Members of the Street Vendor Project (SVP) and its supporters gathered at Bella Abzug Park in Hudson Yards, Manhattan, last month for a rally in support of the area’s longtime street vendors. Chants of “shame on you” targeted the real estate developers The Related Companies, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, and the nonprofit Hudson Yards/Hell’s Kitchen Alliance (hereto referred to as the Alliance, which oversees the business improvement district).
“We are here because a small group of billionaires has control over the city, and they get to decide what happens in our public spaces … They are pushing immigrants out,” said SVP Managing Director Mohamed Attia during the July 19 rally.
Attia highlighted that the vendors were the only inexpensive food option for the construction workers behind the Hudson Yards’ decade-long $25 billion development project during the neighborhood’s development. With a 720,000-square-foot, seven-story shopping mall and a $500 million arts center funded by the city’s taxpayers, the development is the largest private real estate development in U.S. history.
“Street vendors pay taxes just like [the Hudson Yards businesses],” Attia said.
Vendors say that since 2014, a group of Egyptian street vendors has sold their wares at 33rd Street and Hudson Boulevard East. Over time, they became friends due to shared culture, language, and late nights working the carts. Instead of competing for customers, they established a formal partnership and decided to specialize in different products for each cart, including donuts, hot dogs, halal dishes, and breakfast items.
“We tried to make something together; life is hard here,” said vendor Nazih Attia. The Alliance management denies the vendors were there at that time.
The carts are now co-owned, and the owner-operators co-manage the employees. Of the eight owner-operators, three are disabled U.S. military veterans with exclusive permits authorizing vending on sidewalks surrounding parklands.
Though this gesture of solidarity and business cooperation has endured for a decade, the vendors say that their livelihoods are under threat due to what they allege as ongoing, intentional encroachment from the Alliance, New York City Parks Department, and partnered entities.
Nazih says that one night a few years ago, a group of Parks Department-affiliated workers misrepresented their presence.
“[The Parks Department] made it snaky. They came out at 2 a.m., the cart had just come out of the commissary, trying to be ready for breakfast. He asked the cook to move the cart so they could clean something, then they started planting trees.”
Vendor Ibrahim Shehata first noticed the competing group of brand new, all-silver carts in the commissary garage one month ago. The new carts, which Street Vendor Project has described as “gentrified,” began operating in Bella Abzug in July. On the day before the rally, they showed up freshly wrapped in uniform teal decals.
The new carts belong to Paradis in the Park LLC, owned by Kim Paradis. In 2018, the Parks Department established a sole source concession agreement with the Alliance regarding food service concessions. After a review of submissions responding to the Hudson Yard Hell’s Kitchen Business Improvement District’s (BID) open call for proposals in the same year, Paradis was awarded the rights to operate food kiosks and mobile units between 33rd and 36th streets. The vendors said they were aware of the open call; though they submitted an application, they were not selected. Scorse said, “I don’t remember if we did because we don’t have it. It went through the Parks Department.” The Parks Department did not respond for comment on this informational discrepancy.
“We work closely with our partners across the city, including the BID, to address conditions and violations,” a Parks Department representative said in a July 19 press statement.
To vend in a park, vendors need a park-specific permit or a specialized disabled veteran permit. Among the owner-operator collective is disabled vet Joseph Orvina, who expressed frustration with the appearance of new Parks-approved vendors one month ago.
“How does this company get the ability to vend? How can this happen, why was it permitted, and who is pulling these strings?” Orvina said during the rally.
According to New York General Business Law Article 4 Section 35-A, vending licenses are distributed on a priority system, with any disabled veteran vendor holding a lower priority number granted the legal right to displace an existing veteran vendor with a higher priority number.
Abir Adda is one of the workers impacted by tree planting on streets where vendors are. She has been working with the cart owners since 2014 and stated that there hadn’t been any legal issues for years.
“The billionaires of Hudson Yards are now looking to push us out,” Adda said during the rally. “I have to defend my family. We will not let the big fish eat the small fish.”
Daniel Scorse, the vice president of operations of the Alliance, denied the allegations that the BID was intentionally trying to displace the street vendors. The tree pits are part of a streetscaping Hudson Blvd East Shared Street initiative, approved by the Department of Transportation and “planned for years,” according to the Alliance. Though the trees were going to be individual tree pits, he said it was the Parks Department that suggested expanding it to increase the density of greenery. Nazih pointed out that were the tree pits the standard 5-foot width rather than the expanded 20-foot-wide pits, their carts would not have had to move.
“In April of this year, they came and planted trees,” he said. “They say we have a project 10 years ago or something like this.” He added the vendors were not notified until the moment of planting.
Scorse agreed that the foot traffic is not as good in present locations as it was in the previous location but claims that decreased revenue also results from ongoing neighborhood changes as Hudson Yards continues to develop. While all parties acknowledge that the vendors were once the only food offerings in the area, there are now plentiful restaurants at a variety of price ranges in the area. “There’s going to be constant change for years to come,” Scorse said.
He emphasized that the Alliance did not choose to award the contract to the highest bidder, which was the company behind Central Park’s official concessions. The day before the rally, the Alliance released a press release highlighting the immigrant and refugee backgrounds of the Paradis in the Park employees.
In an emailed statement to Prism, the Parks Department stated: “Our goal is to find an equitable solution for the Parks-permitted food vendors who will be coming to Bella Abzug Park and the existing vendors that have frequented the area. Over the past few weeks, we have had multiple conversations with the vendors currently in the park regarding the permitted food vendor coming to the park.”
The main point of contention continues to be whether the long-term presence of the original food vendors holds any legal weight. In response to complaints of excessive or unlawful citation by the park rangers (Park Enforcement Patrol), the Parks Department underscored that the SVP vendors are not “Parks-licensed” and cannot operate on park property.
Beginning in July 2023, at least one of the original carts has received citations daily ranging from $250 to $375 from Parks Departments enforcement officers every day. According to the Street Vendor Project, Parks officers ask the vendors to move their carts to make way for the new vendors, but the original vendors refuse because they have the right permits and licenses to be there.
“I don’t know if it’s a feeling or a concept that they own those spots, but that’s just completely wrong in every way,” Scorse said. “Street vendor permits are not location-based. Very few are. It’s just not how the system works.” Scorse also alleged that the vendors have operated 24/7, in violation of New York City Department of Health laws. SVP responded, “It’s a claim we can’t speak of regarding the past. In recent days they close the carts around midnight; they send them to the garage to get cleaned and restocked and get back to the location early morning (around 2-3 a.m.). They have videos of that.”
Scorse also said, “Paradis in the Park has permits for specific locations, and one of those spots is the corner of 33rd and Hudson Boulevard East; once [the SVP vendors] found out that Paradis had a permit for that spot, they locked the wheels of their cart in protest.”
Scorse added that the carts have long been unlawfully operating, but they did not hold the carts accountable due to lesser park enforcement and greater operational priorities for the organization.
“HYHK is not an enforcement agency. We do not issue tickets,” he said.
When asked whether the Alliance made an attempt to engage with the original vendors in question early on in the development process, Scorse admitted that it was not an area of focus.
“When the park opened, it was probably the busiest and toughest thing I’ve done professionally,” Scorse said. “We had a very short period of time to ramp up from no operation to full operation. In the beginning, the vending was not really a priority.”
The present relationship between the Alliance and the vendors is perceived as antagonistic on both sides. While Scorse alleges that “[t]hey threatened to kill me several times in my place of work,” the vendors say this never happened. Conversely, they claimed in a follow-up that the Alliance staff, including Scorse, goes out to intimidate the vendors by taking pictures of their carts and their faces, often ordering parks police to ticket them.
Pointing to the carts that were moved in April 2023, Attia said, “The carts were here in very legal spots. They have the right permits and licenses; they are following the rules, everything is good.”
He noted that due to reduced revenue related to the cart move, the vendors have been forced to leave the carts in the commissary garage. The Street Vendor Project and its supporters are asking for the Parks Department and Alliance to avoid further displacement of the original vendors at Bella Abzug Park.
“We’re not against trees—but there is so much space here around the Hudson Yards. The local BID is choosing exactly where vendors operate legally,” Attia said. “When vendors complain about existing trees that displace them, Parks Department should be open to having a conversation to relocate this tree.”
He noted that the Parks Department’s use of tree pits is not a novel strategy; he alleged that previously, illegal planters and bike ramps have all been used as justification to displace street vendors. Shehata likened the ongoing cart struggle to a home invasion. Through an Arabic translator, he described, “It’s like they’re walking into your home, opening the door, and pushing you out.” The Parks Department did not respond to Prism regarding the vendors’ allegations of unlawful citation, purposeful miscommunication, or lack of communication with vendors.
Last week City Councilmember Erik Bottcher hosted a closed stakeholder discussion on this matter with the vendors, the Street Vendor Project, the Alliance, and the Parks Department.