WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Police pulled six illegally operating food carts off the streets of Washington Heights earlier this month as part of a sting operation with the Department of Health that was the latest in a series of crackdowns against area vendors.
Police swept Broadway between West 155th and 168th streets, hauling away six carts that sold assorted foods like Mexican tamales and Dominican pastelitos — a dough-wrapped cheese-filled snack — explained Capt. Brian Mullen, commanding officer of the 33rd Precinct.
The sting was part of a year-long operation conducted in conjunction with the Department of Health. Mullen said the DOH has conducted four raids so far this year.
"We're seeing many more vendors this year than we have in years past," he said.
The Health Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
While Downtown neighborhoods have recently started grappling with the explosion of food trucks on city streets, community leaders in Washington Heights and Inwood say they have been tackling the issue of illegal street vendors for years.
Elected officials say they have tried to balance providing support for new entrepreneurs while maintaining residents' health, and keeping upper Manhattan streets lively, since street vending has long been a part of the area’s street life.
During the 1990s, street vending became such a nuisance that officials created Plaza de las Americas on Broadway to give vendors a space to sell their wares and food. Since then, Inwood and Washington Heights have continued to see a boom of vendors, leaving officials tasked again with finding a solution to overcrowded streets, illegal vending and complaints from local business owners who say vendors have an unfair advantage over brick-and-mortar storeowners.
This summer a coalition of community leaders formed a street vendor task force dedicated to finding a solution to decreasing congestion at commercial hubs where illegal vendors compete against retail stores and food vendors licensed by the Department of Health.
That coalition is working with elected officials who say they cannot abide the current situation, but who are nonetheless concerned about taking away many of the vendors' only source of income.
During the summer, Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, who was a member of the City Council when the plaza was created, said he supported the idea of creating new plazas. But he added that vendors need training and education programs that can help business grow and eventually move into brick-and-mortar storefronts.
“The issue has been around for decades, centuries. It’s part of the evolution of this city,” Linares said in July.
“You can wish it away, but we know it’s not going to go away. We need to look for alternative ways and spots to legalize this work.”