Protesting street vendors pose with their banners at Corona Plaza at 103rd street in Queens. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Corona Plaza is always abuzz with activity. Located at the base of the 103th Street stop of the 7 train, the open public commons is surrounded by shops and restaurants, bus stops and parked moving vans. It has also been a haven for street vendors selling food, savory and sweet, clothes, necessities and knick knacks for a city constantly on the move. 

It was a bustling street market that served the neighborhood and the needs of people who live on a tight budget. Then everything changed. 

A Mexican food truck operated with legitimate paperwork displays support for the vendor protest at Corona Plaza in Queens. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

“As of two weeks ago, we had the department of sanitation police come in and ask everyone that doesn’t have a permit or a license to pick up their stuff and have to go. They could no longer sell here and support their families,” says Mayra Condo, who has owned and run a Mexican food truck with her husband for over eight years. Condo has all her permits and licenses and continues to sell her food, while proudly displaying an AVA ( Corona Plaza Street Vendor’s Association) banner. 

The result of the July 27 crackdown has been a 24/7 occupation of the plaza, planned to continue until the demands of the street vendors are met. “Our mission is to defend the right of street vendors to work, and advocate for licenses and permits for all street vendors,” reads a flier that was distributed and displayed by AVA volunteers. They have found support from the Street Vendors Project, a subsidiary of the Urban Justice Center, which works with over 2,000 vendors across the city.

There are more than 20,000 vendors across New York City. But there are only 853 general vendor permits in circulation, with the city only releasing around 400 more each year. This leaves thousands of vendors vulnerable, unable to stop working, while constantly stressed about raids by the police, sanitation department or the DCWP (Department of Consumer and Worker Protection).  

Condo says it is unbelievable that some vendors have been waiting for 10 years to get a permit. 

“The license they give it to anybody but with the permit it’s a lottery. You have to be very lucky to get it.”

Eliota Vasquez, 67, has been a vendor at Corona Plaza and 103rd st for over a decade.

Eliota Vasquez is 67 years old and has the air of a woman who knows the city. She sold water and soda out of a cooler at the 103rd Street subway station that looms over Corona Plaza for four years before saving enough money to open her own Mexican food truck. She was selling tostadas and tacos to regulars at the plaza for almost seven years before the latest raid. Her request to the authorities was direct, with a philosophical bent: “We’re here and all we want to do is to be able to work. We’re mothers, we’re elders, we’re seniors and we want licenses and permits.” 

City officials, including the mayor, allege that the plaza had to be cleared because of an influx of new vendors who were operating without licenses or permits, resulting in the sale of unregulated food, which they say could be a health hazard. Vincent Gragnani, a spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation in New York made this statement to Hell Gate: “As part of the Adams Administration’s commitment to the health, safety, accessibility and cleanliness of our streets, the Department of Sanitation engaged in vending inspections and limited enforcement in Corona Plaza over the last two days. This is a location where recent visits showed significant issues with cleanliness and pedestrian access.”

Members of the Corona Plaza Street Vendors Association (AVA) set up a table to spread awareness and collect signatures during their occupation of the plaza in protest. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Another vendor who operates at Corona Plaza with all the relevant paperwork and who requested anonymity, shared that while the sanitation police recognize the people they have already checked and don’t continue asking them for their documents, the NYPD stops by their stall daily to verify their paperwork. This, he said, is disruptive and totally unnecessary given that they are the same people working out of the same spot every day. He also shared that the vendors have a Whatsapp group where they share real-time information so they can be prepared for sudden checks or sweeps by government officials. This is an existence fraught with anxiety and trauma, all to earn a living to feed their families, he said. 

The DCWP has replaced the NYPD as the primary enforcer for street vendor activity but the police department continues to issue tickets and check vendors

Around half a dozen AVA members walked around with clipboards seeking the signatures of passersby to add to a petition that they will hand over to city officials. So far they have collected over 7700 signatures according to this recent report by The City.  

Vasquez ended our interaction with an uncomplicated request. “We don’t want to be supported by the government. We want to support ourselves,” she said, “We know how to work and we pay our taxes. They were happy that we worked through the pandemic. Now they don’t like us anymore.” 

A food truck at Corona Plaza displays the manifesto formulated by AVA (Corona Plaza Street Vendors Association). Photo: Hari Adivarekar

You can support the street vendors protesting at Corona Plaza by dropping by and participating in their signature campaign, raising awareness and writing to your local council people and the mayor’s office — and as always — patronizing their businesses. 

Hari Adivarekar is an independent photographer, film director/producer, journalist, podcaster, yoga practitioner, urban explorer, and in a different life, a singer in a rock and roll band. His work has...

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