Weeks after the sanitation department forced vendors out of Corona Plaza, one NYPD officer escalated the situation by calling on a neighborhood group to disrupt an event where the vendors planned to distribute free food and rally neighborhood support, according to a complaint filed on Monday with the Civilian Complaint Review Board. 

For weeks, some neighborhood residents and business owners have been at odds with local immigrant vendors, whose advocates say they have become convenient scapegoats for growing concerns around trash, public intoxication and sex work solicitation in and around the plaza.

These food and merchandise vendors and their advocates also charge the city with cracking down on hardworking people who have made every effort to comply with difficult rules while providing useful and popular services. 

The conflict has already drawn elected officials in on both sides, with Mayor Eric Adams visiting the plaza, then vowing to “rectify the issues” just ahead of the sudden enforcement sweep. At a rally against unlicensed vending after the sweep, local City Councilmember Francisco Moya, a Democrat, also stood alongside neighborhood business owners as the sole local elected official in attendance.

Just days earlier, other elected officials representing the district, including Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, all Democrats, had rallied alongside the vendors, who have long struggled to obtain one of the city’s coveted and limited licenses. These vendors have pushed for alternative pathways to legal vending, and organized among themselves last year to work with several city agencies including the police department to address neighborhood concerns about the plaza’s use.

Coordinating What?

The conflict between street sellers and their local opponents came to a crescendo in Corona when vendor advocates learned that Stephanie De La Nuez, a neighborhood coordination officer at the 110th Precinct, was working with a neighborhood group called the Neighbors of the American Triangle to target them, according to Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the advocacy group Street Vendor Project that filed the complaint. 

The vendors canceled their food giveaway just hours beforehand as they felt pressure from the neighborhood group, which includes allies who previously heckled vendors and the elected officials who support them.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said. “This is from the police, to this group, telling them to go and essentially inciting a protest.”

Food vendors have been part of the mix at Corona Plaza. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The NYPD says neighborhood coordination officers, known as NCOs, use “creative techniques and adaptive skills” to serve as “problem-solvers” and “liaisons between the police and the community.” But Assemblymember Cruz, who represents the area, said De La Nuez’s alleged misconduct, if substantiated, “destroys the community’s trust in the precinct.”  

“Part of this officer’s job is to create a better relationship between the community — and the vendors are part of the community,” Cruz told THE CITY. “It is unclear how getting themselves involved with what is clearly a political fight is for the benefit of the community.”

Matthew Shapiro, staff attorney at the Street Vendors Project, said the advocacy group filed the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) complaint via phone and emailed them screenshots of text messages as evidence. 

“In this case, the content of the complaint is the evidence,” Shapiro said, adding that he wanted the board to make an independent determination about the situation. 

CCRB spokesperson Clio Calvo-Platero on Tuesday confirmed receipt of the complaint.

She said that the board is trying to establish whether the complaint falls under its jurisdiction, and that any investigation will likely take months because this is “quite a complicated case,” while otherwise declining to comment on an open investigation.

‘Too Many Vendors’

A screenshot vendor advocates say they filed as part of their complaint shows Mauricio Zamora, leader of Neighbors of the American Triangle, forwarding a message sent by De La Nuez. (The American Triangle is a smaller plaza, a block away from Corona Plaza on National Street.) In it, she gives details about the vendors’ food giveaway plan and instructs Zamora in Spanish: “If you can help send this to everyone in the neighborhood so they can go and tell everyone that Corona Plaza was ugly and that it looks better now.” 

The message continues: “Let me know if people go to explain everything and as a large group we can show that everything we did is for the best.”

Neighborhood coordination officer Stephanie De La Nuez allegedly sent a text asking members of Neighbors of the American Triangle to oppose a Corona vendor food giveaway. Credit: Obtained by THE CITY

“We have the support of the police who will be there,” another member of the group chat wrote in Spanish.

When THE CITY visited the plaza on Sunday afternoon, the vendors who have been gathering petition signatures since Department of Sanitation police and other city officials ousted them nearly three weeks ago were nowhere to be seen. 

Instead, about a dozen Neighbors of the American Triangle members were protesting against vendors while holding up “Let’s Save Corona Plaza” signs, often the same signs held up at the rally with Moya days before. 

Asked about the vendors’ complaint, a police spokesperson said: “In response to complaints of unsafe conditions such as assaults, drinking in public, and disorderly groups, the NYPD has been and will remain in the area to ensure that only properly licensed vendors operate inside of Corona Plaza and protect the health and safety of New Yorkers.”

Neither De La Nuez nor the precinct’s NCO supervisor, Sergeant Matthew Gardner, responded to requests for comment. 

Crackdowns have persisted following the enforcement sweep, and vendors who spoke to THE CITY on Sunday noted an increased and increasingly aggressive presence from the NYPD and other enforcement agencies.

People who attended the protest against vendors on Sunday cheered the change, and said the plaza was cleaner now.

“There is too much vendors in this area,” Zamora said. “That is no good.” He then took out a laminated card that read “NYPD Community Partner ID,” which included on its back the precinct and sector where De La Nuez is assigned.

Mauricio Zamora shows his NYPD ‘Community Partner Identification Card.’ Credit: Haidee Chu

Zamora is paired with De La Nuez, he said, in a program that, according to the NYPD, connects police officers with “community partners who volunteer to greet you, to introduce you to that community.” In his role, he sends over pictures and videos of disorderly conduct, like public intoxication, to the precinct, he said.

“Corona,” Zamora said, “that is not for vendors.”

Feeling Harassed

Vendors who kept away from the plaza Sunday afternoon instead gathered over tostadas and agua frescas at a private event a mile away. They took time to celebrate one another and to connect, while also sharing their plight with THE CITY.

“We feel discriminated against and constantly harassed by the police,” said one food seller, who comes from a family of vendors in Mexico.

Speaking to THE CITY in Spanish via an interpreter, she described how officers have instructed vendors that they could not congregate at all even as they met with one another to share bread and drink coffee in the days following the crackdown. Police officers would accuse them of obstructing foot traffic, she added, even when the vendors had left ample space for pedestrians to pass through.

Another vendor, who turned to hawking 14 years ago after her husband lost his restaurant job, said it’s been frustrating to see police officers hold vendors to a different standard compared to others in the plaza.

For eight years until the recent sweep, she said she has woken up at 4 a.m. to get her food ready by 8 a.m. for the workers who pass through Corona Plaza on their commute — relying on her small business as her only source of income.

“There’s a lot of desperation right now because there is no income. Rent is coming up, and the bills are piling up,” she said in Spanish. “We’re just trying to sustain our clients and our neighborhood.”

“It doesn’t make sense that people are like publicly intoxicating themselves, and the cops do have a responsibility to call that out but they don’t,” she said.

“But as soon as they see vendors, they go against us and everything that we do.”