Zoned out: Bill expanding WTC no-vending zone rankles street-cart vendors

Street vendor Abdelalim Abdelbaky thinks the proposal to push vendors outside of the WTC security zone misses the point, since he and his fellow vendors are constant eyes and ears on the street who often help police with investigations.
Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA

A controversial bill to push street vendors out of the World Trade Center area has been blasted as Islamophobic by some street-vendor advocates, because many of the vendors it would exile are Muslims.

The bill put forward by Councilwoman Margaret Chin would expand the World Trade Center’s no-vending zone to match the campus’ security perimeter. The Council estimates it would affect around a dozen food-cart vendors and a handful of other general vendors.

Proponents of the bill say the wider zone will increase public safety in the area, particularly as the World Trade Center campus nears completion and foot traffic continues to increase. But one reason the street vendors are being pushed out is due to the risk that the propane stoves on the carts could “wittingly or unwittingly” be used to hide bombs, according the Council’s committee report — a point of contention for street-vendor advocates who see the bill as targeting Muslims.

“The idea that vendors would put bombs in their carts is absolutely offensive,” said Sean Basinski, co-director of the Street Vendor Project at Urban Justice Center. “We know who the vendors are. They are there everyday. They have licenses. We have their names. The city has their names. To raise that — especially when most of them are Muslim — is really offensive and we find that Islamophobic,” he said.

For street vendors in the area who could be pushed down the block where other street vendors have already staked their spot, the security argument doesn’t add up. Many work with police officers regularly, being the eyes and ears for anything an officer might miss. Officers will usually ask street vendors about an accident on the street before digging out recordings from nearby security cameras, according to one street vendor who plies his trade at the corner of Greenwich and Thames streets.

“We see everything,” said Abdelalim Abdelbaky, who’s been working at his father’s hotdog cart for eight years. From traffic accidents to suspicious bags left on the sidewalk, Abdelbaky said he regularly assists officers at the nearby checkpoint with inquiries.

Basinski said the Street Vendor Project has documented many instances in which street vendors have increased public safety, including reporting a person carrying a gun, stopping a drunk driver, and reporting suspicious packages.

“We’ve always known that vendors are good for safety, and that’s why it’s especially hurtful to use safety as a reason to displace them,” he said. “To us, it doesn’t make any sense. And you can’t just say the word safety and take away people’s livelihoods.”

The Downtown Alliance and the Financial District Neighborhood Association testified earlier this month in support of the bill. Alliance president Jessica Lappin said in her testimony that the rapidly growing Financial District’s narrow streets are strained by the increased traffic and that the security areas north and south of the WTC campus should be included in the no-vending zone if the police thought it best.

“I think when you’re talking about the World Trade Center site, security is paramount and unfortunately this is an area that has seen not just one, but multiple attacks,” Lappin said, deferring to the NYPD and security officials on what the security zone should be. “It’s not a huge change,” she added. “And while I’m not being dismissive of the impacts it will have on that handful of vendors who will be displaced, it’s a pretty modest change.”

But the impact on vendors will extend beyond the expanded no-vending zone because displacing food carts from there will increase competition in the surrounding area, according to local vendors.

“When I imagine [the changes], it’s going to be a big problem. That means I’m taking his customers,” Abdelbaky said, pointing towards the street vendors a few blocks south of where his cart is located.

The bill would extend the northern part of the zone from Vesey to the southern side of Barclay. The zones that would be prohibited from vending include the following blocks:

– West Broadway between Barclay Street and Park Place

– Western side of Trinity Place between Liberty and Cedar streets

– Greenwich between Liberty and Thames streets

– West Street between Liberty and Cedar streets

– Liberty Street between Trinity and West streets

Vendors would still be allowed on Broadway between Barclay and Vesey streets.

The eastern and western borders wouldn’t change.

Chin’s office says the legislation is about addressing the unique security infrastructure in the WTC campus. As the zone stands, the line of sight from certain security booths — called “sally points” — are blocked by street vendors or their lines of customers.

“This legislation updates the perimeters of the current no-vending zone to encompass existing vehicle checkpoints that protect the growing number of people in and around a revitalized World Trade Center site,” said Chin spokeswoman Marian Guerra in a statement. “This effort is about ensuring the safety of pedestrians who have to navigate a unique security infrastructure — that is why she is proud to have the support of the Financial District Neighborhood Association and others in the fight to protect our families and everyone else living and working Downtown.”

Guerra also pointed out that Chin has a long record of supporting street vendors.

“For decades, Councilmember Chin has been one of the strongest advocates for vendors, and she is continuing the fight this session as the lead sponsor of a bill that would increase opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs across our city,” Guerra said.

The NYPD’s director of legislative affairs, Oleg Chernyavsky, testified in support of the bill earlier this month, saying that the security zone has expanded, and therefore the no-vending zone should grow to match it.

“The presence of fixed-site security posts, staffed 24 hours and seven days a week, changes the dynamic of particular points of the World Trade Center Campus and requires an adjustment of the City’s law to move vendors from parts of the site,” Chernyavsky said in his testimony.

Chernyavsky also said the constant presence of vending carts with propane tanks, piping, and electrical wiring can “soften an officer’s vigilance when similar-looking equipment being used to hide explosives is placed near the barriers where the legitimate vendors typically ply their trade.”

Walid Naama, who moved to the U.S. from Egypt five years ago, saved up thousands of dollars to open his halal cart, and now sends money back to Egypt to support a dozen family members. He works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, serving employees at the buildings nearby his cart located at Church and Barclay streets, where he has spent years building relationships with his customer base.

Naama said doesn’t understand the justification for the legislation.

“The pushcart is not safe near the [9/11 Memorial]? What does that mean?” he said. “It’s just a job for my family.”

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