Food

A New Report Offers New Visions for New York’s Street Fairs

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The folks at Terroir aren’t the only ones who have noticed that summer street fairs tend to suck. The Center for an Urban Future has just released “New Visions for New York Street Fairs,” a report designed to “kick off a discussion about how these staples of summer could better serve New Yorkers” instead of trying to sell them “the same bland merchandise, such as tube socks, sunglasses and gyros.”

Noting that the fairs are “bland, repetitive, and don’t reflect what’s unique” about the city, the report comprises ideas and proposals from 25 “innovators and thinkers,” including the Brooklyn Flea’s Eric Demby, Chowhound’s Jim Leff, the Red Hook Food Vendors’ Cesar Fuentes, New Amsterdam Market’s Robert LaValva, and David Byrne. So how do they recommend making over the fairs, which the report complains are rolled out “like microwaves in an assembly plant”?

The general consensus seems to be that fairs need to involve more local artisans, shops, artists, musicians, and members of the community; sell food and products that are unique/well-made/actually taste good; and be of some benefit to the neighborhood and its businesses. Karen Seiger, the author of Markets of New York City, recommends that fair organizers “reach out to artisans to bring a bit more authenticity and relevance to their events,” and coordinate them through “an organized group of artisans” like the {NewNew}, which has a designated space at the Hester Street Fair. And the Atlantic Antic is cited repeatedly as a model of what street fairs can aspire to, thanks to its use of local vendors and storefronts.

The Street Vendor Project’s Sean Basinski says that the overriding problem with the current street fair model is fairly simple: They’re “designed to maximize profit for a small group.” One solution, he says, is to have “legitimate nonprofits” run the fairs, with space set aside at each fair for locals to sell their own stuff in the manner of a stoop sale.

Like so many things that started small and then grew to steroidal, corporate-funded proportions, street fairs weren’t always evil. Suzanne Wasserman, the director of the City University of New York’s Gotham Center for New York City, points out that the city’s street fairs “originated as a sort of reaction to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. They were a way for blocks in city neighborhoods to unify and build community spirit.” Before, that is, the ’80s and ’90s, when production companies figured out there was money to be made and city bureaucracy got more and more complicated.

Speaking of the ’70s, DJ Kool Herc also thinks street fairs need more community involvement, but more importantly, he wants to set the record straight. He is not, contrary to his interviewer’s assumption, “one of the founders of Hip Hop”:

“I’m not one of them. There really ain’t a bunch of us. There’s one. Mr. Ford was the one who created the cars. Then come the rest. The man who created electricity — there wasn’t a bunch of them. There was one. It’s Kool Herc. Nobody else.”

All in all, it’s an illuminating read.

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