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Street vendors fight for space on crowded Midtown blocks

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“I have a wife and two kids. I can’t just leave,” says one vendor

A halal cart and a smoothie cart on a midtown Manhattan sidewalk crowded with stone planters and construction scaffolding.
Street vendors on Broadway between 31st and 32nd streets.
Caroline Spivack/Curbed NY

A Midtown block has emerged as the epicenter of the fight over coveted sidewalk space between sidewalk vendors and those that maintain the city’s streets.

A half-dozen vendors say carefully placed planters and other amenities installed by the 34th Street Partnership, a nonprofit that serves as a business improvement district in the area around Herald Square, have encroached on their curb space and in some cases have pushed them out of their longtime spots, hurting their bottom line.

“I lost a lot of business,” says Yahay Rahimi, who ran his coffee cart on Broadway and 31st Street for a decade before he was forced to relocate to a nearby street corner. “I don’t have a relationship with the customers over here. I have family, I have children. It’s not fair.”

The problem worsened when construction began late last year to overhaul the 39-story building at 1250 Broadway, known as the Nomad Tower. Construction fences narrowed the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians, vendors, and their customers to cram into a tight space. Then heavy stone planters, bike racks, and signage peppered the street in inconvenient spots.

Some fed-up vendors dragged the planters out of their territory only to later find them screwed into the ground. Others refuse to move and find themselves in precarious positions where the city could hit them with tickets.

“The building manager keeps coming over and asking, ‘When are you leaving?’ It’s not an option for me to leave from here,” says Wahede Whab, who operates a fruit cart on the block that was started by his father in 1984. “This has always been us. My family has been here for more than 30 years. I have a wife and two kids. I can’t just leave.”

A fruit stand with three green and white umbrellas shielding the fruit from the sun. A recently installed stone planter, bike rack, and way-finding sign are directly in front of the cart on the curb. Caroline Spivack/Curbed NY

A spokesperson for the 34th Street Partnership pointed the finger at 1250 Broadway renovations and claims street vendor advocates “conflate and confuse the myriad of issues surrounding street vending regulations.”

“The issue at 1250 Broadway was due to ongoing renovation of that building, where extended construction barriers created a choke point along the sidewalk, making it very difficult for pedestrians to navigate,” says Joe Carella, a spokesperson for the 34th Street Partnership. “Beautification elements such as benches and planters exist on that block, as they do throughout the 34th Street Partnership district.”

Global Holdings Management Group, which bought the Broadway building in 2016, did not return requests for comment.

Department of Transportation spokesperson Alana Morales says the agency has “a maintenance agreement” with the 34th Street Partnership “going back many years which allows planters, bikes racks, information kiosks, and benches,” but that DOT plans to review the situation on the block.

Advocacy group the Street Vendor Project says the situation is indicative of a larger fight across the city where business improvement districts and building management are forcing out street vendors from well-trafficked spots where vendors clash with other commercial storefronts and pedestrians.

“We realize that there’s lots of competition for public space in New York. Street vendors should be part of that,” says Matthew Shapiro, the legal director for the Street Vendor Project. “They should be part of the discussion whenever the city wants to put news stands or way-finding signs or planters or bike racks—these are all important, but vendors are also important, and they need to be a part of that discussion.”

That conflict could worsen under legislation proposed by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson who seeks to “completely revolutionize” the city’s streets with a five-year master plan that would lay out priorities for street redesign, pedestrian spaces, and other city spaces. A separate bill, not backed by the council speaker, looks to lift limits enacted on street vendors in 1983. The de Blasio administration says it is working with the City Council to develop a middle ground.

“We must create a balance between the needs of vendors, businesses and pedestrians who have to navigate our increasingly congested sidewalks,” said mayoral spokesperson Laura Feyer. “We are currently working with the City Council to find the right approach.”