Friday, June 5, 2015

Central Park: Police Clear Out Illegal Vendors By Metropolitan Museum of Art In Massive Sweep

Clean Sweep.  Illegal vendors no longer block the bus stop in front of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The three block stretch along 5th Avenue  between 81st - 83rd streets had been taken over in recent years by a proliferation of food carts.   City officials finally came up with a simple but effective plan -  enforce the law.  (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)  Click in images to enlarge.


By Geoffrey Croft

There is a museum behind those illegal food vendors on Fifth Avenue after all.

In what had been one of the more public displays of government dysfunction for years the city had allowed a flotilla of illegal food carts to overrun the area in front  one of the city's most prestigious institutions, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Visitors will see a dramatic difference.

A solid wall of un-permitted pushcarts had stretched for three blocks, between 83-81st Streets.  On some days more than two dozen vendors occupied sidewalk often creating a hazard for pedestrians while blocking the bus stop and taxi stand.  

Last Thursday that mess seemingly came to an abrupt end as officials came up with a simple yet effective solution that had apparently been elusive, enforce the law.

On May 28th about fifty NYPD officers and employees from various agencies including the Department of Health,  the Consumer Affairs and the Department of Transportation descended on the hotly contested space.   They began assembling in the morning:  Police set up a mobile command bus,  officers from the Central Park and 19th Pct. mustered, tow trucks were positioned in place. Workers installed new bus and taxi signs during the operation. 

Backed by a small army of police officers officials began descending on the area around noon.  They offered vendors the opportunity to either move or have their carts confiscated.

One by one they complied.

Police have conducted enforcement sweeps there before but non like this according to several vendors.

So far the ban has held.

New taxi stand signs were installed.

The area is one of the most lucrative and coveted spots for food vendors in the city, due in part to the throngs of tourists visiting the museum.

A 19th-century law enacted to help returning solders from the Civil War allows disabled veterans the right sell food in locations including city parks without a permit.   The museum is on property controlled by the parks department.

The unsightly mess soon began spiraling out of control. The City through the Parks Department began losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in concession revenue.

The city's ineptitude for refusing to enforce the law on the illegal venders working in front of the bus stop and taxi stand has long confounded Dan Rossi, 65 who has very publicly battled consecutive administrations dating back to Mayor Giuliani in the 90's.  He butted heads with Tom Cusick,  the long-time head of the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District who he accused of foul play.

Last Man and Woman Standing.  And There Were Two. The remaining two pushcarts are run by  legitimate disabled veterans.

He and his daughter Elizabeth have operated two carts in front of the museum since 2007.  According to Mr. Rossi things began going south three years ago when the city began allowing a proliferation of illegal vendors in what soon began to resemble an outdoor food bazaar.  He and daughter have been in and out of court contesting tickets and as fighting the city through lawsuits for years.  

"What took them so long," asked Mr. Rossi. 

For years he has been pleading with various city agencies to clean up the area and properly enforce the law.

"It was a simple solution that was always there. Do you know how many times I said to the DOI, (Department of Investigation) 'You can't vend in a bus stop or a taxi stand'?  They told me, 'Dan you're on your own. We're not going to enforce it. ' "

A sign on one of the two remaining pushcarts reads, "This Business is Owned and Operated by Disabled Veterans."

He and others also accused the city of looking the other way for what he describes as rampant abuses in the food vendor system by allowing "rent-a-vets, and food permits to be leased out without cracking down on what is a wildly known practice.

"Ninety percent of every food vending permits are leased out," he estimates.

"That's Rudy Giuliani who allowed that and Bloomberg was even worse.  He intentionally withheld permits from the vets."  

Mr. Rossi estimates he lost at least a million dollars over the last three years because of the city's inaction. 

"When I was by myself my cart was grossing $ 400,000 a year, then twenty-five percent of that when this mess started."

Rossi described the lack of enforcement as "a first-class screw up by the police."

"All of a sudden, by a miracle, they noticed that there was a taxi stand and a bus stop," he asks incredulously. 
"What took them so long to get rid of them," asked Barbara Morris, 67, a widow of a disabled veteran who has also been fighting with the city over this issue.  

"The bus stop and taxi stand have nothing to do with the lawsuit. It's been financially devastating." 

Ms. Morris mentioned fighting against the illegal operators including the non veterans and people leasing out the permits. 

"I hope things will finally turn around," she said.

"It appears that the NYPD’s efforts to proactively reach out to the vendor community has worked," the City's Law Department said in a statement.

"The community was informed of a recent court ruling limiting the number of vendors on each block in the area.  The Law Department represented the City in court and we are pleased with the court’s decision."

For years a solid wall of food pushcarts stretched for three blocks, blocking views and  bus stops and taxi stands.

Dan credits the new Commanding Officer of the Central Park Pct.  Christopher Mcintosh for cleaning up the area.

"There's a new sherif in town. He seems like a really decent guy," Dan says. 

"He came around and saw for himself, he said, 'I got a problem here.' "

The bus and taxi boarding zones are now kept clear, and only two vendors now remain directly in front of the museum.   To ensure he gets the spot Rossi, a former marine who served in Vietnam,  spends his nights sleeping near his hot-dog cart, parked in front.

"Can you believe I've been reduced to this," he asked rhetorically. 

Dan hopes the City will finally being going after what he describes as illegal permitting practices. 

" We just proved  (in court) that there are no restrictions for disabled vets selling food.  I just reversed twenty-five years of discrimination against the veterans.

"We hope they leave us alone."

(Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)  Click in images to enlarge. 

Read More:

A Walk In The Park - November 2, 2011 

New York Post - October 9, 2011 - By Rebecca Rosenberg and David Seifman

A Walk In The Park - November 25, 2009

A Walk In The Park - November 25, 2009

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