Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In which we meet the "Last Pushcart Vendor in New York."

After our visit to the last pushcart, which is now parked beside a porta-potty and is used to shuffle garbage cans around, we went to the Essex street market to meet Jeffrey the butcher, who bills himself as the last pushcart vendor still standing.

Jeffrey has a very high-tech website. He is a really cheerful guy who appears to adore his work, is very proud to be a fourth-generation butcher, and was butterflying chicken breasts by the score when we showed up.

He explained that when he was a tot, his grandfather would hoist him up onto the back of the pushcart and give him a bag of cherries to eat, and little Jeffrey would hawk meat for his grandfather.

So naturally I asked, "well, where ARE all the pushcarts?" and he tossed me a butcher's apron and said, "Come on back here, I'll tell you."

In 1936 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia decided pushcarts made the city look bad. Who knew how old that produce was? Were the merchants short-weighting? Haggling was unseemly. And were they paying their taxes?

In addition, the merchants of Hester, Essex, Delancy, and Mulberry Streets (and all the other streets with lines of elbow-to-elbow pushcarts just parallel to the sidewalks) were indignant that pushcart vendors, who did not pay rent beyond a 25-cents-per-day rental fee (they went every morning to the pushcart stables to sign out a pushcart) could compete with them so flagrantly.

La Guardia took a giant pot of federal money and built a ring of indoor markets around the boroughs. He gave every pushcart vendor a "bin number" and a permit at a particular market. Jeffrey's family, obviously, got their bin number at the Essex Street Market, where he still operates.

He says each guy was given two weeks to sell out whatever stock he had and after that, he could only sell whatever he had a permit for. AND: "As each pushcart guy wheeled up to the market, his pushcart was taken away. La Guardia had them all destroyed."

The irony was: within a year the storekeepers realized they'd made a terrible mistake, their sales were down 60%. It turns out that virtually all the people coming to buy from the pushcart vendors were former Lower East Siders, come back from their more affluent current homes to savor a nostalgic visit to the old home. They LIKED to haggle. They LIKED the noise and the tumult and the mishmosh of goods for sale.

When the pushcarts were gone and the street was nice and sterile, there was no draw and the tourists stayed home.

Of course this is the eternal puzzle of city life. The folks in charge want everything to be clean, predictable, well-regulated. That makes for a boring city and drives the tourists away.

I was a busker in Harvard Square back in the 1970s when the powers-that-be decided busking (and street vending of baubles and bongs) was unseemly. They tried banning, they tried regulation and permits, and the result was, the tourists didn't like Harvard Square so much any more. What a surprise.

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At 2:43 PM, Blogger NinaK said...

Melinama, love your stroll down pushcart memory lane. Jeffrey the Butcher, what a character. He will talk your ear off, but he has good meat. My friend and I went there last year, and he made us lunch! My Polish-born grandfather sold fruit from a pushcart in the Depression.

Believe it or not, my husband and for a very short time in the 70s sold ice cream from pushcarts. It was very hard work. We were the only white college students among a group of various immigrants.

We had to load the carts early in the morning in downtown Manhattan, having taken the subway from upper Manhattan. Then we had to push the carts about two miles to our assigned spots near Macy's and Madison Square Garden in midtown. You couldn't go to the bathroom--we would take turns watching each other's cart while one of us would go into Macy's. You'd think we would have sold a lot of ice cream at those locations, but we did not really sell much, and we eventually quit those jobs. We did get ticketed for illegal vending, and the Good Humor company would deal with them somehow. We wore uniforms with hats, and we had those old-fashioned change dispensers. Ice cream was only 25 cents a pop. We are in a very different place now . . . and that was a very different New York City.


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