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Here's What the Future of City's Street Fairs Could Look Like

By Nicole Levy | June 9, 2016 1:04pm
 At the Chelsea Eats street fair in April, attendees wait in line for hand-cut fries.
At the Chelsea Eats street fair in April, attendees wait in line for hand-cut fries.
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Pop Up New York

On a sunny Sunday in May, vendors assembled on the Upper East Side to sell terrariums, Chinese street crepes, knock-off Cronuts, vegan frozen mousse, cruelty-free soaps, Japanese fried octopus fritters and cuff links crafted with paint chips found at the 2nd Avenue subway station.

They plied their wares in the middle of Third Avenue, at a street fair that resembled few others in the city. Conspicuously absent were the arepas, costume jewelry, funnel cakes and cellphone cases you can find on New York City blacktops any given spring or summer weekend. In their place: picnic tables shaded by umbrellas, musicians playing R&B and solo trumpet, and gear for games of cornhole.

”Street fairs have been synonymous with tube socks, sausages, pashminas for quite some time now,” said the Chelsea event’s architect, Pop Up New York founder and managing director Evan Berman, whose company’s stated mission is to refresh and customize festivals that many New Yorkers have come to consider predictable and monotonous.

"For years, we’ve known that street fairs need new life, new energy, and a new look," said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a public policy think tank that called for the "rethinking" of "generic" city fairs in 2006.


A trumpeter playing at the Third Avenue street fair (Credit: DNAinfo/Nicole Levy)

That new look takes the form of a Smorgasburg duplicate popping up in any neighborhood willing to host one.

“In a world where there is Smorgasburg and there is Brooklyn Flea, where there’s more competition out there, but also where tastes are changing, and people are sick of the same old fair," Bowles said. "This will put pressure on the city to continue to innovate.”

In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration instituted a cap on permits for new fairs, addressing complaints of the traffic snarls, disorderly conduct and lost sales at local businesses that were widely attributed to them. The festivals had financial consequences for the city, too: in 2010, 321 fairs generated $1.6 million for local government in vendor fees but cost $4 million in overtime pay for the police officers staffing them, according to the Daily News. (The city could not provide more recent numbers upon request.)

In 2011, City Hall limited the hours during which fairs could operate and restricted their sprawl. Last year, its domain hosted just 196 multi-block fairs.

The private companies that plan the fairs and the nonprofits that sponsor them currently decide which vendors will serve each street fair.

Mort Berkowitz, president of Mort & Ray, one of the three production companies that monopolize the city's street fair business, said he knows that New Yorkers consider the fair of kabobs and trinkets stale. He blamed the lack of variety on the shrinking rank of permitted vendors and the ballooning number of events.

Tackling the same issue, Berkowitz's competitor Clearview Productions has invested in Berman's vision as a division of its own operations. This summer, Pop Up New York will oversee the entirety or segments of 32 fairs where nonprofits like Chelsea's Visiting Neighbors express interest in presenting their neighborhood with something new — and are willing to take a gamble on it.

This year, the Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management, the agency coordinating permits for street activities, is also conducting a review of their advantages, drawbacks and the existing moratorium on their growth, executive director Michael Carey told DNAinfo New York.

The lifting of the cap, which favors festivals with the greatest seniority, could herald a new era of street fair experimentation.

A Look Back at the Start of the City's Street Fairs

You can trace the history of today's New York City street festival back to 1916, the year that Italian immigrants established the Feast of San Gennaro. What began as a day-long homage to Naples’ patron saint has since matured into an annual 11-day celebration on Mulberry Street drawing more than a million fairgoers to the alleyways of Little Italy, where cannoli and Mafia-themed knickknacks are sold beneath arched red-white-and-green garlands.

San Gennaro

Revelers at the 2004 Feast of San Gennaro (Credit: Getty/Spencer Platt)

In the 1970s, street fairs took a secular turn as emerging neighborhood associations sponsored events to raise money for local improvements, encouraging neighbors to mingle with one another and let drug dealers know just who owned the streets, writes Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York History, in an essay titled "The Triumph of Commerce Over Community."

The process of planning such a block party was simple enough at the time: once the city approved a nonprofit group's request for a street closing, the organization collected fees from vendors who wanted to participate, and volunteers took care of the rest.

Complications ensued in 1978 when Mayor Ed Koch established the Community Assistance Unit to mediate between community groups and the mayor's office. The agency would charge fair sponsors a 20 percent tax on the fees vendors paid to reserve space, mostly as a means to fund police and sanitation costs. The bureaucratization of the system entailed all kinds of paperwork that overwhelmed volunteers, who soon turned to middlemen to arrange for permits, sanitation, security, corporate sponsorship and vendors.

“It was hard work,” recalled Visiting Neighbors executive director Cynthia Maurer, whose senior services nonprofit — a sponsor of the fair on Eighth Avenue for more than three decades — chose to hire Clearview Productions. ”We’re social workers and psychologists and volunteers, and we really didn’t want to have to worry about marking streets … and making sure there’s clean, available Porta-Potties.”

While only nonprofit organizations could request street closings with permission from their local community board, promotion businesses like Clearview, Mort & Ray Productions and Mardi Gras Productions could make deals to manage the planning of a street fair and pocket a sizeable cut of the vendors fees they shared with the nonprofits and the city —up to $2.6 million for promoters, according to city records obtained by the Daily News in 2010.

”My concept of all this when I started it was that a family would be able to enjoy a day in the sun … without having to spend any money," said Berkowitz, whose company ran its first street fair on the Upper West Side in 1975 and assumed responsibility for the Feast of San Gennaro in 1996.

For the first 20 years of business, Berkowitz's business managed 10 festivals, and its competitors, Clearview and Mardi Gras, ran about 20 others combined, he estimated. The fairs each had enough of their own character to merit a preview in the Times in 1982.

"And then they began to proliferate beyond imagination," Berkowitz said.

By the 1990s, nonprofit groups realized they could make tens of thousands of dollars without doing any fundraising themselves, a fact promoters were only too happy to bring to their attention. Local artists had fled the fairs for better-paying craft shows, opening the field to small-time vendors selling imports.

By then, New Yorkers knew to expect traffic jams inflamed by street closures, and sightings of the same T-shirt, sausage and sunglass stands again and again, and again.

Store owners began to complain that street fairs were taking customers away from their shops and damaging their businesses. Local homeowners griped about fairs leaving their neighborhoods strewn with litter and passed-out bacchanalians.

"We need to stop and rethink what street fairs have turned into," radio host Brian Lehrer opined in 2004. "Sadly, they have come to represent the triumph of commerce over culture, the marginalization of community in the name of community."

Lehrer called for the city and nonprofit sponsors to make discriminating choices about the kinds of vendors they allowed to sell on their streets. Sponsors could reserve spots for homegrown and innovative material that better represented their communities and could subsidize young artists, he argued.

A 2006 report from Center for an Urban Future calling for the "rethinking" of "generic" city fairs found that 20 vendors held 46 percent of all the food permits distributed by the health department to fair participants. Nine out of those 20 were based outside New York.

Street Fairs Get a New Life

A decade later, it's a promotion company that's taken on the street fair makeover that Lehrer called for over a decade ago.

Evan Berman, the nephew of Clearview Productions president Todd Berman, had, during his college years, sold sunglasses at summer fairs. Fourteen months ago, the 27-year-old approached his uncle with a pitch: Clearview’s “cookie cutter” street fairs deserved a facelift, and he was the man to deliver it.

The Bermans

Evan and Todd Berman (Credit: Pop Up New York)

”These are incredible venues," said the Midtown resident who grew up on Long Island. "And we can really transform and evolve street experiences citywide, by getting the local community store owners participating in the events and upgrading vendors who are participating in the event to focus more on visual art, artisanal food and craft merchandise."

The notion of "upgrading" vendors can be a problematic one, considering that many vendors at traditional fairs are first-generation immigrants according to Berkowitz and a City Hall source, but DNAinfo met vendors at the May Pop Up Fare who had emigrated from Brazil, Japan and Moldava.

Yanki Tshering, executive director of the Business Center for New Americans, said she doesn't think the new fair model is an big issue for her nonprofit's loan-seeking clients, and that they should be "open to change and competition."

Berman's model also has the city's support:

"We are excited to work with Clearview Festival Productions on their new New Artisanal and Fine Craft Merchandise Event Division," Carey, the Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management's executive director, said in a statement provided to DNAinfo. "We always appreciate new ideas that help transform New York City’s Street Festivals."

But Berman’s vision for a different kind of fair — a "fare" as he's calling it — would make no headway without the support of nonprofit sponsors.

Members of the Chelsea community had been asking for something other than the “classic” street fair when Maurer’s Visiting Neighbors organization — which sponsors fairs to advertise its senior care services, find new volunteers, and raise unrestricted operating funds — decided to try Clearview’s new concept.

“We go to community board meetings, we’re out there and people were saying they would like to see something different besides the standard fair where you’re buying socks and T-shirts,” she said.

Berman would deliver, having tapped vendors like Duck Season — a mobile food stand with the tagline "the duck, the whole duck and nothing but the duck" — at trade shows, in local business incubators and at markets such as Smorgasburg. (Traditionally, the city has directed newly permitted vendors to the three big promoters, who also advertise in newspapers and occasionally poach peddlers from other fairs, Berkowitz said.)

Duck Season owner and chef Josh Appelbaum said he decided to set up a tent at Pop Up New York's inaugural events in the Meatpacking District and Chelsea last year because he wanted to test his concept in new neighborhoods.

"If you think about Pop Up New York, it’s sort of the Uber of the food truck experience," Appelbaum said. "Taxi medallions are hard to get; so are food truck licenses. So companies like Pop Up New York that come into the market are basically disrupting that scene by making it easier for small food producers to get exposure and sell their wares to the public."

Jens Wohld, whose company, German Christmas Market Corp., sells German sausages at fairs run by all three promoters, said he prefers Pop Up Fares because they space out their stands and make room for tables and games.

girl playing cornhole

A girl playing cornhole at a May Pop Up Fare on Third Avenue on the Upper East Side. (Credit: DNAinfo/Nicole Levy)

"The other street fair producers try to make money with the rent, of course," he said, packing in booths twice as tightly. "All of the vendors are very [close] to each other."

Pop Up New York isn't just targeting food vendors. Berman said he's established a tiered pricing scheme that charges local visual artists and businesses only nominal fees to participate and showcase themselves.

The first few artists Berman contacted about selling their work at Pop Up events have recruited their friends and contacts, he said, and the Etsy New York Team, a collective of craft-makers, is also getting the word out.

As for the restaurants he’s persuaded to join vendors on the street, most lack the infrastructure to prepare food outside, but restaurateurs like Roe di Bona, co-owner of the Rocking Horse Cafe, said they still benefit from setting up tables at the open air market.

"It’s casual, it’s festive, it’s fun," said di Bona, whose 28-year-old Mexican restaurant that has taken part in Pop Up's Chelsea event for the last two years. "This gave us a chance to introduce the neighborhood and other strollers to really fun Mexican food.

"I wish I could do it all the time!"

The Challenges of a Fresh Take

The remodeled street fair is not without its risks, Berman readily admits.

While the established street fairs are open to any vendor who has the appropriate permits and can afford to pay a fee for space, Pop Up New York is choosing its vendors carefully to attract exhibitors who have long avoided fairs, like visual artists and craftspeople. It charges them fees for space equivalent to its competitors, roughly $350 for a 100 square feet, according to Wohld.

For now, that curation process means fewer vendors pay fees for space, and Pop Up events generate less revenue for Clearview and their nonprofit sponsors.

And since Berman is committed to the idea that Pop Up New York needs to tailor each event to the neighborhood in which it takes place, he can’t simply offer vendors who participate in multiple fairs discounts on their fees, as the three big promoters do.

Berkowitz, of Mort & Ray Productions, is skeptical that his competition will be able to drum up enough vendors at all.

“If you’re only going to have four or five blocks of artisanal food, you can get enough people, but when you’re doing larger events, it’s impossible,” he said.

And while Berman has dreams of transforming fairs citywide, not every community will ask for Clearview’s “artisanal concept,” as he described it.

Thus far, Pop Up New York’s events are concentrated in downtown Manhattan and northwestern Brooklyn, with the most notable exception in Forest Hills, Queens.

There’s no guarantee they will appeal to the neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx, where street fair vendor Luis Mora sells soccer jerseys and Ecuadorian goods like woven bracelets as a means of supplementing the income from his weekday job at a Midtown framing shop.

“A lot of communities really do like [the traditional fairs],” said Bowles, of the Center for an Urban Future.

While Berman spoke of fairs as “giving the street back to the people for a day,” Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, said Pop Up New York isn’t going far enough to achieve that end.

“We’re very critical of these private companies who are given permission to take over our public spaces, so making [street fairs] more upscale doesn’t change the root cause of the problem here,” said the head of a nonprofit that represents vendors who mostly work on city sidewalks.

If the Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management were to lift the moratorium on new street fairs, “they wouldn’t have a hard time finding folks who would try different models in our public space,” Basinski said.

Berman believes the moratorium should only be repealed if the city implements standards guaranteeing events that are, in his words, “consistent with what the neighborhood wants.”

The neighborhood may prefer something other than a fair: over the last few years, the Department of Transportation has worked with civic groups and Business Improvement Districts to plan “Weekend Walks” that open the streets up to local merchants, community organizations, artists and musicians, while excluding vendors from outside the community.

“Ultimately these events are about benefiting the community,” Maurer said. “There’s something wonderful about having your next-door neighbor who you may not even know … chatting in the street over a German sausage.”