Join Culinary Backstreets

Sign up with email

[miniorange_social_login ]

Already a member? Log in.

Log in to Culinary Backstreets

Trouble logging in?

Not a member? Sign up!

Queens these days is New York’s street cart central. According to the Street Vendor Project, which advocates for vendor rights in the five boroughs, the largest concentration of street vendors with licenses lives in that borough. This concentration of streetside sellers is easy enough to see on six-mile-long Roosevelt Avenue, which runs through six of Queens’ most ethnically diverse neighborhoods with a dizzying assortment of vendors catering to almost every taste and nationality, depending on the time of day.

It’s not always easy work. At a recent monthly meeting of street vendors in Corona, Queens, the air was thick with grievances about the conditions they have to work under. Jorge and Narcissa, a couple who sells Ecuadorian food, told of repeatedly being ticketed or forced to move their cart because of complaints from a local businessman who doesn’t want them selling from in front of his store. The duo has explained to the storeowner about their right to vend, but “the owner calls the police, and the police come, and always make us move our cart.”

“How do we make a living with these constant troubles?” they asked.

Two street vendors take a lunch break, August 1946, photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records AdministrationThis profusion of street vendors – and the troubles they face – are nothing new; they’ve only migrated to another borough. In Manhattan and Brooklyn it was the same a hundred years ago. Immigrants plied carts and peddled merchandise up and down the Lower East Side’s crowded cobbled streets. Then and now street vendors were migrants, peddlers, hucksters and entrepreneurs, all rolled into one.

In 1906, several peddlers’ associations existed in New York City: The United Citizens’ Peddlers’ Association of Greater New York had six branches, four for Jews, one for Italians and one for Greeks. In addition, there was the Push-cart Vendors’ Association of Harlem and the Brooklyn Peddlers’ Association.

Roast corn man at Orchard and Hester streets, 1938, photo courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library Digital CollectionsAccording to the 1906 Report of the Mayor’s Push-cart Commission that focused on tenement areas of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, 97 percent of the Lower East Side vendors were foreign born and mainly Jewish, Italian, and Greek; the origins of the rest were Austrian, Bulgarian, English, German, Hungarian, Irish, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and American. Disparaged in the Report for being a threat to brick-and-mortar establishments and a menace to the order and cleanliness of the streets, Lower East Side and Brooklyn vendors persevered and later moved up the economic ladder to run lasting brick and mortar businesses.

For poor and migrant vendors today, nothing much has changed. They confront the same attitudes expressed in the 1906 Report and struggle to change minds and government policies. Watch this short video “Peddlers, Police, and Power: 1906 versus 2016” that pulls from the 1906 Report and archival photos.

Related stories

May 22, 2017

Capturing Queens

Queens | By Culinary Backstreets
Queens -- Starting with our Queens Migrant Kitchens project – whose creator, Sarah Khan, was recently featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown – and continuing with the introduction of our dedicated Queens section, we’ve been increasingly drawn deeper into the rich world of New York’s most diverse borough. The food in Queens, representing communities that speak…
June 5, 2017

Queens: A Street Food Paradise

Queens | By Yigal Schleifer
Queens -- On our culinary walk in the borough, you'll quickly realize that Queens is not just a paradise for different ethnic cuisine but also for street food! Approach with an empty stomach.
June 14, 2017

Friggitoria Masardona: Naples' Ur-Pizza

Naples | By Amedeo Colella
Naples -- Pizza, as you might already know, was born in Naples. What you might not know is that in Naples, fried pizza existed before baked pizza. And although Neapolitans have raised pizzamaking in the oven to an art form, their skill at turning out fried pizza is even greater. As with so many local…