City Hall debated a new law on Thursday that expands the no-vending zone around the World Trade Center (WTC) complex — legislation proposed by City Council Member Margaret Chin that would force 22 food vending business to leave the area. At face value, it’s a safety measure: Chin, who represents lower Manhattan’s district 1, says the bill accommodates an increase in congestion caused by the opening of several newly completed WTC buildings. “This legislation is about safety – for residents, visitors and workers alike,” says Chin’s spokesperson Marian Guerra.
Oleg Chernyavsky, NYPD director of legislative affairs, added that while NYPD acknowledges the value street vendors bring to the downtown community, street vendors carts can be used to conceal explosives and often contain flammable gases — saying that their proximity to the WTC is an issue for safety and congestion.
But advocates for vendors say that the bill’s safety rationale is a ruse. Sean Basinski, co-director of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, says he believes the heart of the bill is Islamophobia, which recalls the Ground Zero Mosque opposition. Of the 22 business that would need to go, 18 of them are run by Muslim vendors.
“The NYPD has a history of Islamophobia,” says Basinski. “They are implying that vendors are going to put bombs in their carts, which when you are dealing with mostly Muslim vendors, is offensive. The city has offered no evidence that any vendor there presents any risk. In fact, vendors frequently protect the public, most famously in 2010 when vendors reported the car bomb in Times Square. Every day, vendors serve as the eyes and ears of the police.”
Some background: In 2004, in response to the terror attacks of 9/11 and to accommodate the massive construction taking place, a no-vending zone was established around Ground Zero. More recently, with the construction complete and new vehicle checkpoints in place around WTC, Chin has proposed extending the no-vending zone by a few blocks and side streets.
The bill helps clear pedestrian traffic from vehicle checkpoints, which get blocked by cart vendors and throngs of hungry pedestrians, Chin argues. “The newly expanded zone is as narrowly tailored as possible, to account for the emerging reality of how ingress and egress will work in and out of this site,” she said at the hearing.
Chin, who’s often been an advocate for immigrants, also pointed out at the hearing that the original no-vending expansion proposal included Zuccotti Park, which she opposed because it is such a popular hub for street vendors. The park is no longer part of the newest delineation of the expansion zone as a nod to street vendors fighting “for the American dream,” she says.
Despite Chin’s good intentions, many advocates and street vendors see the bill as little more than racist measure aimed at a mostly Muslim workforce, they say. While those food vendors are not allowed anymore, the new legislation will not apply to the mostly white farmers at the weekly WTC Greenmarket, who haul in their goods in large trucks every week and are able to freely operate within the no-vending zone, Basinki says. “When you see that the city welcomes all the wholesome white farmers into this restricted zone that says to us very clearly, that this is about race, not safety,” says Basinski.
NYPD’s Chernyavsky says the Greenmarket is on private property and that their trucks must go through security detail run by the Oculus and are therefore not a threat. “We are not targeting vendors; we know they are an important part of our community. This bill is a reasonable update to the law,” Chernyavsky says.
Still, vendors and advocates were unswayed by this response. A slew of them showed up to the hearing to speak up against the bill. “I have worked here for 23 years,” said a street vendor who testified at the hearing on Thursday. “We are always cooperating with NYPD. We help tourists. We serve as guides. We alert the police when we see something suspicious.”
“Why would we attach a bomb to our cart?” questioned another street vendor who testified. “We are working hard, and this is the only way we have to feed our family and make our living.”
Albert Cahn of the NY Council on American Islamic Relations, testified on behalf of the displaced Muslim vendors as well. “This legislation robs them of their livelihood and it creates a double standard with farmers at the Greenmarket and Muslims who run carts,” Cahn says. “Even if it is not your intent, you are [giving] a public relations win to anti-Muslim extremists who paint our Muslim neighbors as a threat. I ask that you work with the community and advocates today to make sure we don’t move even one vendor until we have found other locations for them and do not yield to justification of security without being suitably skeptical.”
Two city council members also spoke out against the bill. Brooklyn Council Member Brad S. Lander, who represents neighborhoods such as Cobble Hill and Park Slope, asked why Times Square — also a terrorist target — is an area where street vendors are free to work. “Aren’t those also areas that present security risks?” he asked.
NYPD spokesperson Chernyavsky responded that the WTC is a special situation because of its history as a terrorist target, an answer that Ladner did not find very satisfactory. “I am still not understanding why this is any different,” he says. “And what procedures are put in place to decide why street vendors are prohibited at the WTC but not at Times Square?”
And Queens Council Member Karen Koslowitz, representing neighborhoods including Rego Park and Forest Hills, also opposed the legislation, suggesting that there should be a vending review panel to evaluate any changes in the vending zones and noting that she’d be introducing additional legislation proposing a “vendor review panel” to handle these issues appropriately. “They are entitled to make a living, and they are constantly being picked on,” she says.
A date for a formal vote on the bill has not yet been set.