Street Food, Spatial Struggles, and Citizenship

By Noah Allison

Figure 1: Unlicensed street food vendors on 82nd Street near Roosevelt Avenue in Elmhurst. Photograph taken by author in May 2017.

The piece below is a synthesized snapshot from a dissertation chapter. It is important for readers to know that this text describes situations prior to the onslaught of the current viral crisis. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, few places suffered as much as Northwestern Queens. The patch of densely packed areas recorded more than 7,000 cases in the first week of the outbreak. According to healthcare professionals, a primary reason for this is that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting day laborers, restaurant and delivery workers, and cleaners, those who make up the largest share of the population in the area. In addition to holding jobs that are considered “essential,” it is poverty, overcrowded housing, and reported government inaction that has made Queens’ multiethnic populations particularly vulnerable to the virus. Compounding the crises, many in Queens’ multiethnic neighborhoods lack health care insurance and are excluded from federal government aid. For lower-income racialized minorities, who in this part of Queens are immigrants, the sheer devastation and uncertainty that many currently find themselves in is disheartening. Continued by instincts to survive in a capitalist society, the presence of unlicensed vendors are consequently beginning to readopt Queens’ sidewalks. While such practices are vital in maintaining their livelihoods, they are also integral to the conviviality of cities. Researchers and urban practitioners nevertheless must better understand who is benefiting from such urban liveliness and at what costs.

With the exception of Wednesdays and periods with inclement weather, the sidewalks lining the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and 82nd Street in Queens, New York facilitate street food practices. While there may be a licensed vendor or two, the majority of the ventures operate without requisite city permits. These vendors are exclusively women and come from Mexico and South America. They rely on shopping carts, plastic crates, water coolers, beverage jugs, and multi-colored umbrellas in their process of producing comestibles to feed Queens’ multiethnic public.

Sounds and smells stemming from their practices distinguish the intersection before the sunrises and into the late hours of the night. Reverberating off the elevated subway infrastructure are the sounds of aluminum foil quickly being torn and molded around steamed tamales. All the while, the smoke penetrating skewered meats and ears of corn percolate into the air, serving as olfactory indicators of the informal economy — a marker that is welcoming to some and strange to others. Operating just feet away from the brick-and-mortar structures, pedestrians on their way to and from the subway station stop at one of the numerous vendors as part of their daily routine.

The overlapping forces that shape such operations dictate the quotidian choreographies unfurling along these ordinary places: Health Department, Police Department, Business Improvement Districts (BID), and local property owners. The vendors clustered on the southwest corner of the intersection come and go throughout the day (Figure 1). Their varying schedules are a technique to evade being ticketed for operating without a license. Resulting from their precarity as informal labor practitioners, and in many cases, being undocumented immigrants, unlicensed vendors are not only each other’s ears and eyes, but their presence allows them to enforce the micro-public realm. That is, the immediate spaces surrounding the vendors who appear first in the morning are symbolic forms of belonging that serve as placeholders for other vendors who have yet to arrive.

In other words, their presence acts as a sphere of influence over sidewalk spaces they are immediately in proximity with, demarcating who belongs and who is out of place — a performative tactic that limits operations to those only recognized as familiar.

Donna came to Queens from Mexico just before the turn of the century. Like so many migrants before her, she struggled to get work in the formal labor market. In order to survive, Donna decided to peddle food on the street. Unable to acquire the requisite city authorizations to hawk food, Donna, nevertheless, took to the street, subjecting herself to a litany of regulations that make her work incredibly challenging.

Recognizing an area near the Flushing Line’s 82nd Street Subway Station that was mainly used by passing pedestrians, she began temporarily adopting the space from 11:00am to 9:00pm grilling chicken, pork, and corn. Today, Donna continues working in the same location drizzling skewered meats with barbeque and hot sauces and slathering corn in mayonnaise before covering it with crumbed cheese and sprinkling it with chili powder. Her reliance on sidewalks and shopping carts over the last twenty years shows how everyday materials are vital infrastructures facilitating and maintaining her livelihood. Such continuity stemming from these materials and Queens’ busy streets has subsequently generated a delicate sense of certainty — an assurance, however, that is quickly dismantled when she is encountered by, or must encounter, actors threatening her operation.

Figure 2: The picture on the left shows Donna’s chuzo and elote operation. The picture on the right illustrates the licensed vendor that occupied “Donna’s space” for two days on the southeast corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 82nd Street. Photographs taken by author, June 2018.

Although municipal enforcers are one of Donna’s greatest risks, by performing political acts of agency over public-spheres, Donna is able to ward off other potential dangers, such as more secure vendors with licenses. For instance, one Tuesday morning a large lime-green stainless steel mobile kitchen parked in Donna’s “coveted spot.” The licensed vendor serving halal foods barely fit underneath the staircase, requiring substantially more sidewalk space than the unlicensed carts (Figure 2). When Donna and her assistant, Sylvia, arrived at the intersection to find their “spot” taken, the duo immediately confronted the vendor. Sylvia, who was born in Puerto Rico, though grew up in Brooklyn, verbally attacked the operator, arguing that the space “belongs” to Donna as she’s been claiming it for over twenty years. Operating with the requisite permits, the licensed vendor was undiscouraged by such remarks and called the cops on the unlicensed vendors.

Reclaiming the same spot the following day, in a revanchist spirit, Donna and Sylvia confronted the halal operator again. As the halal vendor was passing through for the same purpose as the other vendors — to make a living to feed their family — encounters with the informal vendors interrupted her business, making it an unsustainable space to operate. Therefore, after two days of reclaiming “Donna’s corner,” the halal cart ceased to operate at the intersection.

By continuously claiming space for multiple decades, this account reveals that food practices in Queens’ multiethnic neighborhoods empower some of the most vulnerable populations: racialized immigrant women. Although Donna is unauthorized to work on the streets, much less in the United States, she nevertheless exercises the right that legal citizens with requisite municipal permits have by hawking foods on Elmhurst’s sidewalks and is therefore subject to the municipal regulations imposed on citizens. Furthermore, Donna’s spatial contestation exemplifies her claim to a right to the city — one that is again reserved for those with formal membership and who hold mandatory city certifications.

Moreover, Donna’s story powerfully illustrates how unwritten set of rules between street vendors at this intersection define the right to inhabit space according to the duration of one’s tenure. Collectively, these processes ultimately show how individuals selling food on the street are performative practices of citizenship.

As the struggle for space brings into play both formal (license vendor) and informal (unlicensed vendor) memberships, this account also importantly highlights that what conceptually makes citizens in multiethnic neighborhoods is anything but stable.

Noah Allison is PhD Candidate in Urban Policy at The New School. Prior to his appointment as a graduate research trainee at McGill University’s Peter Guo-hua Fu school of architecture (2019–2020), he was visiting student researcher at UC-Berkeley’s college of environmental design (2018–2019), where he was an affiliate of the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative. He has ten years of experience working as an urban planner and architectural historian in both public and private sectors in Los Angeles and New York City and is currently the digital research manager of New York University’s city food research group. His work explores the evolution, use, and meanings of urban space at the intersection of international migration and everyday life.

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