Street Vendor Project Director Sean Basinski can tell you all about the mouth-watering offerings available from New York’s food trucks and carts—and even more about the daily
struggles faced by the immigrant men and women who operate them.
By Jordana Horn
When Sean Basinski W’94 started college, like all good Lower Quad residents he frequented the Le Anh food truck. His regular order: pepper steak, $2.50.
Basinski hailed from Vienna, Virginia, where, he says, the culinary options were somewhat limited. “There was one Chinese place there, and that was pretty exciting—and one Mexican place which I didn’t like, because I was afraid of Mexican food,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what falafel was. [At Penn] there were all those trucks lined up, and I never really went to those places.”
But while Basinski may not have wandered far in his dining choices on campus, in crossing Spruce Street to get his pepper steak the freshman was taking the first steps toward a pretty much uncharted professional future—and one revolving around food trucks. After graduating from Penn he overcame his childhood fears sufficiently to operate a Mexican-food cart in midtown Manhattan for several months before starting law school at Georgetown University. But his main focus for much of the past decade has been on protecting the rights and interests of immigrants working to sell food and wares on the streets of New York as the lawyer and community activist at the head of the Street Vendor Project—efforts which led New York magazine to dub him “the Cesar Chavez of hot-dog stands.”
Basinski dismisses the Chavez parallel with a laugh. “That’s over the top,” he says. “If my story can capture people’s attention, that’s fine. My job is just to try to understand that, and to take their attention off of me and [focus it] onto the community of people that’s out there.”
Basinski started the Street Vendor Project (www.streetvendor.org) eight years ago. It teaches vendors about their legal rights and responsibilities, publishes reports to raise public awareness, and links vendors with small-business training and loans. The project has nearly 1,000 members—impressive, but only about a tenth of the 10,000 or so vendors selling everything from flowers to fruit to cartoons on New York’s streets.
“There’s an overarching issue of a lack of organization and representation, and that is what we’re trying to change,” Basinski says. “We have to be a lot stronger.”
Much of Basinski’s work involves creating more opportunities for vendors to get started, advocating to reduce fines and harassment, and cutting through bureaucratic obstacles that can crush these vulnerable, low-margin businesses.
The number of merchandise permits available in the city is very limited, Basinski says; his group lobbies for more, as well as for opening more streets to vendors. “It’s part of a political calculus,” he explains. “Over the years, businesses have been very effective in closing many—usually the best—streets to vending. We want to reopen those streets to create other areas where vendors can legally vend.”
Vendors who do manage to get permits to operate face a labyrinth of regulations: They cannot be within 10 feet of a crosswalk, for example, or 20 feet of a building entrance. They may not vend more than 18 inches away from the curb. Before 2006, the maximum penalty for infractions of any of these regulations was $250. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the maximum was hiked up to $1000.
“One hundred dollars would be a great day’s work for most vendors,” Basinski notes with some heat. “This is obviously just a case of economic injustice that goes after the smallest of small businesses—and does so at a rate that is far more [as a percentage of revenues] than any big business would ever have to pay.” Similarly, it takes a month to replace a lost or stolen vendor license—a month’s wages lost due to bureaucracy, indifference, bigotry, or a combination thereof.
And the city can treat vendors this way with impunity, Basinski adds, if there is no one to speak up on their behalf. Most of the city’s vendors are Bangladeshi, Chinese, Senegalese, or Egyptian, he estimates—none of whom are equipped with either English as a first language or a sense of their rights under the law.
But such diversity does make for some lively exchanges. The group’s monthly meetings, Basinski says, are “a trip” as a result. “We’ve got all different languages going. It’s a little hectic sometimes, but it’s a beautiful representation of the immigrant experience,” he explains. “What people need to understand is that the person selling hot dogs is just like their great-grandfather who sold pickles on Hester Street—this is the American Dream!”
New York’s Tenement Museum takes in millions in annual donations, for example, Basinski adds, “but there’s a real life immigrant history! Now! And that should be valued as much. These are the people who are powering our city every day. It’s not just a matter of going to a museum. Look around you!”
Download this article (PDF)
FEATURE: Vendor Defender by Jordana Horn
Photography by Candace diCarlo
©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette