Crackdown Continues at Corona Plaza, Where Vendors Had Thrived
Even licensed vendors were feeling the heat this week, while ousted ones replaced carts with clipboards as they petitioned to return.
Vendors at Corona Plaza are taking baby steps to recover since the sanitation department’s sudden enforcement sweep nearly two weeks ago ran many of them out of business.
What had been a bustling pedestrian triangle, canopy-lined with food and craft hawkers, was no more on Tuesday, when Department of Sanitation officers made rounds across the open space where only a scant few sellers remained.
Hands that had previously tended to food and merchandise were now instead busy with clipboards full of petitions, as vendors gathered signatures underneath the rumbling 7 train tracks to call on the city to speed up its plan to open a formally recognized market there, with a place for them.
Soon after the Sanitation Department took over the chief vendor enforcement role earlier this year, Commissioner Jessica Tisch testified that it would be taking a “compliance-first approach” to ticketing “rather than a license-check-first approach.” But vendors and advocates who spoke to THE CITY said the opposite has been true at Corona Plaza since the crackdown.
“There have been more problems in the past two weeks,” said 34-year-old
in Spanish, as sanitation officers confiscated her taco cart and issued her a $1,000 ticket for vending without a license on Roosevelt Avenue, just across the street from the plaza where other vendors were gathering signatures.
The Mexican immigrant said she had started vending in the area about four months ago, as her hours and income in a restaurant job had become inconsistent. She had obtained a permit for the cart itself, she added, but was issued a ticket because a different worker vending with the cart was not aware that she did not have the appropriate license.
“It’s bad,” she added. “I have never had my cart taken away from me. This is the first time.”
The increased enforcement came after a sweep that a Sanitation spokesperson called a “limited enforcement action” and “a thoughtful, considered approach” to an “untenable” situation. Vendors, however, say it’s the enforcement approach that has felt untenable.
A licensed vendor who asked to be identified only as Andi said that the license checks have been frequent — up to six or seven times a day, with different officers asking for documentation soon after each shift change.
“Before, they didn’t say anything,” said Andi, a Corona resident for 20 years. “Since the sweep they’ve been coming every day.”
Locals and visitors alike often stopped to inquire what had happened to the self-organized market, she added, where 81 mostly immigrant members of the Street Vendor Association that formed last year had sold tacos and traditional clothing and agua fresca.
“They do ask, ‘Where are the rest of the vendors?’ …. ‘When are they coming back?’” Andi recalled.
‘A Situation for the Government to Handle’
But for Luis Tacuri, who owns an Ecuadorian restaurant nearby, the new scene at Corona Plaza has been a welcome change.
He applauded the plaza for being cleaner and more spacious since the clearout. He said he shouldered tickets for trash on the street in the past.
Still, he added, the crackdown has done little to redirect customers his way, as he hasn’t seen much change in his own business over the last weeks. While he said he’s happy to have less trash and congestion, he added that his concern was never the vendors themselves.
“Before it was bothersome for me,” Tacuri said while lounging at the plaza. “But like I tell you, the people need to eat. I keep my mouth quiet. This is a situation for the government to handle.”
Yolanda Capulin, who owns a nearby ice cream shop, said she has yet to sign the vendor-organized petition as she was unfamiliar with their plans to improve the plaza, which replaced what had been a service road in 2012.
“We should all have an opportunity to sell, and make a living. But, like I’ve been saying, there needs to be regulations,” Capulin told THE CITY in Spanish, noting her concerns about cleanliness, congestion and safety at the plaza. “If there are regulations, then it doesn’t really bother me.”
The vendors have so far garnered the support of several Democratic elected officials, including Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, local Assembly Member Catalina Cruz and Congressmember Alexandria Ocacio-Cortez.
“Let’s be clear, the city has systematically failed our Corona Plaza street vendors for years,” Richards said at a rally just days after the recent sweep.
As THE CITY had reported, merchandise licenses issued to non-veterans have long been capped at 853, whereas those for food vendors have been capped at 5,100 — causing headaches for sellers looking to make a living in Corona and neighboring Flushing.
“The city has responsibility here as well,” Richards said at the rally. “We do not need agencies to all of a sudden show up to enforce if they’re not showing up 24/7 to be a part of the solution.”
But the sweep, Vincent Gragnani of Sanitation contended, was a response to a problem caused by a lack of enforcement and an exception to the department’s “compliance-first approach to vending enforcement.”
He went on to say that “the situation in the Corona Plaza area had become so impassible — with dirty conditions, with semi-permanent structures bolted into the ground, illegal vending right in front of storefronts — that it became necessary to engage in enforcement that included the dispersal of unpermitted vendors.”
Days after the sweep, Mayor Eric Adams said that he’d been in the neighborhood just before it, and saw for himself that “there was illegal vending and just dangerous food service.”
But the members of the Street Vendor Association at Corona Plaza said they have already been coordinating with elected officials as well as city agencies including the sanitation and police departments to address those issues over the past several years.
“We have been collaborating to set rules for the plaza, to add trash receptacles, coordinate cleanup, and host cultural events,” reads the vendor-organized petition.
As a rush-hour crowd descended from the 7 train tracks, Maria Calle, the vice president of the Street Vendor Association, called to passerby in Spanish: “Please support us with your signature so our peers and vendors can return to work.”
Some zoomed past, while others like Marcelo Calle stopped to add his name to the petition that by Wednesday evening had gathered 7,667 signatures.
The street vendors have been especially vital to blue-collar workers like himself who shuffle in and out of the neighborhood, said Marcelo, a carpenter who is unrelated to Maria.
“After work I stop by here and grab something to eat,” he said. “If I sleep too much, I stop by to get a quick meal.”
And that, said Maria Calle, is the point.
“I want to present these signatures,” she said, “so they can take notice that while there’s some people who don’t want us here, there’s a lot of people who actually do support us and want us here.”