As John Choe walks down Main Street in downtown Flushing, a neighborhood he’s lived and worked in for over a decade, he points out the different street corners where he and many others used to grab lunch. Here, one of the best ways to eat has always been on the street, where grilled meat skewers, Chinese barbecue, and sweet egg cakes have been sold from their respective corners for years.
But those vendors — many of which helped build the neighborhood’s reputation as a haven for the city’s best and most affordable Asian food — are now gone from their usual spots on Flushing’s busy main corridor. The corner of 39th Avenue and Main, once home to juicy lamb skewers and a vendor selling “golden eggies,” is now empty, and over on 38th Avenue, a popular Chinese barbecue cart is also gone.
The vendor-free streets are a result of a controversial city-backed street vendor ban that went into effect earlier this year. Though billed as a way to alleviate sidewalk congestion and pollution, many say the ban was driven by the luxurifying of downtown Flushing, which is now home to multi-million dollar condos, glitzy new shopping malls, and an increasingly wealthy population.
“I spoke with all the vendors directly, and many of them were heartbroken,” says Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce. “I know at least one that had been here for more than 10 years.”
The street vendor ban was introduced by NYC Councilmember Peter Koo last year, who argued that vendors and stoop line stands were to blame for Flushing’s “quality of life issues” like pollution from barbecue carts and crowding on sidewalks. It bans vendors of all kinds from a half-mile sector of Main Street and the side streets that lead into it, from noon to midnight every day. Downtown Flushing’s main corridor is one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, and its sidewalks are notoriously packed, so much so that the neighborhood invested $7.8 million to widen them in 2017.
“We are overrun with sidewalk obstructions, and our sidewalks have become an obstacle course,” Koo said when he introduced the bill last year. “As a small business owner, I have no objection to people innovating in order to turn a profit, but I wholeheartedly object to those who do so at the expense of their community.”
Yet many see the law as a symptom of Flushing’s changing economic and dining landscape. Traditionally a working class sector of Queens, downtown Flushing has been at the center of a real estate boom for years now — and its dining scene is rapidly evolving to one that caters to more monied and diverse Chinese residents drawn to new luxury developments.
Many longtime independent restaurants like Szechuan Gourmet and Spicy and Tasty have also closed in recent months, with Choe citing the neighborhood’s soaring rental rates and overwhelming supply of new dining options. Opening a street food cart is “one of the few ways for immigrant entrepreneurs, for example, to start a business, given the huge rents in downtown Flushing,” he says, and now they’ve been pushed out from prime real estate, too.
Contrary to Koo’s campaign, a study from nonprofit Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and Columbia University professor Ryan Devlin found that many people didn’t see street vending as the main cause of the neighborhood’s problems.
The team, which studied the ban because it’s one of the first to target a specific neighborhood instead of a larger borough, surveyed nearly 250 diners, people hanging out in public spaces, and commuters about crowding in the area. Though most respondents agreed that overcrowding is an issue, the majority didn’t see street vending as the cause. Out of 10 causes, vending was ranked No. 7, just after “people passing out flyers,” according to the findings. Devlin says the main complaints were attributed to buses, people waiting for buses, and narrow sidewalks.
About half of the respondents said they would have wanted vendors to remain, with one person saying the street vending community made up some of the “best parts of Flushing” and another saying “people rely on these vendors.”
People with lower incomes also favored vendors more than people with higher ones, according to the study, while wealthier respondents were more likely to use words like “unhealthy” or “dirty” when describing them. “You have conflicting visions of what Flushing should be, and I think the vendor ban is an aspect of that larger conflict,” Devlin tells Eater.
The Street Vendor Project — a pro-vendor nonprofit that organized protests against the law before it passed — thinks that developers behind modern new dining and entertainment complexes drove the ban. The group estimates that 16 businesses employing 48 people were displaced as a result, simply because they “didn’t fit within someone’s vision of what downtown Flushing should look like in the future,” the group’s legal director Matt Shapiro tells Eater.
Flushing’s dining scene today is indeed quite different. Though there are still long-standing restaurants and casual food courts, developments like One Fulton Square and the new Flushing Commons also play a big role. They house a combination of new options like Korean fried chicken restaurant the Coop, outposts of well-liked NYC chains like Spot Dessert Bar, and some large Asian chains, like Malaysia’s enormously popular fast-casual company Papparich and China’s hot pot sensation HaiDiLao.
Developer F & T Group is behind many of the new developments, and executive vice president Helen Lee has told Eater in the past that she chooses restaurants based on what she thinks better fits the neighborhood’s changing population. She’s also trying to change the neighborhood’s “cheap eats” reputation by bringing in modern Asian restaurants, including non-Chinese ones, that feel in line with current New York dining trends, she’s said. “We’re not just thinking about things in a singular way, but in an overarching masterplan perspective,” Lee said. The company declined to comment on the street vendor ban.
The food vendors aren’t all totally gone from the wider neighborhood, which stretches much further than downtown. Those who stuck around have relocated their businesses to less trafficked side streets a few blocks away from the main thoroughfares. The Street Vendor Project also tried to help some vendors relocate; one found a spot in Forest Hills, while another parked in front of a supermarket further away.
Still, relocating has an impact on business. Street vendors, much like storefronts, build a customer base that expects them to be at a certain location at a certain time. Moving even just a couple of blocks away can severely hurt their business, says Devlin, the professor.
Nicholas Souvlaki, who runs a popular food cart, tried publicizing his new location on his Instagram @NickFoodVendorFlushing. When reached by phone, Souvlaki was angry that the Street Vendor Project wasn’t successful at stopping the ban. “I’m floating around,” he tells Eater.
Incidentally, despite the ban, some unlicensed vendors are still setting up shop in the neighborhood; these vendors aren’t registered with the city, making it harder for officials to find and cite them for violations. On a recent afternoon, a clothing seller stood at 41st Avenue and Main, taking over the space where a skewer vendor once stood. The result, Choe says, is that the ban ends up mostly impacting vendors who are trying to do business legally.
“It’s a bitter irony that the people who invested time and resources into becoming fully compliant with city rules are the ones that have been kicked out,” he says.