A Brief History of Street Vending in New York City

In light of the recent difficulties plaguing food trucks in New York City, we thought it might be useful to take a look back at the history of vending in NYC. Our man Brian Hoffman gives street food tours for Urban Oyster both in Midtown and the Financial District, so we asked him to pull from his extensive research on past and present vendor regulations to give us some perspective on the current scene.

Photo Courtesy of Detroit Publishing, Library of Congress, Circa 1900

Yesterday we linked to a Crain’s report that has revenue from some food trucks down a whopping 70%, a fact that undoubtedly has to do with food truck owners struggling with unclear laws, a barrage of parking tickets, and other difficulties that make operating their small businesses much more difficult than it should be. Yet this is nothing new, just the latest batch of regulations and restrictions street vendors have had to overcome for centuries.

Since vending from pushcarts has always been a great way for new immigrants to get a start in their new country, the food has changed with the wave of immigrant groups that have come through this city. The earliest street food was not hot dogs or pretzels, but in fact oysters and clams. At one time, this was the food of the masses and even the poorest citizens ate oysters for dinner. As European immigrants continued to come to New York, the street food changed to hot corn, pickles, knishes, and sausages. In the 1970′s and 80′s, it was predominantly Greek souvlaki and kabobs being sold from carts. And then as the Muslim population increased, so did the halal carts which now make up most of our lunches here in Midtown.

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress, Circa 1915

The first law regulating food carts was known as the Thirty Minute Law, wherein a pushcart had to re-locate every thirty minutes. That was a difficult law to enforce (especially in the overcrowded poorer neighborhood of the Lower East Side) and the law was probably disobeyed more than it was obeyed. In fact, the very first pushcart market was established on Hester Street in 1886 when four Jewish peddlers decided to stay put for much longer than 30 minutes. These markets grew in popularity across lower Manhattan. While many organizations made attempts, there was little regulation at these markets and corruption, uncleanliness, and chaos ran rampant.

Photo Courtesy of Gordon Parks (Library of Congress), Circa 1943

During the Depression the faces of the vendors changed as many people were out of work and took to selling the iconic 5 cent apple from a pushcart. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that during another low point in our economic history, we’re seeing lots of native born citizens taking to the street selling everything from ice cream sandwiches to grilled cheese to Korean tacos.

Moore Street Market; Photo Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

Around that time, Mayor LaGuardia attempted to put a ban on street food and lose the open air pushcart markets. He established indoor public markets (like the Essex Street Market) and sought to “legitimize” vendors by having them work in a stationary enclosed space. The vendors would now have to pay rent, they were forced to vend in close quarters with their competition, and their customers would have to come find them. Needless to say, this wasn’t a very popular idea and ultimately, of course, street vendors were thankfully not eliminated.

More recently, Mayor Giuliani tried a similar approach in the 90′s to “clean up the streets”. He effectively closed more than 100 new streets to vendors and proposed re-locating vendors back into open air puschart markets. This didn’t work in the ’30′s and it didn’t work back then.

Despite what Crain’s hints at, food vendors are not going anywhere in this city. They’re culturally, economically, and culinarily important. But while the type of food sold on the street continues to evolve, the battle between lawmakers and vendors remains eerily familiar.

Interested in taking one of Brian’s tours? This is just part of the information you get, in addition to six food samplings. Check out urbanoyster.com to find out how to purchase tickets.

6 Comments

  • nice article Brian!

  • As every student knows, the period of American history spanning the years 1896 to 1913 is known as the Golden Age Of Zweibel. It was a time when gentle-men were not ashamed to wear mutton-chop whiskers, when women kept their genitals in small safes in the parlor, and when children were seldom seen and heard only distantly from the bottom of narrow, dank mine-shafts. And it was a time when the world was at my feet. How I long for those days!

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    …about the 5 cent apples in 1943.

    In the photo, I see the vendor is selling them for 6 cents….his sign says “Sweet California Mcintosh apples”.

    Even though there were countless apple orchards all up and down the East coast, they were importing produce from the West coast during the depression.

    It must have cost a pretty penny to haul perishables coast to coast….that’s probably why those California apples cost an extra penny.

    • I would bet that those apples were not imported from California. That label probably either referred to a variety of apple, or was just simple salesmanship. Of course, I may be wrong.

    • Of course, we were in the middle of WW II by then, and the Depression was a recent memory. One can imagine a 20% price hike in that time period. As a bonus, many of those extra pennies would have been of the steel variety, and the iconic nickels, silver.

  • Nice article. Thanks!

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