Defending vendors in Jackson Heights

September 3, 2009

Sarah Wolf wrote the following for distribution in defense of street vendors, who are facing a ban that would keep them off many streets in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York City.

A FLYER entitled "Food Cart Invasion" has recently come into our hands, apparently distributed by the "Jackson Heights Beautification Group." This flyer states that food carts are "encroaching on our sidewalks, generating litter and (harming) the financial position of food-oriented businesses that pay rent."

It supports a law proposed by City Councilmember Helen Sears that would ban food carts from most streets in the heart of Jackson Heights (for example, 37th Avenue from 72nd to 82nd Streets, and much of Roosevelt Avenue from 73rd to 75th Streets). This flyer is a frightening example of racism in our community, and we condemn every word of it. We ask all residents of Jackson Heights, Woodside and Elmhurst to call Helen Sears to protest her proposed law.

Food carts in Jackson Heights provide some of the most delicious food in the neighborhood, from coffee and pastries to samosas, sopes, tacos, fresh fruit in the summer and mouth-watering pernil in the winter and unbeatable $1 ice cream.

During this economic crisis, who doesn't want fresh, diverse and cheap food? Losing the food carts would be a loss to the community, and these vendors have the same right to sell food as any other business! Should we "ban" less expensive restaurants so that the pricier ones won't have competition?

More importantly, the flyer complains that food carts have "migrated northward" and its very title describes an "invasion" of "our" sidewalks. Such language is taken right out of an anti-immigrant handbook! The sidewalks belong to everyone who lives in, works in and visits the area, not only those who own increasingly expensive property here.

Similarly, the claims that the carts "attract" litter are absurd (food cart vendors clean around their carts and provide extra trash cans), and play into the most virulently racist rhetoric that describes immigrants as "dirty." This is truly horrifying.

The call to ban street cart vendors not only seeks to ban certain members of the community from the community, it divides us and does not address the real problems facing us: rising housing costs, falling unemployment, overcrowding at Elmhurst hospital and police harassment of immigrant workers and indifference to anti-gay/transgender violence (such as the recent beating of Leslie Mora, which the police refuse to classify as a hate crime).

The "Food Cart Invasion" flyer calls for a legal form of "limpieza social"--the "social cleansing" of those it deems "undesirable." As close by as Long Island and Brooklyn, this sort of semi-veiled bigotry has lead to the brutal killings of immigrant men and women by those who chose not to take a "legal" route.

Here, in the neighborhood, it has already led to the targeting of day laborers, who recently were told by police that they are not allowed to eat lunch in a public park in Woodside. Are we living in 1940's Alabama or 2009 New York?

Finally, we hope that the opposing candidate for City Council, the activist Daniel Drumm, will take a clear position in favor of all Jackson Heights residents and condemn the food vending law.

There should be space for everyone in our community--first and foremost, those who keep it going--immigrants and workers. Those who are truly for "beautification" should be for improving everyone's quality of life, rather than participating in the war waged against low-income people and immigrants throughout the city.

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