer of enforcement from DCWP to DSNY “actually makes sense.” 

“The fact that the street vendors are reacting—I understand that, but it’s a simple question of are we communicating that,” Williams said. “Consumer Affairs has a very small enforcement staff and Sanitation has a greater responsibility to maintain the street beds and the sidewalks in all of the areas, so, there’s a logic for moving it from one (DCWP) to the other (DSNY). But because they have not sought to communicate with each other and to explain why certain things happen, everything is seen in an adversarial relationship.”

Discussing ways to support street vendors in Harlem, Williams highlighted the need for improved communication between vendors, as well as with store owners and the city agencies across the board, along with having designated groups and spokespeople to address vendors’ concerns. 

“There is the ability for all to survive and all to thrive if they are organized in where they are and how they place themselves,” he said. “There could, in fact, be the opportunity to have store owners and street vendors actually complement each other in promoting each other’s presence [by saying] that you can come and ‘get some books, when you visit my clothing store.’

“The question continually goes back to how we organize, so that there are persons who are designated to speak for the interests of the vendors. They may say, ‘Let’s organize so that there is a spokesperson speaking for all of the vendors of clothing, let’s get a spokesperson that is speaking for all the vendors of [other goods].”

As a co-founder of Harlem Week, which features multiple events for street vendors throughout each summer, Williams also noted a solution to help vendors is strategic placements so they are not immediately in competition with store owners or each other. 

“For example, street vendors who are selling books are not in competition with stores immediately in front of them that are selling clothing,” Williams said. The question is “how do we arrive at that balance that needs to take place.”

Former Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields is another staple in the Harlem community and the second Black woman to hold that position. Fields said that street vending definitely needs regulation that can provide for the vendors themselves while maintaining public safety. She’s not necessarily in agreement that it should be handled by Sanitation. 

Fields recalled that during her time as a city councilmember, from 1989 to 1993, street vending was “out of control,” which led directly to the controversial establishment of the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market on 116th Street in following years. The open air African market had its own designated lot, controlled by the nearby masjid (Muslim house of worship) and is now a popular tourist attraction in Harlem. 

Some activists and members of the community fought against the removal of vendors from the 125th Street stretch. They correctly suspected that a total facelift of the popular 125th section was afoot. The big chain stores began to pepper the area around the Apollo Theater: the Gap, Red Lobster, American Eagle, AMC, Children’s Place, Starbucks, etc.

“We recognized that we needed more small stores for Black people and small business locations, and everyone could not be on 125th Street,” said Fields. “It was in direct response to wanting to create opportunities for those who wanted to do business.”  

While the African market was successful, other similar projects have failed to get off the ground. Mart 125, according to Amsterdam News archives from 1991, had 52 Black vendors who often complained about the high costs of booth rent. The city evicted them in 1998 and the building  has sat vacant and deteriorating since, reported Patch.

Fields added that a horrific fire at what was Freddie’s Fashion Mart in 1995 also led to a crackdown and regulation of vendors. The New York Times reported that a tenant dispute between a Black-owned church, a Jewish landowner, and an African-owned record store was at the heart of the fire and subsequent shootings and suicide at the mart. Reverend Al Sharpton and others had rallied with a boycott in front of the mart for weeks leading up to the tragedy because the owner of Freddie’s did not employ Black workers. 

These kinds of boycotts against white-owned businesses in Harlem that refused to hire Black people were common, reported the Amsterdam News at the time. There were reports going back to the 1930s that food and goods sold to Black residents in Harlem were purposefully “shoddy and overpriced,” and there was a prejudice against Black workers and street vendors, according to AmNews archives.  

The racially charged incident in 1995 claimed eight lives. That was then, though, and times inevitably changed.

Felder said the laws over the last five decades are the culmination of a criminalization of Black street vending. He said that a “negative campaign fueled by brick and mortar businesses” in 1979 inspired the cap on general street vending licenses in the city’s administrative code. 

Another vendor advocate in the councilmember’s office, Robert Jackson, remembered that in the 1980s and ’90s, some people would set up along Harlem (and citywide) streets, selling contraband in the. He figured that is why there’s still a profoundly negative view of street vending.

“I remember them selling CDs, T-shirts, DVDs, hats, Black Power paraphernalia,” said Jackson. “I wouldn’t call it hustle culture. It’s entrepreneurship.”  

The fear now is that Sanitation, as a “real strong enforcement agency,” will throw vendors’ goods in the trash, said Felder. That hasn’t necessarily happened on a large scale as feared in Harlem, but there have been instances where street vendors were overly ticketed or “harassed,” he said.

Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project (SVP), drilled down on the policy and enforcement aspect of street vending. She said the city agency that oversees enforcement of street vending was somewhat of a “hot potato” situation for years until 2021. Years of advocacy work on behalf of vendors, she said, convinced leadership to move vending oversight from primarily the NYPD to the DCWP. However, many times, the police were still involved, she said. 

Under Sanitation, Kaufman-Gutierrez said that there was little notice or outreach done for street vendors. She said that vendors are treated as a “quality of life issue” that harkens back decades, and is a racial justice issue hiding behind veiled language. 

“The manner in which the transition took place was very non-transparent,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez. “So unfortunately, it’s the continuation of policy that has harmed these small businesses for so long, which is saying ‘all we have for you is enforcement.’”  

Kaufman-Gutierrez said that the vendor caps in the 1970s and ’80s coincided with the rise of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and public-private partnerships, which saw vendors as a “blight” or “an eyesore.” By the 1990s, police sweeps were instituted to “clean up the streets,” she said. At that time, Rudy Giuliani was mayor. The bulk of other vendor restrictions were created by the Street Vendor Review Panel (Panel) in 1995 under Giuliani’s guidance. 

According to a city report from 2021, under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, the City Council okayed new vending regulations by creating the Office of Street Vendor Enforcement (OSVE) and the Street Vendor Advisory Board. Local Law 18 of 2021 was then supposed to make room for more “mobile food vendors” or pushcart owners—a separate type of classification from general vendors, to get licenses and permits. Among other suggestions to make street vending easier, the board recommended that the city repeal the panel since it “has not met or altered restricted streets in any way since the early 2000s.” 

The SVP’s agenda follows many of the board’s progressive recommendations, such as eliminating caps on licenses, creating an office of street vendor education, ending criminal summonses for vendors, and opening up more streets for vendors.

Of course, street vendors tend to agree with the board about legislation reform and are against the Sanitation oversight.

Calvin “Watchman” Baker, 61, is a vendor who works with SVP and has been selling for decades. He usually sells watches, rings, chains, colognes, T-shirts, and hats. Baker said that at one time, Harlem vendors had an unofficial “license” deal with local precincts under the table to allow vendors as long as they followed rules and regulations. He didn’t want to identify which ones or specific cops involved. Baker is advocating for more education and workshops to teach vendors how to apply for loans and resources to grow their businesses. 

“It’s a part of American culture, not just Black culture,” said Baker of street vending as he multitasked at his table to fix a man’s watch. “You go all the way back, you see vendors. This is how a lot of businesses got started—selling things door to door and in the streets.”

Baker said there has always been harassment and arrests of vendors, and confiscations of their goods. “First and foremost, they’re looking at our stuff as junk,” he said of law enforcement and some agencies.

Shanny Herera runs a mobile jerk chicken spot with her husband, Hannibal, and is a co-lead organizer and vice president at Evolved Harlem Merchants Coalition. They started up their business during the pandemic when both of them were out of work. They are thriving as entrepreneurs and recently wanted to give back to the community with a free food event in Harlem for Father’s Day this year. They do have a food handler’s license and temporary mobile vendor license, she said, but the police shut them down because of Adams’s new city codes banning sidewalk barbecues

“It is a regulation about Black people and their culture,” said Herera. “They think that when Black people gather, there is always a violent outcome.”

Sanitation didn’t comment directly and instead unhelpfully referred the Amsterdam News to the DCWP. A spokesperson for the DCWP confirmed that the department no longer oversees vending enforcement. 

“We continue to license general vendors and also conduct enforcement for consumer protection issues like price posting and price gouging, as we do with retail businesses across the city,” said the DCWP.

Any change to the cap on the number of vendors would have to go through the City Council or New York State Legislature, said the DCWP. 

The 125th Street Business Improvement District declined to comment.

[Updated Tues, Aug 8]


Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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3 Comments

  1. No Latino vendors are being harassed in the Bronx and there is no way they could have a license since many of them cannot speak English. So why the double standard enforcement!

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