Susan has been working the corner of 82nd and Broadway for 15 years. The cops sometimes give her problems, citing neighborhood complaints, but she still shows up to flash some glitz and hawk her wares. No, Susan's not a hooker or a drug dealer. She's a street vendor.
Every Thursday through Sunday the jewelry designer sets up a table with hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind creations priced anywhere from $65 to $165, as well as what she calls her "cheap and cheerful section." During the 15 minutes I hung out with her, four people stopped by to visit, three of whom she knew by name, one of whom bought a necklace. "She's like the Neighborhood Watch," explains one customer before asking Susan to look after her dogs while she popped into Duane Read.
"That's nothing," another says. "I've left my kids with her while I shop at Zabar's,"
Given her role as the community yente, Susan's skeptical that the neighbors are really complaining and cites instead a governmental hostility to street vendors that originated with Rudolph Giuliani's term as mayor of New York. "He saw us as a quality of life issue," she says, "like the squeegee guys."
According to Susan, Giuliani put the brakes on street vendors by instituting a waiting list for a license -- a wait that is now 25 years long. Luckily for her, artists with tax IDs are exempt -- books, photography and artwork being covered by the First Amendment. But the waiting list has slowed the proliferation of cheap pashminas, designer knock-off purses and I♥NY T-shirts.
At the same time, big box chain stores have all but obliterated any whiff of originality in New York's retail scene. Sure, as someone who just furnished a New York apartment, I was grateful for the convenience of Home Depot and Bed, Bath and Beyond. But I can't understand the logic of tourists who flock to New York to shop in the same stores they have at home. No wonder the fashionistas of Sex and the City 2 went to Abu Dhabi.
I'm not one to romanticize the Big Apple's rotten past -- I got mugged in the '70s and stepped over crackheads in the street in the '80s. But I couldn't help but get depressed as I entered the Limelight Marketplace and saw that my memories of salacious doings in the Gothic church-turned-nightclub had been replaced by overpriced gelato and artisinal cheeses.
Manhattan now feels like a snow-globe version of itself, the northeast outpost of Las Vegas's New York, New York hotel and casino.
So the street vendors are practically the last bastion of retail individuality left in a city of Aberzombies. And, as evidenced by the T-shirt vendor who saved Times Square from a car bomb, they can actually contribute to the city's quality of life.
Instead of having Mayor Bloomberg travel to London to check out their £200 million civic surveillance system (which doesn't seem to be solving crime anyway), he should train the street vendors as community watchdogs. That would make the city safe from both life-threatening terrorism and soul-sucking corporatism.
And that, my friends, is The Upside.
Sales and the City: Has the mallification of Manhattan gone too far?