Immigrants to New York City have long made a living below the elevated train tracks on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, selling tacos, momos, and cups of fruit to passersby.
But in recent months, the once scarcely populated blocks that were previously home to just a few street vendors are now brimming with clusters of tents and stands where newcomers hoist up Venezuelan flags and sell arepas, empanadas, and other snacks and tchotchkes.
When Ana Carreto started selling tamales on a corner outside the Roosevelt Avenue train station two years ago, she said only about three other vendors had set up shop nearby.
“And already, look,” she said, gesturing to the several vendors just feet away on the same curb. “Full house.”
Street vending is booming in neighborhoods across the city — from Jackson Heights to Bushwick to Kingsbridge — according to elected officials, advocates and vendors themselves.
The rise in vending began three years ago with the onset of the pandemic when many locals, like Carreto and her husband, lost their jobs and turned to street vending to make ends meet. But the number of vendors has grown over the last several months as asylum-seekers and new arrivals, shut out of traditional employment because they lack work permits, join their ranks.
The city was home to an estimated 20,000 street vendors about a decade ago, according to the nonprofit Street Vendor Project. But the group says that number is rising steadily.
“Over the years, what we’ve seen is that newer waves of immigrants are of course held back by the lack of immigration reform and how hard it is to get working papers,” said state Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Democrat who represents Jackson Heights. “So they end up doing what’s easiest or perhaps the easiest business to put together, which is of course to cook food and sell it.”
Local councilmembers report an uptick in the number of sellers at longtime vending hubs but also in more residential corridors, such as the plaza by the Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenue train station in Bushwick and near the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.
But the recent vending boom has also come with more complaints. Calls about vendors to the city’s 311 hotline have risen from about 3 million in 2019 to over 8 million already this year, and the complaints range from concerns about food safety to reports about unlicensed vendors.
And some local elected officials say they’ve been receiving more complaints about vendors not taking out their trash, blocking the sidewalk, or being too close to nearby brick-and-mortar businesses.
“The one that you least want to hear is that a person who uses a wheelchair can’t get by,” Ramos added.
Sometimes, complainants may unfairly attribute problems to street vendors, said Councilmember Jennifer Gutiérrez of Bushwick.
“We’ll get calls about people saying, like, ‘Oh, there’s a ton of garbage here. And it’s probably the food vendors,’ whether or not that’s true,” she said. “You don’t get people that are like, ‘I love the lady who sells mangoes.’”
Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, who represents northern parts of the Bronx, called the rules governing street vending a “complicated, byzantine system” involving several agencies. Gutiérrez pointed to the separate geographic rules around vending, like zones where street selling is restricted and other areas that require specialized licensees.
“Are we expecting people that got here a year ago to understand that?” Gutiérrez said.
Like most street vendors in the five boroughs, new vendors generally operate without permits or licenses from the city, which are limited and highly coveted. New applicants join a yearslong waitlist for one of the few thousand food vendor permits available and the waitlist for general vendor licenses, which has long been capped at 853, is closed. The city’s lead agency in charge of enforcement, the Department of Sanitation, says it usually doesn’t go after sellers just because they don’t lack permits or licenses.
But street vendors often lack knowledge of the city’s maze of other regulations and rules. The Street Vendor Project and its allies argue that the city isn’t doing enough to educate vendors before cracking down with tickets, running afoul of a 2021 law that requires vendor training. The knowledge gap is further exacerbated since the city’s office for vending enforcement, which the law requires to also educate and train vendors, was abruptly switched to a different agency this spring.
“That was one of the big pieces that we’re doing both outreach and education, as well as enforcement. So the two have to go hand in hand,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the Street Vendor Project’s deputy director. “You can’t just have punitive enforcement and say that’s it. That doesn’t help anybody.”
This year, the organization is receiving more calls, emails and walk-ins for help than ever before, Kaufman-Gutierrez said. But the group is small, and doesn’t always have enough capacity.
“These services are in such demand,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez. “We need our city to step up and help these entrepreneurs do their job well.”
An impossible bind
For the past month, Ivan, his wife and two children lug coolers of ingredients and a foldable plastic table from their hotel in Manhattan, which has been serving as an emergency shelter for recently arrived migrants, to Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.
Ivan, 36, who asked that his last name not be publicly shared due to fears of jeopardizing his immigration case, turned to vending after struggling for seven months to find a steady job without a work permit, he told Gothamist.
The four of them are among the more than 56,000 new migrants who have entered city shelters since last spring. They sell patacones antioqueños — plantains that are smashed and fried and named for Antioquia, the region of Colombia where Ivan and his family are from.
“If we stay at home, we know we’ll become a burden to the state,” he said in Spanish. “If we go to work, then we’re going against the rules, against the law.”
Because of immigration court backlogs and permitting delays, Ivan may not get a work permit for several years, if ever. Ivan said he could’ve gotten falsified documents, but he wanted to avoid breaking the law.
“I don’t want to do something illegal. But I have to support my family. And stop depending on the government as well,” he added.
He said he wants a solution, a way to legally work, formalize his business and even pay taxes.
Educating the newcomers
Last Friday, Ramos and officials at the Street Vendor Project canvassed Roosevelt Avenue’s sellers, handing out informational fliers and checklists.
Kaufman-Gutierrez brought along measuring tape to help some vendors make sure their stands were the proper size and were 10 feet away from driveways and crosswalks and 20 feet away from other buildings.
Many of the vendors, like Ivan, didn’t even realize their tents were too large. He wore gloves and a mask based on food handling rules he found on the internet.
“We were not aware of all the demands, or where to find them before,” he said.
“What they did today? Essential. Spectacular,” he later added, when asked what he’d want from the city. “Now I know how I can follow the rules and work in peace.”
Joseph Jourdan, a spokesperson for the Department of Small Business Services, the city’s main agency for educating vendors, pointed out that it doesn’t just help street vendors, but helps all small businesses. The agency has a phone hotline, dozens of support centers across the boroughs, and outreach specialists who regularly speak with businesses in person.
“Our outreach team works tirelessly to connect New Yorkers with resources to help their businesses thrive,” Jourdan said in a statement, adding that the team has reached more than 10,000 people since 2022. “We are continuing to launch new outreach initiatives to meet more New Yorkers in language and in their neighborhoods with the help of community partners, including SVP.”
While the agency was already the city’s main information source for brick-and-mortar businesses, the unique rules governing street vending, and its mostly immigrant workforce, require a fine-tuned approach, Kaufman-Gutierrez said.
Specific vending rules should be clearly spelled out in multiple languages, in visuals as well as text, she says, like brochures SVP regularly hands out, she said – adding that in-person outreach is essential.
Neither Sanchez, Ramos nor Gutiérrez were aware of any outreach the Department of Small Business Services had done on the ground in their districts.
Carreto said that in her two years selling food on Roosevelt Avenue, no city officials, aside from Ramos, had stopped by to hand out information on her block. In that time, she switched from selling tamales to fruit cups and juice.