Council to propose city street peddler ban


The recipe for Robert Colbert's sweet-smelling incense is a secret, but the formula for his business plan is simple: High-traffic sidewalks translate into sales.

But the same factor driving the 45-year-old street peddler's profits - crowds - is also causing concern among neighborhood leaders who say the curbside stands clog Baltimore streets and drive down the quality of life.

Now three members of the City Council are preparing an ordinance they hope to introduce this year that would make it illegal to sell merchandise on corners and median strips in a number of northeast neighborhoods. Violators could face a $500 fine.

"It's just become too dangerous because it's causing congestion," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the 14th District and who plans to sponsor the ordinance. "This is not happening in other neighborhoods. We're not going to let it happen in ours."

Curbside sales of flowers, bottled water, newspapers - and, in some cases, crabs - are coming under increased scrutiny in some neighborhoods, where residents say the commerce, even when licensed, is a headache.

As drivers slow to make purchases, they tie up traffic, increasing the risk of an accident, critics say. Along sidewalks, vendors and their customers block entrances to storefront doors. The grass, critics say, gets worn down at intersections where peddlers pace for hours.

"One problem leads to another," said Paula Purviance, the newly elected president of the Northeast Community Organization, which is leading the effort to ban hawkers. "The northeast community does not find this appealing."

Purviance said her neighborhood's ire originally was directed at The Sun, which contracts with hawkers to sell papers at busy intersections. Now the problem is larger than that, she said.

The proposed ordinance, which is being vetted by council members, would create a "trade-free zone" from 33rd Street to the south, the city line to the north, Greenmount Avenue and York Road to the west, and Hillen Road to the east, Clarke said.

More than 350 people in Baltimore hold state-issued peddler permits, a number that includes horse-drawn a-rab carts and carriages, said Michael Golden, a spokesman for the state comptroller. The annual foot-peddler permit costs $202; vendors who sell food must apply for additional licenses from the city.

Similar crackdowns have taken place in other cities, including in New York, where then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani established a national reputation for ticketing street vendors and squeegee men during the 1990s. In 2002, Washington created a separate police squad to deal with quality-of-life crimes.

Colbert, the fragrance seller, said he doesn't see what all the fuss is about. He sets up shop - an unfolded table - on a sidewalk near Greenmount Avenue and 33rd Street. A nearby box holds his homemade incense, 25 sticks for $1. He said he gets permission from the storefront businesses in the area. The line to buy, he said, never gets too long.

"This is what I choose to do," Colbert says. "There shouldn't be nothing wrong with it. ... This is America, man."

Joann McKinney-Ajamu, 49, who walked up to Colbert's stand empty-handed and walked away with two plastic bags jammed with incense, said she agreed. Street-side vendors save her the hassle of rummaging through stores and standing in line, she said. The practice also supports people who might not have the skills to work a traditional job.

"I don't see any harm in it," McKinney-Ajamu said. "And it's convenient."

Because the ordinance would apply to only one section of the city, some said they were concerned that vendors who worked in Northeast Baltimore would simply cross the zone's boundaries. Colbert now operates on the fringes and could easily skirt the new restrictions by moving a few blocks.

On a recent rainy morning, Larry M. Burrow, 56, wandered back and forth along Northern Parkway near York Road. He kept his copies of the newspaper in a plastic bag as drivers pulled up to him, hit the horn and rolled down their windows, change in hand.

"You have up and down days," said Burrow, who said on a good day he can make about $40 selling papers. "We're providing a service."

Sun spokesman Alonza Williams said the paper sells about 30,000 copies on Sundays through the 100 hawkers it puts on the streets. The newspaper uses fewer hawkers on weekdays, he said.

"We're very cautious with our hawkers," Williams said. "We ask them not to impede the flow of traffic and that they take every precaution that they can so that they can get the papers sold and protect not only other citizens but themselves."

Cities generally have the power to regulate public rights of way, including banning commercial activity, said Mark V. Tushnet, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University. As long as bans and restrictions are applied neutrally so they don't discriminate against an individual publication, they don't run afoul of the First Amendment, he said.

Council members Robert W. Curran and Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who also represent northeast districts, said they would support the measure. Like Clarke, they said they have heard from residents frustrated with the vendors.

"I'm working [with them] to develop what we hope will be reasonable, rational and effective," Clarke said. "We're not going to have our neighborhoods turned into a traffic jam with debris and litter everywhere."

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