How Do You Get New York’s Street Fairs Past Fried Dough?

Tube_Socks.jpgA typical New York street fair. This one’s on the Upper West Side, not that it makes a difference. Photo: Ed Yourdon/Flickr

Every summer, New Yorkers face a dire shortage of tube socks. Or so you’d assume if you walked through the city’s 300-odd street fairs. Though some fairs are cherished local institutions, the majority are corporate cookie-cutter affairs. That’s a real wasted opportunity in a city so starved for public space. 

With so much room for improvement, the Center for an Urban Future asked 24 New Yorkers what they’d do with the city’s street fairs. Though particular proposals spanned the entire spectrum of the possible, nearly all agreed that street fairs need to be tied more closely to their particular community and that the city needs to allow more experimentation.

With notable exceptions like the acclaimed Atlantic Antic festival, most of New York’s street fairs are nearly indistinguishable. Fully half of all permits to sell food at street fairs are held by only 20 vendors, according to a 2006 study by the Center for an Urban Future.

To make matters worse, dissatisfaction with the current crop of street fairs, which anger many residents by blocking traffic and creating piles of garbage, has led to a moratorium on new street fairs. That means that what you see is all you’re going to get. There’s no competition from new kinds of fairs.

To top it all off, the city loses money on every street fair because of overtime costs for police officers. Something’s got to change.

Most people interviewed highlighted the importance of tying the street fair to the local community. "New York has very distinctive neighborhoods," said Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, "so it seems to me that we should encourage elements of street fairs that are distinctive." The most praised fairs — the Ukrainian Festival in the East Village, International Pickle Day on the Lower East Side, the Queens Art Express — all drew their inspiration, and their vendors, from the surrounding community. 

As for how to force street fairs to actually reflect the local community, ideas varied. Perhaps the best thought-out was a plan by Deborah Martin, the executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, to create a tiered system of permits, with vendors required to pay more to participate the further away their bricks-and-mortar operation is located. 

Currently, all street fairs are sponsored by non-profits, a set-up that’s intended to create that desired community atmosphere. But most just use their street fairs as fundraisers, contracting out fair operations to the same handful of companies. "A few promoters have figured out how to make a lot of money," said Sean Basinski, the founder of the Street Vendor Project. "They know the political levers, they have connections with the vendors." These promoters are the ones operating the same fair across the city. (In fact, according to Jim Leff, the founder of Chowhound, the same fair can be found from Nova Scotia to Georgia.)

Of course, from a purely financial perspective, that model works. People show up and they spend. "So what do street fairs offer that is not available elsewhere?" asked Leslie Koch, who’s in charge of the public space on Governors Island. "The virtue of them," she answered, "is that they close off the streets." New Yorkers are desperate for that kind of public space. 

If it’s that simple, there are lots of other ways to use the public realm better. Many interviewees called for more live music, dance, and theater. "It brings out the community, young, old, different nationalities," said hip-hop pioneer D.J. Kool Herc. 

One of the more innovative ideas for bringing performance to the streets comes from Paris, by way of author Suketu Mehta. "La Fête de la Musique" installs stages across the city for musicians to use as they see fit; permit requirements and noise ordinances are suspended for the day. Another unique model, suggested by Project for Public Spaces President Fred Kent, is the Dutch kid’s market: On the Queen’s birthday, children, and only children, set up stands selling old toys or snacks and showing off their talents.

Of course there’s always the simple, successful model of New York’s Weekend Walks. There are 18 this year. Maybe some neighborhoods would be happy to simply trade in their fried dough for more car-free space with programming courtesy of local organizations.

Let us know: What would you like to see done with New York City’s largest street closing program?

  • fete de la musique is already happening here in NYC! this monday! check it
    http://makemusicny.org/

  • Larry Littlefield

    Perhaps street markets could be replaced or supplemented by street games.

    Maybe (if it wasn’t broke) the Parks Department could come up with a set of ping pong tables to set up for tournaments. Others could set up tables to play chess or checkers. There could be races, dance competitions, musicla competitions, whatever. Local champions could be crowned in this or that.

    Limit the vendors to local stores being allowed to move some of their wares outside (or set up tables for eateries), perhpas in exchange for sponsoring events.

  • Street fairs should not be about fundraising, no matter how worthy the cause. They should simply be a time for the community & local merchants to spill out into the streets.

  • Joe

    Yes!!

    I thought street fairs were silly and boring until I moved to Chicago. Wow!! They’re awesome here! Live performances, music, festivities, dancing, drinking, local vendors, local food, local artists, contests, games, and not a mozzarepa or tube sock stand in sight… tons of ethnic food and goods from the local neighborhood, the local businesses have open houses… so THAT’S what they’re supposed to be like!

    Market Days in Chicago should be a model for NYC!

  • Bolwerk

    One elephant missing from the room is alcohol. Why can’t beer and wine be explored? New York State has some of the best of both.

  • Streetsman

    Howabout no operator company can participate in more than one commercial street fair per year? Or howabout banning subbing-out the operation? – the nonprofit applicant must work directly with the vendors, not with an operator company.

  • J:Lai

    As a small business owner who has tried to make it through the permitting process for an outdoor street event in NYC, I can tell you that it is extremely difficult. If you want amplified music, food, and alcohol, the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy is pretty daunting.

    Operator companies have the resources and expertise to negotiate all the red tape, but most local businesses don’t have the time to deal with it.

    If the process were streamlined and relatively easy to deal with, I think a lot more local businesses and organizations would get involved.

  • Glenn

    Nice photo by the way

  • J:Lai, what you say is true about nearly everything in New York. If the process were streamlined, then small businesses would be able to operate without losing all their money trying to understand the system. But then the city would not be as dominated by big business and its politicians.

  • Brooklyn Returnee

    My idea of the perfect NYC street fair is the Lower East Side’s annual NYC International Pickle Day on the Lower East Side. The food vendors (heavy on – surprise!- pickles) are truly terrific and local, the fair is a manageable size (1 block on Orchard St. and in a nearby parking lot), the theme relates to the neighborhood, there are activities for kids and it is just fun.

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