The Invisible Voices of Jackson Heights Street Vendors

by Gabriela Bhaskar & Nicole Einbinder

Many street vendors within Queen’s chaotic Jackson Height’s neighborhood find themselves trapped in a cycle of uncertainty, caught between the strict city licensing caps that make becoming legal nearly impossible and the police, who often target these illegal businesses with tickets or arrests. While illegal businesses shouldn’t be encouraged, street vendors who are trying to make ends meet are often trapped within an ever-fluctuating system of city permit quotas, soaring rent prices in the neighborhood, and competition with brick-and-mortar business owners. New York State Senator Jose Peralta is a vocal advocate for increasing vendor permits, yet his proposed legislation to change these laws has been stalled since January 2016, enabling a black market of permits for people desperate to legalize their business at any cost. While the one-time fee for a permit starts at $200, with a $75 renewal fee every two years, according to the New York City Department of Health website, they can sell for anything from $15,000 to $25,000 per year on the black market.

This project explores the untold challenges of individuals working to survive without legal permits on the streets of Jackson Heights. From Joseph the refreshment vendor, to the humble beginnings of the the restaurant the Arepa Lady, which began as a food cart on Roosevelt Avenue, to a churro lady who sells weekly in the subway, these people face risks every day to support their families and survive.

Joseph Nuñez, 49, A Refreshment Vendor. 82nd Street & Roosevelt Ave.

Joseph Nuñez was a sous-chef but 14-years ago he was unable to work due to unbearable arthritis. After several years selling drugs, and a brief stint in prison, Nuñez found himself ineligible for formal employment. His only option was to sell refreshments, water, and soda, to commuters under the 82nd Street 7-train subway station in Jackson Heights, Queens, N.Y.

Joseph Nuñez, 49, a refreshment vendor, starts his day at 8AM to sell water to commuters at the 82nd Street Station in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Nuñez gets his ice to keep his beverages cool from a Burger King in Jackson Heights every morning.
Joseph Nuñez and his cooler of ice and beverages.
“Agua Fria, Agua Fria, todo el día, refresca su dia” (Ice cold water, Ice cold water, all day, refreshing your day!) yells Joseph to attract customers leaving and entering the 82nd Street Subway station.
Joseph Nuñez and his refreshments he sells.
Nuñez targets the commuters exiting and entering the subway.
Joseph is a big staple character in the community and greets familiar faces and friends as they head to work.
Joseph and his friend teasing each other as they are working the 82nd Street & Roosevelt Corner.
Joseph stands on the same corner from 8AM-5 or 6PM every day.

Alejandro Osorio, 37, The Arepa Lady’s Son

Reporter Nicole Einbinder interviewing Alejandro Osorio.

Jackson Height’s Roosevelt Avenue is known for its’ street cart food. Tables are filled with fruits and veggies, while carts sell snacks ranging from tamales to frozen treats to smoothies. One vendor is especially infamous: the arepa lady, Maria Piedad Cano, who for decades has sold her corn cakes on the street, without a permit. Inspired by his mom, Cano’s 37­-year ­old son, Alejandro Osorio, opened a restaurant, The Arepa Lady, in her namesake two years ago. Nicole Einbinder visited the location to meet with Osorio. As arepas and skewers sizzled in the background, he recalled growing up as the son of the arepa lady.

Marta Devalentin, 58, The Churro Lady

Within the Jackson Heights subway station, it’s difficult not to hear the call: “Churro! Churro!” from the churro ladies — a group of women who make almost daily appearances below ground to sell the sweet fried treat. Selling in the subway is technically illegal, and these women face the risk of losing their carts, and an entire day’s worth of work and business, at all times. We met with one of these women, Marta Devalentin, to learn about why she continues to sell, despite the risks, and the biggest challenge she has faced as a churro lady.

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