Sunday, February 08, 2009

Robert Lederman is an extraordinary street vendor, artist and political activist. I first met him in 1986 on West 53rd Street by MOMA. He created his own art (rather than sell art somebody else created) and sold mostly in the Village, coming uptown sometimes. I didn't know much about him except he's a classic New Yorker, studied martial art and took being an artist seriously. It's what he did and what he was, an artist who sells his work on the street.
One of Robert Lederman's works of art, The Fool

The next thing I knew he'd been arrested for selling art on the street, fought it legally all the way up to the United States Supreme Court and won the right to sell art on the street without a license, under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This was an incredible victory. He is an extraordinarily powerful, astute, exceptionally articulate, determined political speaker. I am in awe of the extraordinary things he has accomplished legally, politically and his ability to communicate information about First Amendment issues.

Interview with Robert Lederman, an excellent, intelligently detailed depiction of issues related to the First Amendment rights connected with street artists

Robert Lederman First Amendment Warrior

Robert Lederman's YouTube channel and a montage of the many times he's been arrested for selling art on the street. He has serious cojones.

From one of his many fierce, articulate essays:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." -The First Amendment

Imagine standing on a city street viewing a sidewalk display of original paintings while discussing them with the artist. Suddenly, two vans and a police car pull up. Twenty armed, bulletproof-vested plainclothes cops jump out, surround the artist, place them in handcuffs, confiscate all of the paintings and push the artist into the van. When you ask the police what the problem is they tell you it’s a quality of life operation and to shut up and keep walking. Is this happening in China or Iraq? No, it’s just a typical day in New York City, the artist persecution capital of the world."

Robert Lederman's Yahoo Group:

From the excellent Street Vendor

"What about First Amendment vendors?

Under the First Amendment, people who sell newspapers, magazines, cd’s, books and art on the street may do so without a vending license. However, you still must abide by the city’s many restrictions on where you put your table ("Is My Spot Legal?" pdf), and there are many streets where you cannot vend at all (Street Restrctions pdf). You must also abide by the New York State tax law by getting a tax ID (“certificate of authority”) and by collecting and paying sales taxes on what you sell.

4. I want to sell jewelry / custom t-shirts / crafts. May I do so without a license?

While traditional visual art (paintings, prints, photographs and sculpture) may definitely be sold on the street without a license, the law on other items is murky. Overtly political items like t-shirts and buttons may be sold without a license. For jewelry and crafts, though, it depends on the individual items you are selling and whether by selling them you have an intention to communicate any idea, opinion or belief. The city doesn’t have any process for determining beforehand what is acceptable, so all you can do is risk being arrested and, if you are, argue to the judge at criminal court that your items were protected by the First Amendment. Or you can join the Street Vendor Project, come to meetings, and try to get the law changed.

5. Where can I vend?

So long as you abide by the restrictions on the placement of your pushcart or table ("Is My Spot Legal?" pdf), you may vend on any street that has not been restricted by the city. There are different lists of restricted streets for merchandise vendors (link), food vendors (link) and First Amendment vendors. "

A nice article from the Villager, Vendors wrote the book on First Amendment rights, interviews by Esther Martin

A good article by Wayne Dawkins, Street smarts: book vendors count on foot traffic, marketing instincts and the First Amendment in the battle for profits

Film review
of Bookwars

BOOKWARS: Award winning doc about NYC street booksellers by writer-director Jason Rosette, 3.51 minutes

Another clip from the same documentary, 2.39 minutes:

Purchase the DVD from Camerado's online store.

A street vendor selling books in Madras (Chennai) Eastern India

Selling art on the street: The Legal Basics

First Amendment

In October 1985, when I arrived in NYC after fifteen years abroad in Europe and India, I noticed the city had changed in a number of wonderful ways since the time I left in November 1970. One of the strange things I observed was that if I were walking down a street and it started to rain, out of nowhere appeared tall, very dark, brown-skinned men with foreign accents, saying "Ombrella two dollah" (now "Umbrellas four dollars"). They also sold large, doorman-sized umbrellas for eight dollars. Except for a few words, they didn't speak English.

It was incredibly convenient. The moment any drizzle started there these guys were at the subway entrance, on most street corners. One didn't have to worry about needing an umbrella on a rainy day. Who were these guys and what were they doing in NYC when they were not popping up in the rain ?

Once I started selling African art by the Museum of Modern Art I learned a lot more about the recent West African immigrants in NYC, who came from a number of countries.

The umbrella vendors were all from Senegal, Senegalese. Their language is mostly Wolof. Because their country had been colonized by the French until 1960, they spoke a Senegalese version of French, the official language in Senegal. Their religion is mostly a Sufi brotherhood variety of non-extremist Islam.

Here is how Senegalese people look, dress and speak.

A Senegalese taxi driver told me something I don't know is true but it seemed possible; that the United States had made a military agreement with Senegal in the early 1980's to build a military installation on the Senegalese coast, bases in Djibouti and Senegal are strategically place to protect US oil interests. That was the arrangement, he said, in exchange for allowing thousands of young Senegalese men, who were mostly uneducated, illiterate, did not speak English and had no work permits, to emigrate to New York City. Arriving without permission to work, the only way these under-the-radar immigrants could survive was by being illegal vendors.

A change in the Senegal-United States relationship seemed to happen when Abdou Diouf came into power in Senegal in 1981. Since 1965, more than 1000 Senegalese military officers have trained in the US.

There are a number of different explanations about the 80's influx of Senegalese street vendors in NYC, including the end of exit visa requirements for Senegalese citizens in 1981 and the drought in Senegal in the early 80's.

A brief History of U.S. Military Involvement in Africa.

African Countries provided 14 per cent of total US oil imports but by 2015, West Africa alone will supply 25 per cent of America's imported oil

Once they arrived in the the 1980's, the Senegalese street vendors formed an incredibly efficient system of surviving in the city. For street vending it would be a team effort, there would usually be a network of watchers, who kept an eye out for Alpha, the vendor police. Two or three watchers on strategic street corners, who relayed by signal if the Alpha were nearby, while several other vendors sold merchandise.

Every day I'd see turquoise colored NYPD Alpha vans packed with handcuffed Senegalese, en route to jail, where they would be fingerprinted, photographed and set free in a couple of hours to return to their spot to vend all over again. Any merchandise they had been caught with would have been confiscated, taken to a depot in Queens, where the vendor would have to go and take several hours to pick it up. Sometimes he was not allowed to pick it up and it was simply taken away with some stories of police corruption.

It was obviously a very difficult life but the vendors were determined to succeed, in spite of all obstacles. Many, as children, already survived tremendous hardship.

The Senegalese street vendors became brilliant and flexible merchandisers. They went to Chinatown and bought wholesale brand name watch knockoffs, I love NY tee shirts for tourists, bags, sunglasses, Mont Blanc pen copies, which had been sold on Canal Street for many years. They made compact, portable displays inside attache cases and sold Rolex, Gucci, Cartier watch copies. All made in China. Most of the watches were water resistant and worked wonderfully for years. They usually cost $10 to $30. The watch vendors worked outside the big hotels, on Broadway all night, until dawn. Many working around the once very tawdry Times Square area. They kept the streets safer in midtown because they were there as witnesses and kept muggers at bay. In summer they sold silk-screen tee shirts and sweatshirts in the day. In winter they sold designer bag knockoffs on Sixth Avenue near Rockefeller Center for the hundreds of busloads of tourists from neighboring states.

There were "African Hotels" all over the city. Vertical villages. The most famous was The Bryant Hotel at 230 W. 54th Street for $12 a night (torn down in 1984) but there were many others. Senegalese vendors lived there, cooked meals together, ate together, formed support systems, which offered legal, social and survival advice from the old-timers, who'd been around longer. There were Senegalese communities of different castes that set up on the West Side, Upper West Side, in East Harlem, in Central Harlem, Little Senegal, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Once the Senegalese street vendors got a bit of capital together, they would buy shipping containers full of 1970's American merchandise: platform shoes, 70's clothes, all kinds of kitsch gold clocks, cheap electronics, fabric, used cars. They would ship this to West Africa, sell it, buy contemporary African art from wholesale suppliers on the Ivory Coast, textiles from Ghana, Mali, Zaire, bronzes from Upper Volta and Gabon, malachite from the Congo, folk art furniture from the villages, folk art from Kenya, glass beads from Nigeria, jewelry from all over the African continent and bring that back in containers to NYC, where it was stored in the Chelsea Mini-Storage Warehouse on West 28th Street to be sold wholesale to the increasing number of African art gallery owners.

A Senegalese vendor who did this a few times then had enough capital together to buy a taxi medallion in NYC, a house in New Jersey, or build a business in Senegal. I've never met such hardworking, dedicated, well-organized, friendly, resourceful, smart, resilient, versatile, respectful businessmen of any nationality.

The vendor who epitomized this for me from the late 1980's to 2003 was a handsome man, named Safal, who I thought of as The King of the Senegalese Vendors. He loved vending, loved people, loved the life of it. He worked from June to December, then returned to Senegal to be with his family there. He inherited a major fortune when his wealthy brother died a few years ago. Safal is no longer on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue. He had a prime location opposite the Hilton Hotel, down the street from MOMA, up the street from Radio City Music Hall, at the foot of Blackrock, around the corner from MGM, a block away from the big Rolex store. Smack dab in the middle of the amazing architecture and vitality of midtown Manhattan. When he was there, he was information central for all vendors, Senegalese or otherwise. He knew what Alpha was up to, how to get a ticket cleared, what people wanted to buy. And he loved life, was always twinkling with laughter.

Senegalese pop icon Youssou N'Dour singing Live Television

The exodus to Europe began in the 1980s as a result of successive droughts, deepening economic problems and fast-paced urbanisation. Members of the powerful Mourid Islamic brotherhood, who had mostly been peanut farmers, were told by their leaders to “go forth and work”. They ended up creating an international network of street vendors from New York to Tokyo.

More about the Mouride Sufi brotherhood in Senegal.

About Africom, the united States military bases in Africa.

In the early 1980's drought in Senegal caused a need for Senegalese to emigrate to other countries and it also caused migration issues within Senegal itself.

Thousands of Senegalese crossed the Sahara desert and hopped on boats from Morocco and Mauritania in search of a better future...

An interesting and informative article called Citi-Lit: Out of Africa -New York City has seen two distinct surges of migration by African traders. The first, which began as early as 1982, came primarily from Senegal; the second wave, with West African traders coming en masse from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, and Côte d'Ivoire during the 1990s...

The Senegalese are just one of the many immigrant groups in New York City who are street vendors. The Egyptian food vendors are another group. Here is a video of an Egyptian vendor being harassed unfairly, illegally, by uniformed police officers, who were misinformed about the law or , perhaps, deliberately harassing the vendor in order to please a merchant or real estate developer in the area. The street vendor was within his legal rights, he sought legal help, videotaped the harassment and won a victory in being able to earn his living at that spot.

Justice for Hakim, NYC Street Vendor

StreetNet International has 30 affiliated organisations - urban and national alliances of street vendor trade unions and associations - organising in 27 countries of the world. These affiliates are the lifeblood of StreetNet.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

My story as a street vendor in NYC

The other day I thanked MetaFilter member, PeterMcDermott, for recommending the book by Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk, about book vendors in the Village. I just bought the book using a generous Amazon gift certificate madamjujujive gave me for my last birthday and wrote to let Peter know. He asked me the following questions:

always wondered how the street vendor thing worked -- and how it managed to sustain such apparent complexity.

Do people really buy
those old magazines, for example?

Where do the screenplay guys come from?

And how does the book thing work? Shoplifted? Review copies? Remainders?

When I realized that you were a street vendor, I started thinking about it even more. What does she sell? Fake designer handbags? Her own jewellry designs? T-shirts? Books?

And how do you get a pitch? Do you have to pay protection money? Deal with police harrassment?

And I don't know how *anybody* can afford to live in New York any more. It's so expensive now. Even people on decent middle class salaries seem to need wealthy parents to subsidize their rents.

Here it is, three cancer treatments (uterine, fallopian and thyroid cancers, two rare, two late stage), four aneurysms and a brain surgery later than when I started this blog in 2005. Since I'm still alive, kicking and feeling quite a bit better, I thought I'd reply here with more than anyone ever wanted to know about street vending in NYC:

New York is a complex city and the street vending here reflects that.

A few of the many types of street vendor licenses (2004 figures for the licenses issued):

There is a special license for General Vendors selling items that are not food, not books, not photographs or painting. 853 licenses issued.

There is another special license for Food Vendors. 3000 licenses issued.

There is no license for people selling books, photographs or paintings but a New York State Sales Tax Resale Number (Certificate of Authority) is required and two pieces of ID.

Army veterans get a special license to sell on the street. 1034 licenses issued.

ed Army veterans get the very best vendor license and are permitted to sell on any avenue, where the major money is. 374 licenses issued.

Flea Markets and Street Fairs require a temporary outdoor vending license
, which anyone can apply for, applicable only to that place and time.

Park Vendors. 600 licenses issued.

Pushcart Wars, an informative article by Joshua Brustein in 2004

There are other licenses for outdoor professions like bicycle rickshaw drivers, horse-drawn carriage drivers, stoop vendors, hawkers.

The Food Cart Song

Under the United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, First Amendment, Freedom of Speech, books and art are allowed to be sold on the street without a permit. There are laws regulating where and how books may be sold. They must be displayed on a table, not obstructing pedestrian traffic, not blocking doorways for example.

Yes, people really do buy those old magazines. Those guys generally work for a well-known ephemera collector, a really sweet guy I've had the good fortune to do business with, named Mike Gallagher of Gallagher Paper Collectibles, now a nice website,

Since screenplays are basically a kind of book, they can also be sold under the freedom of speech regulation. I have no idea where they screenplay guys come from. Maybe one will leave a comment and the mystery will be solved?

When I've sold books on the street people who lived in the neighborhood dropped their second-hand books off with me in shopping bags for free. They just didn't want to throw books out and were hoping a vendor would turn up so they could be given away. Building supers would come and give me boxes of books left in their basement from tenants who left or died. 1000's of books. Many of the books are almost as new, many hardcover, plenty of vintage ones and first editions. To the best of my knowledge, nothing I received or sold was stolen. Occasionally a homeless guy would stop by and ask if I wanted shoplifted books, which is against my principles, or reviewer copies. I don't know where they got them. One homeless man who worked with me and gave me stuff to vend, Ted, found boxes of cassette tapes and music CDs in the garbage near the ABC studio.

One of the interesting things I learned about book vending in NYC is that black American men buy a lot of books about black culture. Any book about black American history flies off the table.

The most interesting book vendor I know and without any doubt the most knowledgeable person I've ever met in my life on any continent is a journalist from Cameroon, named Stephen Tebid. He sold for about ten years on the corner of 49th Street and Ninth Avenue near Seven Brothers Deli. He's in the real estate business now. He had some extraordinary street vending stories and was a wonderful community activist when he was working here in Hell's Kitchen.

As for what do I sell or have sold? First in 1985 I sold samples of clothing I helped make in India, when I worked for four years for a New York fashion designer by the name of Paul Ropp who now works out of Bali. I sold the samples on Astor Place, then 4th Street and Sixth Avenue. They sold so well I realized that street vending was an excellent way to make a living. The samples cost me $4. and I sold them for $25.

Then from 1986 I sold contemporary West African art, textiles, domestic furniture, bronzes for five years by the Museum of Modern Art.

Photo Credit Vanessa Moore

Then West African art plus folk art paintings from North India. Then malachite jewelry and sculpture from the Congo.

Photo by Mark_DuBois

A brief stint of selling butterfly wing art from West Africa, which I stopped, feeling bad for the butterflies.

© photo by Paul Caparatta

Then hundreds of different variations of beautifully detailed pewter pins from Rhode Island.

Then fun watch prototypes.

Then sterling silver jewelry, vintage stuff, books, pashmina-style shawls.

Most recently, turquoise, coral, freshwater pearl and semi-precious stone jewelry.

No fake anything.

About financial survival. I moved to Hell's Kitchen in 1987 because the rent for a one bedroom was $581. a month. For 5-1/2 years I worked as a building super for two buildings, 40 apartments, where I live, rent free, and got to use the basements as a vending storage space. I've been working almost a decade part-time at a small Korean jewelry company, doing their business writing, selling and advertising copy-writing. They offer me the medical insurance that kept me alive.

Some years I've taught English as a second language, done business estimate writing for a Montenegran building contractor, had a mail-order business, designed a collection of clothes to be manufactured in India, worked part-time as a quality control consultant in a garment company on Seventh Avenue, offered instruction professionally to people who were having a hard time dealing with a pathological narcissist in their workplace or personal lives. A typical New Yorker really.

But when I was diagnosed with cancer all my savings went. And that's when it has been the hardest as a street vendor. I was too weak or ill to work the last three years.

Twenty two years ago it was possible to get a license from the Department of Consumer Affairs. Just 853 were issued but one had to wait for one's number to be called up. It might take years and one would never know when that day would come. Then they closed off the list and now only people who have been in the US Army can apply for a license.

There is a booklet handed out when one gets the license about which streets are restricted for vending. A lot of the city is restricted by newly formed business districts, which don't want any competition from street vendors for the stores that pay exorbitant rent. However, the stores make the mistake of thinking that vendors decrease store sales. Street vendors increase sales in stores because they increase foot traffic of all kinds, create an atmosphere of energetic commerce and and increase tourist presence.

Once a book, art or general vendor has repeatedly turned up at a spot there is an unwritten vendor understanding that it is that vendor's "spot" and no other vendor takes "that spot".

However, for food vendors there may be a huge, illegal, price to pay for a spot. From what I've heard, the Central Park Administration sells food vendor spots for $100,000 plus a year.

There is a specific undercover police force for vendors, the vendor task force, otherwise known as "Alpha". This is because the vendor police used to cruise around camouflaged in furniture trucks labeled "Alpha" on the side. They've been known as Alpha ever since. The Alpha are a serious bunch of cops. There is a long history of harassment by the police of street vendors. A single ticket issued by Alpha can be $1000. These officers come up to the table unannounced in street clothes, flash their badge, ask for one's license and run it through the computer in their van or car to see if it's real.

Uniformed police usually are not informed of the rules about street vendors and can also make it difficult for vendors. Being diplomatic, prepared, informed and savvy are all needed to be successful as a street vendor in dealing with the police, which can be a source of a lot of anxiety.

A person caught without a license is usually arrested, sometimes just ticketed. If the vendor task force takes pity on that vendor, as they did with Joe Ades the peeler vendor, the illegal vendor usually spends a couple of hours at the police precinct getting finger printed and ticketed. A not so happy Alpha cop may put the illegal vendor in The Tombs prison for three days.

Another blog post to write will include descriptions of fellow vendors, the ingenious portable, compact but inviting displays of all kinds vendors need to think up, pictures of my own displays and how I found my spot.


From their links page:

Historic Vendor Images NY Public Library's archive of historic drawings and photographs of street vendors.