Founder and Director of the Street Vendor Project
Sean Basinski, Founder and Director of the Street Vendor Project, on the spectrum of mobility in street vending.
Interview transcript: Sean Basinski
All street vendors are mobile to a certain extent, but there are different gradations of mobility. In fact, there used to be a rule in New York City that street vendors had to keep moving, and could only stop to make a sale. Street vending was more like delivery — it still is in a lot of countries — where vendors walk down the street calling out their wares, and people run down and buy from them. It makes a lot of sense: If you want to pass by as many people as possible, and you're not a congested place like midtown where people are walking by you, then you need to keep on moving.
One of the most heroic and historic moments in the history of vendors in New York City was in 1886, when four vendors on Hester Street refused to move when they were told to do so. They established the first stationary mobile street vendors, as we know them. When you can stay in one place, you can put more stuff on the cart and, as long as the neighborhood is crowded enough and people are coming to you, then you don't have to go to them and it's better for business. But it still allows for some flexibility — you don't have to be out there everyday if you don't want to, you don't have to be out there in the rain, and if there's a festival going on a few blocks away, you can move your push cart to take advantage of better business opportunities. You're not locked into a five-year lease or whatever they offer nowadays.
That's how things have pretty much stayed in New York, with the exception of ice cream trucks, which have always been more mobile. In the 20s, Good Humor came out with ice cream trucks, and they drive around playing their music, and children — and some adults! — know that's the signal to run out and buy a popsicle. Ice cream trucks are usually franchises of big companies that would assign them different routes to make sure their areas didn't overlap, which is one of the issues you run into with mobile vendors.
The current food truck trend started in LA. With Twitter, you have a new model for them to communicate where they are, which theoretically enables a food truck to be more mobile. They're still not really mobile in the same way as ice cream trucks or the original street vendors, which are in continuous motion — they're just setting up in different spots in different days. And if they get told to move on, then they just drive around and find the next corner.