Additional reporting by Audrey Carlsen
On most days for the past 12 years, Sanwar Ahmed has made a living preparing jhal muri, a spicy puffed rice snack, on the streets of Jackson Heights, Queens.
He walks to his rectangle of sidewalk on bustling 73rd Street, home to dozens of Bangladeshi small businesses, and unpacks his mobile kitchen: a white card table and a faded baby-changing table.
Ahmed, 89, used to entice customers with his joyful singing of folk songs from his native Bangladesh. He doesn’t sing anymore — not after two police officers and two inspectors from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene hauled away his pushcart, his puffed rice, and even his mustard oil in June 2016, all never to be seen again.
Ahmed lost his means of earning a living — and got a $1,000 fine for a permit violation.
“There are no fun parts now, because the police bother me, but before I had a lot of joy,” Ahmed said in the Sylheti dialect, through an interpreter from the group Desis Rising Up and Moving, which is advocating for Ahmed and other vendors. “A lot of people liked me.”
Court papers filed Thursday indicate that Ahmed will soon see a small measure of relief: a settlement in the class-action lawsuit filed in 2017 by the Urban Justice Center on behalf of hundreds of vendors whose carts were seized and apparently trashed.
The vendors never got the requisite vouchers for their belongings — or even notice of their right to hearings, their lawyers argued.
The settlement pending before Manhattan federal judge Sidney Stein commits the city — without admitting to any wrongdoing — to pay about $188,000 to more than 300 street food vendors whose carts were confiscated without documentation.
Ahmed, the named plaintiff, stands to receive $2,501. Other class members who file a claim within a year will each receive $585 to $1,000, according to court documents.
The NYPD and the Health Department also committed to enhanced training of their enforcement personnel, in order to ensure that vendors get their seized-property vouchers. The settlement does not, however, require city agencies to stop confiscating carts deemed to be operating illegally.
“A fair settlement has been reached in the best interest of all parties,” said Christian Madrid, a city Law Department spokesman.
A Long Waiting List for Permits
Attorneys working with Ahmed and other vendors say that ensuring that city enforcers don’t simply send unpermitted carts to the scrap heap marks an important step forward for those without access to any of the just roughly 3,000 citywide food-vending permits currently issued by the Health Department.
The waiting list for the permits, last opened in 2007, currently runs to 1,450 names. Vendors say that the coveted $200 permits, which last two years, can resell illegally for as much as $28,000.
“The city has rules and laws that require them to properly voucher, and some enforcement agencies just were not following the rules,” said Matthew Shapiro, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center. “As long as everyone knows to follow those rules that other people were using, it’s going to stop the practice of throwing people’s stuff away.”
Ahmed and his attorneys searched for his cart. A representative from the Department of Sanitation told the lawyers that seized carts are transported back to police precincts.
But the Police Department reported it didn’t have the goods. Nearly three weeks after the cart’s seizure, a Health Department official relayed in an email that Ahmed’s property likely had been discarded.
Without his cart, Ahmed told THE CITY, he was unable to pay for food for several days, and relied on community support to get back on his feet. He shields his new cart with fabric whenever he can, trying to remain under the radar.
Bertha Angelica Vidal, 47, recalled wanting to cry when her cart — filled with tamales, vats of arroz con leche and two types of corn salad she had made — was taken away by authorities three years ago in Corona, Queens.
“I return home and I say, ‘Oh my God,’ and my little 5-year-old son tells me not to go back out there anymore,” Vidal said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “I have another son who is in a wheelchair … I have to work a lot to pay for that.”
Vidal said she plans on using her settlement compensation to upgrade her shopping cart to a more durable aluminum cart — and is saving up to possibly rent a permit in the future.
Vendors swap stories about being wrestled to the ground by police, and which locations appear to be hotspots for enforcement, which they say varies widely depending on the time and place.
Some vendors report receiving less police attention as of late, but say that fears and anxieties persist.
Packing Up and Heading Home
Since Ahmed’s cart was confiscated, the number of tickets the Health Department has issued annually for unpermitted mobile food units has decreased by 58 percent — from 1,468 in 2016 to 608 in 2018.
Maria Calle, 50, who sells grilled meat skewers in Corona, said her wares have been confiscated multiple times by police. While she’s operated without incident for a while, she still feels nervous.
“With police, they are kind of two-sided. Sometimes they are nice. They are protecting us. But some of them are also harassing us,” Calle said. “The fines are tough and there are some bad people, but this is the life I have.”
A persistent fear of costly fines and difficulties with his immigration status have Ahmed planning to soon shutter his business and move back to Bangladesh.
“This lawsuit is giving me some kind of peace. I’m happy that I can survive with this money and that justice is done,” he said. “I’m happy to leave with some kind of victory.”
Are you a food vendor or work with someone who is? What’s been your experience with NYPD, city officials or navigating the permit process? We’d like to talk to you. Call, text, WhatsApp or Signal us at 718-866-8674 or email us at email@example.com.
This story was originally published in Intelligencer at nymag.com.