HARLEM — A crackdown on unlicensed vendors along 125th Street last week has some merchants worried that they were moved to make room for President Obama's appearance at the Apollo Thursday.
Police and officials from the Department of Community Affairs swooped on 125th Street Thurs. Jan. 12 and arrested three vendors for selling without a license, said Corey Ortega, special assistant for Assemblymen Keith Wright. Some vendors were so frightened they walked off and abandoned their merchandise.
"It was a lot of police," said a book vendor who gave his name as Sidi. "They came, arrested some of them and took their merchandise."
"They didn't talk to us. They just came out and took the people's stuff," said cell phone accessories vendor Issouf Dabre.
Many of the vendors arrested and those who fled sell fragrant oils. They had been operating under the belief that they did not need a vendor license because they were protected under First Amendment freedom of religion protections.
On Tuesday afternoon, 125th Street from Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard where the Apollo is located, was completely free of vendors. Normally, there are more than a dozen vendors selling an eclectic range of items from oils and T-shirts to cell phone accessories, rain or shine.
The sweep is part of a long-running battle the city has had with controlling the influx of vendors along the street but some question the timing.
"They cleaned up the block because the President is coming," said one jewelry vendor who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "The street is clean now. You don't see any vendors."
Dabre too thought the timing of the sweep was suspicious when told of President Obama's pending visit.
"The president is important, but so are we," he said.
Ortega, who has been working with the vendors, said the crackdown came as part of a DCA sweep on illegal vendors, pawn shops and jewelry shops on 125th Street and was not unexpected.
'We knew it was coming eventually and we tried our best to prepare the vendors," said Ortega.
Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, said she was not surprised to see the sweep happen before the president's arrival.
"They cannot let the president see that, it was a mess," said Askins.
There is a lengthy history of trying to clear the vendors, who numbered over 1,100 in the 1990s, from 125th Street that dates back two mayors.
The business owners along 125th Street have long-complained about the vendors crowding the street, leaving behind their trash and taking business from licensed retailers that pay a lot of rent to be located on Harlem's main retail strip and a thoroughfare recently named one of the greatest in America.
After a massive sweep by then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the vendors were eventually moved to the $1.6 million Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue in 2001. But over time, vendors began migrating back to 125th Street.
Because it is nearly impossible to obtain a general vendor license from the city unless you are a veteran — the number of general vendor licenses that the DCA issues is limited by law to 853 and the waiting list is currently closed — those vendors selling on 125th Street began selling books and art which don't require a license because of First Amendment protections.
In recent years, vendors selling fragrant oils with names like Egyptian Musk also populated the street. Vendors said they were told that the sale of oil was also protected by First Amendment freedom of religion and did not require a license because some Muslims use the scents as part of their Friday prayer ritual. All that was required was a tax identification number.
They were largely left alone by the authorities with only the occasional ticket for years before Thursday's raid, the vendors, Ortega and Askins said. There were roughly 200 vendors along 125th Street.
"We always use a tax I.D. until last Thursday," said Mohammed Tomba an oil salesman who said he has been stationed in front of the Studio Museum in Harlem between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard for 6 years and is one of the few fragrant oil vendors with a license. "All we are trying to do is to make an honest living to pay for our families," said Tomba.
Dabre, who said he works with a veteran with a general vendor license, said the merchants deserved to be warned if the rules of enforcement changed. "The best way is to call the people and tell us. They didn't know," he said.
After conversations with the DCA, Ortega said the vendors were mistaken about their ability to sell the fragrant oils without a license under the protection of religious freedom because the agency doesn't believe the items qualify.
DCA officials referred questions about the possible exemption of oils from licensing requirements to their web page which does not specifically list religious items. Officials from the 28th Precinct had yet to respond to a request for comment.
"I'd compare it to jaywalking. We know it's illegal but how many people have been arrested in New York for doing it?" asked Ortega. "But the day an officer decides to arrest you for jaywalking, he can."
Wright, who supported the clearing of the vendors from 125th street in the 1990s, is working with Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens to introduce legislation on both the state and the city level that would issue a certain number of licenses for vendors to sell their goods only on a very specific block.
Askins said the 125th Street business community is sometimes mislabelled as being opposed to all vendors but they are willing to see vending on the street as long as it is orderly.
"We could promote the vendors the same way we promote businesses but right now it's a free for all," said Askins.
But after Thursday's raid, some vendors say they are wary.
"We could have worked together before this happen. The stores, everybody complain, but most of us are just trying to make money because we have kids and family and no job," said Dabre.