Street Vendors Feel Health Department Squeeze in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

By Sonja Sharp on October 30, 2013 9:52am 

 Martha Distenoble, 61, is among a growing number of Brooklyn and Queens food vendors feeling squeezed by the Health Department, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Martha Distenoble, 61, is among a growing number of Brooklyn and Queens food vendors feeling squeezed by the Health Department, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods.
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DNAinfo/Sonja Sharp

CROWN HEIGHTS — Martha Distenoble had been selling produce on the same bustling corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway for nearly 20 years when she got her first citation from the New York City Department of Health late this August. 

Now, the 61-year-old licensed vendor is facing a $1,000 fine for selling from an improper cart, one she says she can't hope to pay between babysitting and her dwindling sales, which take a hit every time she gets a tip the DOH might be heading toward her corner.   

"When they came, there were a lot of people. I was very scared. They took everything, even my dinner," Distenoble said. "Now I don't know what to do." 

Her story has become increasingly common in Brooklyn and Queens, particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods like Crown Heights, advocates say.

"We’re seeing more of this happening in Brooklyn and Queens, where vendors have been part of the community for many, many years," said said Archana Dittakavi, staff attorney for the Street Vendor Project. "Vendors weren’t being harassed or ticketed to this extent until this past year or so. It’s really a dramatic shift."

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene denied there has been any change in policy or enforcement, saying the uptick is likely the product of more staff and a new computerized inspection system that allows the department to reach operations like Distenoble's they might have missed before. 

The shift has been particularly devastating for licensed vendors like her, who are often cited for selling from small folding tables, Dittakavi said. 

"They have a license that applies to the person but not to the cart," Dittakavi said. "The reason a lot of people have licenses instead of a permit is that they’re easier to get. The permits are capped."  

Not only do vendors face stiff fines, they also lose the merchandise that earns their livelihood. The Health Department confiscated and destroyed more than 40 pounds of produce from Distenoble alone, documents show. 

"Vending must occur from a permitted mobile food unit and may not be done from a table set up on the street," said a Department spokesman.

"Placing a table top over a cart is a practice some vendors use to extend the size of their permitted cart, which has been and continues to be a violation."

Advocates say they're holding their breath for next year, when they hope the new mayoral administration will loosen the restriction on vending permits and lower the fines for violations. In the meantime, they've warned vendors to be on the lookout. 

"Neighborhoods are gentrifying quickly, and business owners in the area and other residents are organized effectively and are able to complain [about vendors]," Dittakavi said. "More than likely, it's a heightened enforcement as these neighborhoods change."

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