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Task Force Formed to Tackle Illegal Street Vending Uptown

By Carla Zanoni | July 15, 2011 8:32pm

UPPER MANHATTAN — A task force created to tackle the growing problem of illegal street vending in Inwood and Washington Heights convened Thursday to brainstorm about addressing the issue.

Elected officials, police, small business owners and residents say there is a problem with too many vendors clogging Upper Manhattan streets and uneven enforcement of unlicensed or illegally-operating vendors in the area.

Earlier this year, police said they were prepared to begin ticketing after a period of educating vendors on rules and regulations, but how soon that might begin is still up for debate.

Several groups remain divided on which approach is best to stem the tide of vendors clogging thoroughfares like 168th Street and Broadway, 181st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue and 207th Street.

Elected officials stressed the need to find alternatives for street vendors as small business owners urged police and city agencies to begin enforcing laws and regulations around street vending more stringently.

“This is one of the challenging issues a community has to face,” said Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, who first began dealing with the issue when he served on the City Council in the '90s. “On one hand, you have small businesses that are being affected and on the other you have entrepreneurs trying to keep afloat.”

Community Board 12 is taking the lead in organizing the group after the Washington Heights Business Improvement District identified a greater need for street vending education and enforcement.

“This is a sensitive situation and we have to work together to find a solution,” said BID director Angelina Ramirez. “The BID should not really be held as a spearhead for this issue.”

Having worked with the BID on the issue for the past several months, City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez proposed a study of the area to learn just how many vendors are selling their goods in the neighborhood.

After the data is collected, he would like to see the creation of two plazas in Inwood and Washington Heights, in the style of Plaza de las Americas on 175th Street and Broadway. That area was designated for vending during the '90s when the industry was in crisis.

“If we had those two other plazas I would be the first to say the police should increase enforcement,” Rodriguez said. “But I can’t recommend going forward with law enforcement if we have no other options for street vendors.”

Rodriguez stressed that many vendors sell their wares on streets out of a lack of other employment opportunities. He added that some of the vendors have had great success doing so, describing a pair of vendors who sold so many habichuelas con dulce, or sweet beans, that they’ve been able to “build three houses in [the] Dominican Republic.”

Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, who was part of the Council when the first plaza was created, said he supported the idea of creating new plazas, but added that training and education programs that can help business grow and become brick and mortar storefronts are necessary.

“The issue has been around for decades, centuries, it’s part of the evolution of this city,” Linares said. “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.”

For 34th Precinct Community Council president George Espinal, the solution is simple: zero tolerance.

“This has become a political issue,” he said. “We need to see more enforcement.”

Many small business owners agreed and said ticketing of illegal vending must begin sooner rather than later.

Peter Walsh, owner of Coogan’s Restaurant and head of the Washington Heights Chamber of Commerce, said small business owners in the area complain of the unfair competition between small business owners and street vendors.

“We have to do some enforcement in this community, this is three-dimensional graffiti,” he said, warning of reports of fighting vendors and dangerous street corners clogged by tables, people and carts. “Years ago we had no empty stores. Part of this problem are the vendors.”

Licensed food vendor Ahmed Solomon, who has sold everything from chicken kebabs to light and sweet coffee at his food cart on 168th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, said he would like to see enforcement as well. But he also wants to see enforcement that respects businesses that have served the community for years.

“We have insurance, we have a license and we pay taxes,” he said. “The problem is not vendors, it’s the ones who do not follow the rules.”

Frank Hess, special assistant to Assemblyman Denny Farrell, agreed and said uniform enforcement must be implemented.

“We can’t say skip this rule, enforce this rule instead,” he said. “There has to be a certain consistency.”