HELL'S KITCHEN — The Hell’s Kitchen flea market has dragged its feet in securing an operating permit from the city, and now is dealing with disgruntled vendors who claim the owners are trying to squeeze them for cash.
With only a week left to approve or deny the flea market’s permit to operate in 2016, Community Board 4’s Quality of Life committee met Monday evening to hear owner Alan Boss’s plans to remedy issues with the market’s nonprofit sponsor and address vendor discontent that surfaced as the market’s permit comes up for renewal.
The city’s Street Activity Permit Office (SAPO) recently required markets like the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market to have a “community sponsor,” such as a nonprofit organization with a relationship to the event location.
The current iteration of the flea market has operated on West 39th Street between Ninth and 10th avenues on weekends since 2003. The nonprofit affiliated with it, Boss's own Hell’s Kitchen Foundation Inc., was incorporated in May 2012, but only received a letter from the IRS approving its nonprofit status in February and has not yet doled out any official funds, he admitted Monday
The foundation’s stated goal has been to “[sponsor] local artists in an effort to provide financial assistance to support them in pursuing their work,” but Boss acknowledged Monday that the nonprofit does not have a board of directors and has yet to choose an artist or artists to sponsor.
“Now that we have approval from the IRS, we can retroactively fund distribution,” Boss, who also operates the Chelsea Flea Market on West 25th Street, suggested. But committee co-chairwoman Tina DiFeliciantonio questioned why the funds had not been distributed between 2012 and 2015.
“I find it very disconcerting,” she said.
As revelations about the market’s nonprofit issues surfaced, a number of past and present vendors have also spoken out against what they claim is mismanagement of the market by Boss and his wife, Helene Boss.
Former Hell’s Kitchen vendor David Bros began selling merchandise at the market during the summer of 2012. Since then, he has moved to a different venue after witnessing what he called increased “episodes of abuse” at the hands of the Bosses. These include altercations with vendors, skyrocketing rent and a general decline in the market, which has seen a revolving door of managers over the past few years that has increased the market’s volatility, Bros claimed.
“I liken the Bosses to the slumlords of the flea market world,” he told DNAinfo prior to Monday's meeting, describing instances of the Bosses arguing with vendors over payments for spots, as well as one occasion when Helene Boss screamed at a vendor to leave the market if he didn’t like what they were charging.
“[They’re] not providing the services and environment the vendors reasonably expect and that they should be getting.”
Current vendor Anthony DeVincenzo, 61, who sells women’s vintage apparel at the market along with his wife, has his own issues with the management and called the market “a shadow of its former self.”
“My main contention is that they tell people they’re advertising but they’re not — they’re just milking [the market] for whatever money they can get out of it,” he said prior to the meeting, adding that the number of vendors at the flea, which used to tally more than 100, has dwindled to around 30.
A representative for Boss denied the vendors' claims.
"These allegations are entirely false," the spokeswoman said. "As the committee heard at last night’s meeting, most of our vendors have worked with us for years and have had no complaints.”
At Monday’s meeting, Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, said his organization has received five official affidavits from vendors unhappy with the way the Bosses have run the market and suggested new management could be in order.
But Boss defended his management practices, comparing running a business where people “have their own agenda” to “herding cats.”
“You can’t make all of the people happy all of the time,” he said. “I recognize there’s a problem with some people, and short of hiring Sigmund Freud, I’ll do my best.”
DiFeliciantonio and other committee members, however, chastised Boss and his representative for failing to bring financial information or definite plans to improve the market’s current conditions to the meeting, at which members were supposed to vote to either support or deny a permit.
“I was under the impression that we were going to hear plans for moving forward,” she said. “We were looking for a plan of action, and we’re not seeing that.”
Despite the flea's violations and alleged management problems, there was general agreement at the meeting that the market should remain open.
Nearly a dozen vendors spoke out in support of the market when the committee opened the floor to the public.
“It’s my business and I love it,” vendor Geisha Otero said. “It’s my means of income, and I don’t want that taken away from me.”
Basinski suggested the market could be run by the vendors themselves as a cooperative, but said the decision "should not be between a flea market and no flea market."
Several vendors, however, spoke out specifically in support of Boss and his management, and the committee ultimately moved to give him until Wednesday at 4 p.m. to produce financial information related to the Hell’s Kitchen Foundation.
Boss said he was prepared to “run at a loss” to stimulate more participation in the markets by reducing rental prices for the vendors. He also planned to bring in city mediators in the case of future vendor disputes and promised to provide additional security officers at the market, after the committee pointed out that it has been operating with only one security officer, in violation of another community board stipulation.
Committee co-chairman David Pincus said the body could include stipulations in its letter to SAPO that would require the market’s status to be reevaluated on a monthly basis, if necessary.
“The community board is very invested in the success of the vendors,” he said.