De Blasio’s latest lefty brainstorm: churro zones in subway stationsNovember 15, 2019
On Thursday, the state-subsidized Metropolitan Transportation Authority held its monthly board meeting, and it was nothing but bad news: a $700 million deficit has ballooned by another half-billion dollars.
You’d think the mayor and his would-be successor, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, would be proposing constructive solutions — but instead they’re pushing … food vending in the subway.
It all started over the weekend, when Elsa Morochoduchi, illegally selling churros in a Brooklyn subway station, found herself surrounded by cops. She refused an offer to have cops confiscate her wares in exchange for her 11th summons. So, they briefly arrested her, gave her a desk-appearance ticket and let her go. Two other incidents of the kind followed.
This is all basic, low-grade law enforcement meant to deter a longstanding nuisance behavior. Illegal vending is not the worst crime in the world, but nor is it something subway cops can ignore.
Above-ground, the city caps the number of permits to 2,800, and vendors are subject to regular inspections. The system is hardly perfect. But it’s so complicated that the progressive City Council has been working for more than half a decade to reform it — in vain.
The problem is New York’s age-old affliction: There is only so much space on the streets, but tens of thousands of would-be vendors who would like access to this lucrative foot traffic.
Now, though, de Blasio and Johnson have found a handy alibi for their own failure to fix the problem: blame the MTA. In response to the subway arrests, de Blasio said Thursday that “if someone wants to sell something in the subway, I would call upon the MTA to delineate spaces where they can do it. …” Johnson wasn’t much better, saying Wednesday that enforcement was “harming people just trying to earn a living.”
OK — so what would food vending in the subway look like? One nice lady selling churros, not a big deal. But with no enforcement, she’d have plenty of company — look at how many Elmos and Minnie Mouses trawl Times Square for tips. (The current enforcement system is probably better for the vendors, as it does deter competition scared off by the idea of a summons.)
But what about other types of food? The hot-dog man who must compete with other licensed vendors on the street has the same bootstraps story as the churro lady. Keeping him from selling hot dogs in the subway is also criminalizing poverty. Why shouldn’t he, too, be able to vend downstairs? What about the people who hawk socks, scarves, plastic Statues of Liberty, pocketbooks, sketch portraits and greeting cards above ground, helping to clutter Midtown sidewalks? They, too, would love access to a captive audience of heavy foot traffic, especially in tourist-heavy subway stations.
If vending is a headache upstairs, it’s even more of a headache downstairs. As MTA chief Pat Foye said yesterday, vending in the subway involves questions of food safety (presumably, vendors aren’t going to run a diesel generator to keep food hot or cold in a subway station, as they do on the crowded streets), ventilation, trash (the trash from street vendors just goes into overflowing public litter boxes) and crowds.
Just confine vendors to empty spaces, as Johnson suggests? Sure, why didn’t we think of that — but it does mean enforcement when vendors aren’t where they’re supposed to be — which is where the foot traffic is.
De Blasio and Johnson ignore the fact that the MTA has actually done some good work in better using empty corridor space over the past few years. It built out Turnstyle, a collection of small-business hot-food stalls, under Columbus Circle, and is trying to do the same at three other Midtown locations.
The MTA being the MTA, this is all more complex than it needs to be, but these are finite opportunities for small vendors because there is finite space. It also involves investment in things like ventilation, formal trash pick-up and climate control.
De Blasio and Johnson are scoring easy points because they know the MTA is hardly going to embrace their call to action. If they really want to do something constructive, they’ll reform what they already control — legal vending on the streets — instead of stringing along the would-be small-biz folk they care so much about by saying they can go to the subway instead.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.
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