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.