On the Job
What’s It Like to Run an Unlicensed Business in New York?
[Rainy, underwater subway sounds. Subway doors closing]
VOICE: From New York City News Service.
[Train opening door noise, train moving away (loud at first then diminishes). Distant music, sounds of people talking]
HANNAH BOTTUM: You hear Corona Plaza before you get there. The second you hop off the 7 train, music and chatter comes up from below the platform.
I’m here with Rachael Robertson, one of our producers. As we walk down the stairs, vendors’ stands come into view.
[Music grows louder]
HANNAH: Picture this: it’s like a small town market arranged under the elevated train tracks. It’s a sunny Sunday in October. Dozens of colorful canopies protect vendors and their stalls. They’re selling everything from punk t-shirts and jewelry to sizzling meat and corn.
[Exchange with a street vendor: “Lo quieres con mayonesa y queso?” Hannah turns to Rachael. “Do you want cheese and mayonnaise?” “Yeah.”]
HANNAH: We’re looking for one vendor who’s expecting us.
[Hannah, Rachael, and Veronica greet each other: “…oh hi! Oh hi!”]
HANNAH: Veronica Fructuoso. Her brown eyes are accented by bright blue eyeliner.
[Distant sounds of cars honking, music continues]
HANNAH: Pero cómo estás?
VERONICA: Muy bien. Muy bien, muy bien.
HANNAH: Her table is lined with little perfume bottles and boxes. The rest of what she is selling is for kids. Little plastic superheroes and bubbles. Plus sparkly backpacks with unicorns and rainbows. The backpacks give her tent a pink glow.
You can tell Veronica’s got a good spot in the Plaza. Crowds heading for church and Walgreens walk by her.
HANNAH: A qué hora llegaste?
VERONICA: a las… cómo las diez o…sí, las diez.
H: She’s been out here since 10 a.m. Business is starting to pick up.
VERONICA: Yo creo que apenas está comenzando a salir. Había muy poquitos en la mañana.
VERONICA: Pero yo ahorita, ya, ya están saliendo.
HANNAH: Veronica works on the weekends, so she can be home during the week. Making her kids lunches, getting them ready for school, and picking them up.
VERONICA: Como que trato de estar/pasar más tiempo con mis hijos en este tiempo. Los chiquitos sí, estar con ellos y estar al pendiente de ellos.
HANNAH: It can be hard to find time for the whole family to be together – her husband Christian has another job – but he helps her here Saturdays and Sundays.
As the days get colder, Veronica will spend less and less time here. Still, Corona Plaza is a destination year-round, she says – even for visitors from out of state.
VERONICA: vienen de otros estados también.
HANNAH: Some people come to New York for Magnolia Cupcakes or to go shopping on Fifth Ave. But others come here, to this market in Queens.
VERONICA: Es muy, como muy llamativa la plaza.
HANNAH: It has everything, Veronica explains. The food is a big draw.
VERONICA: Porque hay muchas cosas que en otros lugares no hay. Aja. Y la comida también porque comienzan a llegar ya los puestos de comida. Y es muy rica.
[Sounds of the Plaza fade]
[Gentle piano music begins]
HANNAH: This place has become an institution. But there is a catch. Because this small town square where Veronica and so many other vendors make their living… it’s technically (pause) not supposed to be here.
From the Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, this is What’s It Like. I’m Hannah Bottum.
In Corona Plaza, street vendors have formed a market space of their own. But most of the vendors there don’t have a license or permit. In fact, most of New York City’s 20,000 street vendors are unlicensed. This makes it impossible for any vendor to run their business as the city would like – or as they would like.
[SOUNDS OF A RALLY. ¿Qué queremos? ¡Licencias! Y permisos!]
[MAN SPEAKING: “And just to highlight the issue. To make sure it’s very clear for everyone here. The issue for most street vendors is that they cannot access permits or licenses from the city.”]
HANNAH: As of now, there is a waiting list of thousands of people. Vendors waiting a decade or more for a permit. Without this protection, they face harassment, expensive fines, and even arrest.
So what’s it like to risk losing your livelihood every time you set up shop?
[Gentle piano music fades]
HANNAH: The city’s seemingly arbitrary cap dates back to 1983, under then-Mayor Ed Koch. And in ‘85, Koch then pushed for a bill banning food vendors in business districts around the city.
ED KOCH (ARCHIVE): We don’t want to end the peddler business, we simply want to fairly regulate it so as to eliminate the congestion., which would require that there be no peddlers at that particular site or block but you can do it in a fair way.
HANNAH: The city claimed limiting vendor access was in response to business complaints. What Koch told The New York Times was: ”This is not supposed to look like a souk.” Using the Arabic word for bazaars in the Middle East. Most of the city’s food vendors were immigrants. And they still are.
Half a century later, the number of licenses and permits is essentially the same. It’s first come, first serve. Just over 5 thousand for food vendors and less than a thousand for general merchandise – the types of things that Veronica sells.
[Sound of a car passing, ambient noise from Veronica’s house]
HANNAH: Veronica’s been working as a street vendor for six years.
VERONICA: Hace como seis años, casi.
HANNAH: She came to Queens from Cuautla, a city in the southern part of Mexico, 12 years ago. She was working as a waitress. Then Veronica got pregnant with her youngest son. She and Christian needed extra income.
She decided to try street vending. And she set up her tent in Corona Plaza, not too far from where she lives.
VERONICA: Pues compraba mi producto y me llevaba a mi niño y nos íbamos a vender a la plaza.
HANNAH: She brought her kids along.
VERONICA: Y desde chiquito ya me lo llevaba yo a vender.
HANNAH: Veronica said it wasn’t easy starting out. She left before 7:00 a.m., and often stayed well past midnight.
Sometimes, other vendors would come by and harass her.
VERONICA: Wow, sí, nos tocó difícil de qué nos gritaran, que nos insultaran.
HANNAH: She didn’t understand why, when she was just trying to make her living like everyone else.
VERONICA: Yo a veces no entendía porque digo, bueno, no estoy haciendo nada malo.
HANNAH: But the environment was competitive. Even though there were just 20 or so vendors on a busy day.
VERONICA: Mucha gente quiere solamente como todo para ellos, nada más.
[Distant music starts]
HANNAH: That’s not how it feels now. There’s a sense of community when you’re in the Plaza. You see vendors chatting while their kids are playing together.
A lot has changed since Veronica was starting out.
Corona Plaza’s population of vendors exploded during the pandemic. Rosa Panohaya is one of the new vendors here.
Rosa and her teenage son, Daniel, are setting up for the day. Daniel smiles politely at me as he puts animal-shaped backpacks into place, next to bubble machines and stuffed animals.
ROSA PANOHAYA: Tengo peluches, mochilitas. Entonces mis clientes principales son los niños.
HANNAH: Like Veronica, Rosa came to vending as a parent first. She lost her job during the pandemic, and Daniel was doing school online. As a single mom, she needed a way to make ends meet and stay home with him.
She sees it as an opportunity. Now, she’s her own boss.
ROSA PANOHAYA: Lo considero una oportunidad porque. Ahora soy yo la que se encarga de mi, mi negocio.
HANNAH: So even when things come up, she’s doing the work with a lot of love and care. And she can be there for her son.
ROSA: A veces pasan las cosas por algo y por ahora lo estoy haciendo con mucho gusto con mucho cariño.
[Distant music grows louder, sounds of cars passing]
HANNAH: The food vendors are concentrated closer to Roosevelt Ave, the main street, back by the 7 train.
For 10 dollars, Arturo Ruiz will hand you a plastic bag full of pink, yellow, and blue pan dulce.
ARTURO RUIZ: ¿Por qué no hago pan? Ese pan? Porque yo, cuando estaba chico en mi pueblo, mi mamá hacía pan.
HANNAH: He also started vending during the pandemic. He had worked in construction for years, until he had a spine injury. He thought of his childhood in Mexico, and his mom, and decided to start selling bread.
Even with his injury, he says he can work long hours because he is sitting.
This is Arturo’s second weekend in the Plaza. He was vending about a half mile down the road before, but said police kept telling him to leave because he doesn’t have a permit.
ARTURO: La policía ya dos veces me ha dicho que no puedo vender allá porque no tengo permiso.
HANNAH: Because a lot of people don’t have permits, he feels like there’s safety in numbers.
ARTURO: Y entonces aquí hay mucha gente que no tiene permiso.
[Sound of cars honking, then fades into more conversation, people talking]
HANNAH: Walking back towards the center of the Plaza, you pass Antonio Leo Martin’s tent. Antonio is selling beaded bracelets. He has been here for nearly seven years, and has seen the rapid growth of the Plaza.
ANTONIO LEO MARTIN: Yo cuando vine, no había nada aquí. Y ahora…que vienen los turistas a ver, compran, y se van. Pues dicen guau, qué diferencia ahora se ve bonito.
HANNAH: He says it’s a good spot, but there’s still issues with ticketing for unlicensed vendors. Antonio says just a few days earlier, a city worker came by and told vendors to leave, or be ticketed.
ANTONIO: La ciudad viene. Cuando dice ‘soy la ciudad, que tengen licensia, que se quede. O si no, que se mueva.’ Nos tenemos que mover.
HANNAH: So they left. Forfeiting their income for the day, rather than facing one-thousand dollar fines.
ANTONIO: El ticket es como de mil, mil quinientos dólares. Y quien se va a querer quedar aquí?
HANNAH: Antonio, Veronica, and the other vendors are in front of businesses that have been there a long time – before the market. Most are small and local shops. These storefronts are paying high rents, while vendors are there for free.
[Gentle but ominous music starts playing]
HANNAH: About a year ago, Veronica was at her tent when the woman who owns the jewelry shop behind came outside. She started yelling at Veronica. Telling her to leave.
It escalated. Veronica says the woman broke her tent.
Shaken, Veronica threatened to call the police. The woman left. Veronica thinks this happened because business was bad for everyone at this point in the pandemic – and vendors are an easy target.
VERONICA: Yo creo que, por lo mismo de que todo bajó también sus sus ventas de ellos también bajaron.
[Music grows and becomes more positive]
HANNAH: The vendors who sell at Corona Plaza are at the back of a very long line. Waiting for a license or a permit. The new vendors who started during the pandemic, like Rosa and Arturo — are even further back.
So with help from the advocacy group The Street Vendor Project, Corona Plaza’s vendors decided to organize. They formed an association. Kind of like a worker’s union.
Before the pandemic, they started holding meetings. The 20 or so vendors were mostly facing police harassment then.
Now, the Plaza’s 80-plus vendors meet once a month. They discuss their shared issues, including harassment from other vendors and businesses, plus policing and fines.
They have elected representatives. They’re looking to formalize. And they’re going to push the city to change its policy.
HANNAH: At first, nobody wanted to lead. It’s a lot of work. Being a vendor is a hard and unpredictable job. The representatives have to deal with any issues that come up — for all of the vendors
Veronica recalled her own experience starting out. How hard it was, how much she just wanted to do her job in peace.
VERONICA: Me gusta mucho apoyarlas y pues, la verdad, yo pasé por eso. Y pues no quisiera que nadie también lo pasara.
HANNAH: She doesn’t want anyone else to have to go through what she went through. So she stepped up – to be one of their representatives.
Veronica deals with conflicts and keeps the peace. She talks to anyone coming into the Plaza. She checks in with the other vendors throughout the day. And she often stays late to make sure everyone’s cleaned up for the day.
[Sounds of a jackhammer and other construction]
HANNAH: It’s hard to hear over the construction, so the vendors scooch in close to listen. 20 vendors are already here for their monthly meeting. Another 15 or so trickle in over the next two hours. Veronica’s not leading today’s meeting, so she stands back in the circle with the other vendors.
ERIC NAVA-PÉREZ: Recuerde que por favor, tienen que casi gritar.
HANNAH: Eric Nava-Pérez is an organizer with The Street Vendor Project. He left his megaphone at home today, he tells us. So he’s doing his best to speak over the nearby jackhammer. The vendors go around and introduce themselves.
[Vendors introduce themselves: “Buenos días. Mi nombre es Veronica, y yo vendo juguetes.” “Buenos días. Mi nombre es Carmen, y yo vendo carros.” “Buenos días. Mi nombre es David, y yo vendo ropa…”]
HANNAH: Two lawyers from a local organization have joined. They’re here to help the vendors formalize the association. A move they hope will make it easier to push for change. Veronica thinks it will make her job as a representative easier.
VERONICA: Estamos comenzando para formalizar bien todo porque ahorita sí, todavía es como un descontrol un poco.
HANNAH: They’re also focusing on a more immediate problem. Trash. With an independent trash collector, the vendors say they hope to reduce complaints from businesses and neighbors. To give the city one less reason to ticket them.
The city continues to charge thousands of dollars in tickets, when most vendors are more than willing to pay the upfront cost for licensing. But they need the city to make those licenses available in the first place.
[Sounds of construction and conversation fade]
[Distant shouting: Tacos: si! Tickets: no! Tacos: si! Tickets: no!]
VERONICA: My name is Veronica…
HANNAH: One of my co-producers, Rachael, met up with Veronica at a march in Manhattan. She and other vendors fill the streets to ask the city to fix the broken system that makes it nearly impossible to get a license.
RACHAEL ROBERTSON: Veronica and the other vendors wear bright yellow shirts and hats that say VENDOR POWER.
The Street Vendor Project organizers call the marchers to gather with their signs. Mohamed Attia, the organization’s managing director, addresses the crowd.
MOHAMED ATTIA: So they have only two options: either to deal with an underground market and pay tens of thousands of dollars to obtain a permit, or work without the right permit or license, and risk getting arrested, getting thousands of dollars in fines.
RACHAEL: For one vendor, the hustle doesn’t even stop for the march. She sells churros towards the back of the group, wheeling her cart slowly while marchers peel off to buy a sweet snack from her. It’s not clear to me if she’s associated with the movement. Or maybe she saw an opportunity in a group of hungry people. Police follow the march from behind but they’re hardly paying attention.
[Sounds of vendors chanting and marching]
RACHAEL: People have signs in multiple languages. They all say a variation of the same thing: “end fines and harassment,” and “legalize vending.” A few people even painted large signs of the iconic white and blue Greek-inspired coffee cup that say: “help us to serve you”.
[Vendors shouting: “Vendors! United! We’ll never be defeated!” echoes to fade]
HANNAH: Last year, the Street Vendor Project and other advocates got the city to increase the number of food vendor permits by 445 each year for the next decade. That does not even cover the hundreds of vendors who joined this march.
And the rollout of this modest win has been slow. We reached out to the city’s health department to see when food vendors can expect the new batch of permits they were promised. They said vendors can apply starting early 2023.
People have been on the waiting list for years. New vendors, who joined out of necessity during COVID, are even further back on the list. Making their chances even more unlikely.
And the recent change does not apply to Veronica. It is only for food vendors.
[Sounds of chatter and traffic from the Plaza]
HANNAH: Veronica is frustrated. But still, she’s leading this effort. And focusing on the long-term. She does not know what is going to happen, but she thinks the more the vendors come together, the easier it will be to stick up for themselves and the more leverage they will have.
VERONICA: Es que estamos peleando por los permisos y las licencias.
[Gentle music begins]
HANNAH: What they’re asking for feels so simple — essentially, let us do our jobs the right way. Let us follow the rules. You would think the city would want that too.
This is What’s it Like, from the Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. I’m Hannah Bottum. This episode was reported by Rachael Robertson and me. Our senior producer was Michayla Savitt, who also did sound design and editing. Our managing editor is Meg Cramer.
Music is by Salman Ahad Khan. Archival audio is from the New York City Municipal Archives. Special thanks to Veronica and the other vendors. Hafeezat Bishi was also kind enough to share her expertise. Alana Casanova-Burgess also contributed to editing. And thank you for listening.