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Sunset Park Vendors Seek Market’s Resurrection After Easter Sunday Shutdown

‘We just want a dignified place to sell,’ one vendor at the unpermitted Brooklyn pop-up market implored at a community meeting that drew more than 100 attendees.

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Sunset Park residents crowded into a school cafeteria to discuss the fate of a weekly pop-up event that’s been operating without permits for two years, May 4, 2023.

Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

More than 100 Sunset Park residents crowded into a cramped school cafeteria at P.S. 24 for a heated community meeting Thursday evening to discuss the fate of Plaza Tonatiuh, a weekly pop-up market of food and arts that’s been operating without permits inside Sunset Park since spring of 2021.

At times, the Sunday markets drew dozens of food vendors, artisans, traditional dancers and hundreds of attendees to a broad walkway shaded by towering sycamores in the southeast corner of Sunset Park. 

But a recent Easter Sunday crackdown by the Parks Department and the NYPD — and the prospect of further enforcement at that location if vendors attempt to return without permits — has made the future of the event uncertain.

Dozens of food vendors and supporters of Plaza Tonatiuh marched together on Thursday evening to the meeting from the park nearby, demanding that local City Councilmember Alexa Avilés help them secure permits for the market to continue operating in Sunset Park, or find a new home for its vendors to sell safely if that’s not possible.

“We’re not robbing. We’re not doing anything wrong. We want to work,” said Maria de los Angles Rosas, 50, in Spanish. She sells cemitas, a kind of hefty Mexican sandwich, at the market and has lived in Sunset Park for two decades. “We just want a dignified place to sell,” she said.

Vying for Vending

The drama in Sunset Park is the latest flashpoint around street vending, which still falls into a legal gray area, despite legislation passed by the City Council two years ago that lifted what had been a decades-long cap on the number of legal permits. 

The Health Department was months behind schedule at issuing new vending permits, Streetsblog reported in January. The department sent out the first 200 applications in March and vendors have until the end of June to complete them, according to the Health Department’s website. Another 245 applications will be mailed out by June, according to Shari Logan, a Health Department spokesperson, with the goal of issuing 445 new licenses each year for the next decade. 

As legal routes to vending stall, people who rely on that income to make ends meet say they have no other choice but to carry on. 

Sunset Park residents crowded into a cafeteria inside P.S. 24 to discuss the fate of a lively, unpermitted weekly event.

Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

“That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” said Isela Cienfuegos, 46, who sold pupusas in Sunset Park before the crackdown. Cienfuegos said she moved from Sunset Park to Bensonhurst three years ago after getting priced out. “We’ve been waiting to apply but nobody gives us the option,” she said.

In recent months, tensions also have flared in Flushing between street vendors and a local elected official. And the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection had actually ramped up ticketing vendors over what the NYPD had been doling out previously, THE CITY reported. Since April 1 the Sanitation Department has taken over vending enforcement.

Public Space for All

Supporters of Plaza Tonatiuh — the name of an Aztec sun deity — described a bustling, family-friendly environment that grew out of the dire economic straits of the pandemic. It offered a place for people to supplement their income, while taking in music and art catering to the Mexican and Central American communities with deep roots in Sunset Park. 

But as Plaza Tonatiuh’s events ballooned in size, Councilmember Avilés described rising community concerns about trash buildup, crowds, open flames and propane tanks. 

“There were safety issues and increased altercations with parks enforcement,” Avilés said, which left some wondering, “who’s controlling the public space?”

Tensions boiled over on Easter Sunday, when residents and vendors settling in to enjoy music and food for the holiday were met by dozens of NYPD and Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers who refused to let them.

At Thursday night’s community meeting, several children took the microphone to describe how terrifying the shutdown had been for them.

“People were chasing the vendors out of the park. I saw some kids get hurt on that day and I didn’t really like it,” Alejandro, 10, told the crowd, before breaking down in tears. His mother declined to provide his last name. 

“The day of Easter they did many bad things,” said 6-year-old Natalie in Spanish. She also broke down sobbing. Her mother also declined to provide her last name. “They treated me really badly,” Natalie said.

Dan Kastanis, a Parks Department spokesperson, said the recent enforcement actions came after two years of noncompliance and quality-of-life complaints. 

While most residents came to voice support for vendors at Plaza Tonatiuh, several residents said they thought the Sunday events had gotten out of control. 

“I love the market,” said Sylvia, who wouldn’t provide her last name. “But I also love my park. We have to respect each other’s space.”

Future Festivities

Avilés and her staff have floated a number of potential permitted pathways forward for vendors of Plaza Tonatiuh: an open street for vendors; securing a special events permit, like Smorgasburg has in Prospect Park and Marsha P. Johnson State Park, or a concessions agreement with the Parks Department like food vendors in Red Hook have.

“This is such unexplored territory,” said James Neimeister, a spokesperson for Avilés’ office, who acknowledged that all those options present bureaucratic challenges. “It’s obviously not easily accessible for most folks.”

Parks spokesperson Kastanis said the department had not received a formal permit application from organizers of Plaza Tonatiuh, but would be willing to work with organizers to help them through the process.

“Despite years of encouraging unauthorized vendors to acquire permits, we remain committed to continuing to work towards resolution here with the market,” he said. 

Two Plaza Tonatiuh organizers said they were open to going through the formal permitting process, though supporters walked out of the Thursday meeting before its conclusion.

This coming Sunday they plan to gather to sell food and crafts at an undisclosed indoor location, according to Paz Rios, 25, an organizer with Mexicanos Unidos and lifelong resident of the neighborhood. 

“Not at the park,” she said. “We put too many people at risk.”

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