Big Apple cracks down on food vendors' pushcarts

May 06, 1994|By Janet Cawley | Janet Cawley,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- Pushcarts may come to shove on the streets of midtown Manhattan in a food fight that pits Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani against the ubiquitous open-air vendors of franks and sausages, pretzels and ice cream, gyros and sodas and coffee.

Mr. Giuliani wants to move most pushcarts out of the midtown area, where for years they have dotted street corners with their bright umbrellas and aromatic, inexpensive fare.

The mayor's office claims that it is simply enforcing long-ignored 1983 regulations and that the law is the law.

The vendors, mostly immigrants who are licensed and pay taxes, say this is their livelihood; they have families to support. They believe that if they get shunted to perimeter avenues outside midtown, their sales will plummet.

Besides, they point out, a pushcart lunch -- say, a hot dog and soft drink for under $2 -- is one of the few bargains available for the cost-conscious customer who doesn't want to pay a restaurant or deli tab.

"We're not committing crimes. We're not stealing," an impassioned Theofilos Charitos said recently as he stood beside his pushcart, one eye peeled for police, near the corner of 56th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Two blocks south of Mr. Charitos' wagon, Tarek Elhosini stood behind his cart on the corner where he has been working for six years and implored: "We're here all the time. We don't bother anybody. . . . We help people. . . . We want to work hard. We don't want to go on welfare. Please, please for my family. We want to work."

After police recently began handing out warnings and summonses to the vendors -- repeated violations can bring confiscation of their carts -- they staged a protest march, pushing their carts down Fifth Avenue in a kind of wiener wagons-ho and displaying signs with such messages as "Snack Not Crack" and "We Sell Food Not Drugs."

Vernon Richardson, a spokesman for the mayor, says Mr. Giuliani, a Republican who was elected in November on a law-and-order platform, "is going to enforce the law as it is on the books."

To the mayor's office, enforcing the laws is part of the "quality of life" issue that Mr. Giuliani stressed during his campaign, promising to eliminate the kind of low-level irritants -- such as the squeegee men who wash windshields unprompted and then demand money -- that can lead to high blood pressure.

In the vendors' case, Mr. Richardson says, they cause congestion, block streets and bring a "bazaar-type atmosphere" to their locale.

Alfred DelBello, a lawyer who represents the Big Apple Food Vendors Association, cites the number of different permits a vendor must apply for, including ones from the Departments of Health and Consumer Affairs.

"You know, it's easier to move nuclear waste through New York City than to sell a hot dog," he says. "It literally is. You only need one permit to move waste."

Mr. Richardson's response to the argument that the vendors are licensed is: "The mayor can only use the analogy that 'I may be licensed to drive a car, but that doesn't mean I'm licensed to drive on the sidewalk.' . . . They are licensed to sell only at certain locations, and if they go outside that, they're illegal."

If there's any solution to this pickle, it may come from a City Council member from Brooklyn coincidentally named Anthony Weiner.

Mr. Weiner, a Democrat, has introduced legislation in the City Council to establish a 120-day moratorium on the enforcement of the pushcart laws -- which former mayors Ed Koch and David N. Dinkins had discreetly managed to ignore -- and hold hearings in the meantime. Mr. Weiner says his measure will be considered in committee next Wednesday and "hopefully will pass soon after."

"To my mind, this is a consummate middle-class issue, " says Mr. Weiner, who represents a middle-class area with residents who commute to Manhattan and eat at the wagons.

"It's hitting the vendors' pocketbooks, but in a way the working stiff is getting hammered, too."

He adds: "Giuliani has a good sense of what ticks people off, but I think he got this one wrong."

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume May 11.

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