Chinatown Take Out

Street vendors say they're being pushed out of their neighborhood

But the president of Century 21, Stephen Cheung, says that the Parks department has been inflexible, and has given conflicting instructions about the stalls. He says Parks ignores the fact that Century 21 has invested tens of thousands of dollars into creating a safe space out of a section of park that once mainly hosted drug addicts.

Still others wonder whether Parks is being driven by other concerns. Giuliani released a children's book this summer, What Will You Be?, that featured smiling vendors among its illustrations. Nevertheless, his policies on street merchants have amounted to "an unjust and offensive full-blown attack," says Hyun Lee of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, which is aiding the Chinatown peddlers. Only last month the Street Vendor Review Panel, a board appointed by Giuliani, set strict new rules for vendors— and slashed the number of permits by 1000. The new rules are set to take effect next month.

Ethnic tensions have also lingered, with Little Italy residents carping about the "Third World­style" market. But Councilmember Freed rejects the idea that there's any racial animus involved. "Everyone's been complaining about it," she insists.

Wilson Wu, at the Dragon Gate market in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park: ''Our only dream is to stay here.''
Michael Sofronski
Wilson Wu, at the Dragon Gate market in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park: ''Our only dream is to stay here.''

The vendors have certainly received little help from Chinatown's old-line establishment. The workers from the Canal and Baxter triangle spent a week in December picketing the 69 Mott Street Restaurant, to protest what they contend was the inaction of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a traditional seat of community power. Bai Chang Wu, president of the CCBA, is an owner of the restaurant. Other community insiders say that upper-class restaurant owners and middle-class shopkeepers have been reluctant to rally behind the vendors, whom they see as competition.

And as David Chen, the executive director of the Chinese American Planning Council, Chinatown's largest nonprofit, suggests, the street merchants may have fallen into a political vaccuum. When Freed faced primary opposition from Margaret Chin in 1993 and Jennifer Lim in 1996, for example, the vendor issue became an ethnic rallying point, with Chin and Lim assailing Freed. "It hasn't taken on the same level of urgency" now that Freed isn't running for office, says Chen.

The upshot, say vendors, is that their perspective has been erased. Wilson Wu, an intense, wiry 42-year-old who sells steamed buns and noodles from a stall in Dragon Gate market, says that both the Parks department and Century 21 kept merchants in the dark. Just six weeks ago, two people bought into the market, laying out much of their savings, without being told about its impending demise. And vendors have been given no alternative spots. "We spent our life savings, and our only dream is to stay here," says Wu. "We're willing to make changes, but they won't give us a chance. They're just using their power."

Meanwhile, the vendors say they will use their own power. Wu says defiantly, "This is not fair. We're not going." And last week, Kwok-Lum Lee took the stage at the City Hall rally. He quietly read a short statement in Cantonese, but when the phrase "We need to unite," was translated into English, the multiculti throng responded with a sudden cheer that seemed to surprise him. Lee looked up, and smiled a bit sheepishly.

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