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Eric Adams and the Looming Pushcart War

Can Black Democrats Address a Legacy of Business Exclusion in an Increasingly Diverse City?

August 30, 2021 By Roger House, Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee likely to become the city’s 110th mayor – and second Black mayor – will inherit an economy that hemorrhaged jobs in the pandemic. And his base of supporters, the African American residents in the outer boroughs, are among the most vulnerable in an uncertain recovery.

Many people took to street peddling without a license as a financial lifeline; in recent weeks, though, city inspectors have begun to crack down on such practices. While most aspects of a recovery are beyond the control of the next mayor, Adams would have one tool to promote the development of small business – the distribution of 4,000 new pushcart licenses.

Next year, the city will begin to issue new pushcart permits for the first time in generations. It provides the next mayor with an opportunity to not only improve oversight of the trade, but to compensate for old policies that undercut merchants in the Black community.

The new law could allow Adams to designate hundreds of pushcart vendors and ignite a new era of Black commercial activity. Street vendors generate more than $78.5 million in legal wages and an estimated $20 million in underground revenues, according to a City Council report. Currently, the city issues about 4,000 renewable pushcart licenses and maintains a waiting list of more than 1,500 applicants – and stopped accepting new applications long ago.

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Despite the cap on permits, the pushcart trade is conducted by both licensed and unlicensed vendors. Historically, the city assigned a license to the pushcart – rather than the vendor – which created an incentive for illegal subletting. Holders of licensed carts rented them out through ethnic networks for as much as $30,000 a year; the practice is so widespread that an estimated 80 percent of the pushcarts are believed to be involved in underground schemes.

In this November, 2016 photo, Mohammed Shaheedul Huq serves a customer from his food cart in Brooklyn.
AP file photo by Seth Wenig

Rather than regulate the subletting, however, the city focuses actions on peddlers selling on restricted streets. Inspectors respond to complaints from brick-and-mortar merchants ready to use police to enforce barriers to trade. Enforcement practices have ranged from tickets – an estimated 18,750 in 2015 with fines up to $1,000 – to confiscation of goods and police beatings of vendors.

Under the new law, the next mayor would begin distribution of 4,000 new pushcart licenses in July 2022. The city would distribute the first allotment of 400 “supervisory licenses,” as the vending permits are officially known, each year until 2032; of the 400 licenses issued annually, 300 will be in the outer boroughs and 100 in Manhattan. The new permits will be assigned to individuals – rather than to the pushcarts – to reduce subletting schemes.

Adams would have the authority to regulate the usage of older pushcart licenses and to create a fairer way to allocate new licenses. He would oversee the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, a new agency established to regulate pushcart licensing and practices. Yet, efforts to encourage the trade in the Black community will likely instigate a pushcart war with immigrant stakeholders.

Some city councilmembers supported the new law in the belief that it would be favorable to immigrant applicants. In January, Councilmembers Margaret Chin, Corey Johnson and Carlos Menchaca endorsed the new law with the understanding that “for generations, it was a reliable avenue to financial security for immigrant entrepreneurs.” They contended in an opinion published in the Daily News that “those who are already vending will be first in line to get the new permits.”

The stated reason for a seemingly rigged method of license distribution is to prevent “flooding the streets with hundreds of new carts.” Yet, the notion to favor people who have flouted the law is more likely a way to reward their predominantly immigrant constituencies.

A food vendor grills a kebob in August of 2018.
AP file photo by Mary Altaffer

The 2020 Census noted the rapid growth of the Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial communities. These groups comprised a good share of the 630,000-person increase in the city population over the last decade. By comparison, the Black community contracted but is still sizable at over 20 percent – and with a higher voter turnout.

Historically, Black districts were subjected to prolonged disruptions under city and state policies. Between the 1930s and 1970s, the neighborhoods experienced the mean urban renewal programs of civil engineers like Robert Moses. Under the “master builder,” Black areas were targeted for demolition and replacement with parks and highways.

At the same time, the city began to restrict access to pushcart licenses and crack down on street peddling in restricted areas. Black merchants were left reeling from the combination of forces, the lack of access to mainstream venues and bank loans, and the void was filled by chain stores, immigrant merchants, and pushcart vendors with inside connections.

A reasonable argument could be made that if any constituency has a claim to a share of the new licenses, it should be the Black community. Eric Adams might consider ways to partner with uplift organizations like the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance – touted by President Obama for giving young men the confidence to navigate employment challenges and stereotypes over crime.

In closing, Eric Adams is part of a new generation of Black political leaders in the city. Together, they should endorse a more inclusive system of pushcart license regulation and allocation as part of a broader campaign for the economic development of their community.

Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. He grew up in East Elmhurst, Queens, and worked as a street vendor when studying at Columbia University.

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