How relentless enforcement and $1,000 tickets are ruining Chinatown’s largest fruit & vegetable market

By Street Vendor Project:

New York City is in the midst of a health crisis. Fifty-eight percent of New Yorkers are overweight or obese, and more than half-a-million city residents have been diagnosed with diabetes. In recent years, social scientists and public health officials have linked many health problems geographically to ―food deserts – neighborhoods where access to fresh and healthy food is limited. Studies have shown that food deserts are found almost exclusively in low-income neighborhoods of color.

In recent years, New York City government officials have taken bold steps to address this problem. For example, in 2008, the City created the FRESH program to promote the establishment of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods through the use of zoning and financial incentives. The same year, the Mayor’s new ―food policy coordinator spearheaded an innovative program to allow 1,000 new fruit and vegetable carts to open in neighborhoods deemed food deserts.

Finally, over the last four years, through the leadership of Speaker Chris-tine Quinn, City Council has provided more than $1 million of funding to make Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) machines available to food stamp recipients at city farmers’ markets. Yet, on Forsyth Street in Chinatown, in what is certainly the busiest fruit and vegetable market in any low-income New York neighborhood, the city’s police and health departments are undermining access to healthy food through strict enforcement of vending regulations and near-daily sweeps, resulting in ticketing, arrests, and the confiscation and destruc-tion of fresh produce and vending equipment.

Data recently released by the Environmental Control Board (ECB) reveal that 949 ECB summonses were issued to fruit and vegetable vendors at the street market on Forsyth Street between Canal and Division Streets in 2009 and 2010, an average of 1.3 tickets per day. When criminal court, parking and sanitation summonses are added in, we estimate Forsyth Street Market vendors have received more than 2,000 total tickets over the past two years.

Our three-month investigation reveals that this aggressive enforcement has driven vendors out of business, diminished the market, and curbed access to healthy food for Chinatown residents. The Forsyth Street Market started in 2005, when a group of vendors were relocated from Division Street to the then-desolate, curved block along the base of the Manhattan Bridge. The vendors had gained popularity for their exceptionally low prices, which catered to ―elderly people and poor workers in the neighborhood.  However, their presence had also drawn complaints from the managers of Confucius Plaza, the large housing complex nearby. After coaxing from the Mayor’s office – and, finally, the construction of bollards that blocked their access to the curb – the vendors moved to Forsyth Street.

―At first, there was nobody here. It was a public toilet, said Paul Valentino, 75, the market’s elder salesman. ―We cleaned it up. Gradually, with more space than on Division Street, the market grew. Currently, about twenty vending stands sell nearly every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable, including Chinatown favorites like bok choy, bitter melon, and bitter squash. With each stand employing an average of three workers to manage the brisk stocking and selling, about 60 people are em-ployed at Forsyth Street, all immigrants from countries as diverse as China, Korea, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Malaysia, Hondu-ras, Mexico, and Ecuador.

The vendors’ low-margin, high-volume model has proven popular to customers, 94% of whom are Asian-American, mostly from the immediate neighborhood and also Flushing and Sunset Park, both of which have nearby service via commuter van.  Many local restaurants buy wholesale at the market each morning. All this activity has helped cause a resurgence on Forsyth Street. Foot traffic is up and new restaurants have opened.

Over time, however, the Forsyth Street Market also became a favored place for police and health inspectors, who visited the market and wrote tickets on 231 separate days – an average of once every three days – during 2009 and 2010. Indeed, the 949 ECB tickets given out on that single city block represent more than 2% of all summonses issued to mobile food vendors citywide during that period. These 949 tickets, by comparison, were also 19% more tickets than the 795 tickets issued dur-ing the same period at the city’s four wholesale public markets combined.

In fact, 470 of the 949 ECB tickets, or 50%, were written for a single violation – §17-315(c) of the New York City Administrative Code, which states that ―no items.. shall be placed upon any public space adjacent to a vending vehicle or pushcart. This rule, which requires that vendors store all their produce on a regulation-size, six foot pushcart, is often flouted on bus-tling Forsyth Street, which resembles a busy marketplace more than a row of sidewalk fruit stands. ―To sell at these prices, we need more than six feet of space said vendor Ali Mohammed.

The second most common ticket written was for §17-311, or failing to display a license. This ticket, which vendors receive when they keep their license in their pocket, or when it is obstructed by heavy winter clothing, was cited 50% more often than not having a license and not having a permit combined.

Just as they are concentrated among a few regulations, tickets written to Forsyth Street Market vendors were written by a fairly small group of police officers. In fact, six officers from the 5th Precinct — officers Murdocco, Zhang, Dunbar, Valitutto, Hamlin and Center — wrote 362 tickets, or nearly 40% of the total ECB tickets written on Forsyth Street in 2009 and 2010.

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