Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Street Meat

Interesting article about the new food vendor battles: White-collar (and often white-skinned) types setting up shop with newfangled food carts, disrupting long-held traditions of food vendors who have been on the market for a while.

I don't know enough about free market vs. black market economies to really say, but it seems that the black market has functioned as a free market for food vendors for a long time. The actual provisions put into place by the city--permits and waiting lists and inspections--weren't serving the needs of either provider or consumer, so vendors took matters into their own hands and created an economy that allowed them to bypass the official system. The black market has been the de facto system for a while, it seems.

So while I want everyone to play by the rules (hopefully while holding hands), I can't help but get angry when I read reports of newcomers entering the market and using their privilege to upend this de facto free market. It's a helluva lot easier for an NYU law school grad to navigate the official city system and appear sympathetic to the authorities than it is for a middle-aged Lebanese dude with broken English and possibly limited business skills. (So says science, with this study of how people are more empathetic to the pain of people in their own social group. It takes a generation or so for the latest immigrant wave to have enough footing to be in any spot of political power; City Hall isn't exactly teeming with, say, Middle Eastern men.)

If the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house, what happens in cases where the master's tools have been seized by the workers and refashioned according to their actual needs? It seems that the long-standing traditions created by the immigrant vendors--including passing down prime spots from generation to generation--have been working just fine. I don't like seeing anybody bullied either; I just think maybe it's time for the system to be reexamined, incorporating the perspective of people for whom it's been working for decades.

Or maybe that's just me speaking from my end of the market, where I know where to go for the best falafel plate. I admit that there's some simple bias coming into play here on my part. I love adventurous yuppie food as much as (or more than) the next white middle-class city transplant--bring on the lemongrass cupcake with basil buttercream! But what I love more about the city is its multiculturalism--it's the lifeblood of New York, and has been since it was New Amsterdam. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, the story goes--yet I can't help but begrudge the people who "make it" here at the expense of people who have farther to climb. Arguments for and against gentrification here are tiresome, but what's remarkable here is how the area being gentrified is...Sixth Avenue. In a way, the hot dog vendors being eradicated in favor of organic cupcakes would just cross the i's on the signing papers of the Brooks Brothers army that populates the neighborhood. But letting that happen seems like it's a resignation of what has made this city great--the huddled masses can stay in Queens, kthanxbye; we'll stick with our own kind here.

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