Chinatown Take Out

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

For Chinatown street vendors— as for immigrant vendors across the city— the Year of the Rabbit has begun ominously. Even as one group is preparing a class-action suit charging that cops have harassed them from familiar Chinatown spots and into unemployment, another vowed to defy a city order that they vacate their longtime perch in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park on Friday, just three days into the Chinese New Year.

The crackdown has left scores of peddlers fearing for their future, but it has also had the effect, especially in the wake of the shooting of immigrant street vendor Amadou Diallo, of galvanizing some into activism. Last Thursday Chinatown vendors joined hundreds of immigrants from across the city for a demonstration in front of City Hall, where the multicultural crowd decried Mayor Rudy Giuliani's escalating quality-of-life campaign against street merchants as part of a general attack against immigrants, communities of color, and the city's vibrant street life.

Kwok-Lum Lee has found himself unwittingly propelled into the world of protest politics. For the last six years, the 45-year-old immigrant from Guangzhou has dispensed noodles, egg rolls, and fried rice from a small cart on the triangle at Canal and Baxter streets. But since October 6, when 5th Precinct cops, citing traffic congestion, pushed Lee and 11 others from the triangle, Lee has spent much of his time fighting to return to work. "We have a right to vend," he says, citing his license, one of 4000 the city now issues. "And we've asked the police to give us a decent place to vend, but they won't."

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.''

Instead, says Lee, cops have harassed him and other vendors for months, singling them out for tickets and refusing to allow them to set up shop anywhere near main thoroughfares in Chinatown. The police department refused to comment on the vendors' complaints, though Kathryn Freed, the city councilmember who represents the neighborhood, said that the 5th Precinct's decision to move the peddlers was prompted by a "real danger" of traffic accidents. "It's so overcrowded. Do you simply give over the sidewalks to vendors? After all, they could go somewhere outside of Chinatown."

But Barbara Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is readying a class-action suit on behalf of the Canal and Baxter street vendors, says that by pushing the peddlers— who largely cater to fellow immigrants— out of Chinatown, the city has "effectively taken away their licenses— and all without a hearing."

Indeed, the vendors speak passionately of their work as an integral part of neighborhood life, even as they describe the hardships they endure. Mei Wah Trinh, a 40-year-old from Vietnam, has been selling vegetables at the Canal and Baxter triangle for six years. Her work— which begins in the early morning and ends after dark six days a week— is grueling, but, she says, "We don't speak English, and restaurants and factories aren't hiring." Besides, she adds proudly, "We bring cheap food to factory workers; I have regular customers who depend on me."

Also dependent on her are two elderly parents living in Brooklyn. Since losing her spot, Trinh says she's had to borrow from friends and relatives. Local merchants have extended her credit. The worse thing has been the way police have made her feel "illegitimate, like we're criminals."

Kwok-Lum Lee notes stolidly that his longtime vending partner, 70-year-old Shu Chin, lost his apartment, but anger creeps into his voice as he relates what 5th Precinct cops initially proposed to his group: that they move to the Dragon Gate vendors' market in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. One problem with this arrangement is that the city has been threatening to shut down that market for months, and has ordered the two dozen or so merchants there to pack up and leave by February 19.

The eviction notice will apparently bring an end to a stormy, multiyear drama involving the market, which was established in October 1993. At the time, there was a clamor about Chinatown peddlers crowding Grand Street, but the loudest voices seemed to emanate from Little Italy merchants. Many Chinatown residents found complaints about "dirty and smelly" vendors to be racist, and when the city moved most of the street merchants into the market in the nearby park, many local groups said the city had selectively enforced its vending rules. Peter Cheng, who chaired a Community Board 3 task force on the Roosevelt market till last year, notes the feeling in the community that "Chinese are seen as undesirable, partly because they are the most recent immigrants."

The market almost immediately plunged into a series of crises, reviving only when a Chinatown-based real estate company, Cen- tury 21 New Golden Age Realty, took it over in 1996. But though business improved, metal, aluminum, and wood stalls built by the new vendors precipitated another flood of complaints. Parks Department assistant commissioner for revenue Joanne Imohiosen, citing "tons" of notices sent to Century 21, says the company "lied to us from day one. On Parks land, you can only put up temporary structures. We've been absolutely clear, but right off the bat they started building permanent structures. It's been a horrendous situation."

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.

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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