Street Fairs Need Fixing

Street Fairs Need Fixing

By: Iesha Clement, Gaby Deane, Marina Nebro, and Cassandra Price

Walking down a street in New York City and happening upon a street fair is like happening upon a treasure. A regular street corner is transformed into a charming little fair filled with cheap purses, jewelry, lemonade, and food. Street fairs give us the opportunity to do something different without going too far from home. People are frequently caught off guard when they turn the corner on the way to their destination and find themselves in the middle of a street fair. It forces them to break with regular habits, and bring a bit of unexpected fun. A stroll has been turned into a half an hour’s worth of enjoyment with family and friends. Until you go to more than one. Suddenly, a unique, pleasurable experience is turned into a somewhat disheartening letdown. With increasing regularity, many of the vendors that appeared in the first street fair, appear in the next five or ten consecutive streets fairs. In 2005, according to policy brief Rethinking New York’s Street Fairs by Jonathon Bowles and Tara Colton, as little as 20 vendors held 46 percent of all the permits to sell food at city street fairs. Later, in 2010, it grew to 50 percent. That does not allow for much variety. They have taken on a bland quality; New York is filled with culture, diversity and artists and it is a shame that they are not represented in today’s street fairs.

Going to a street fair used to be exciting. At a Macaulay Honors Conference, one audience member mentioned that as a kid, she remembered all the novelties that were once associated with street fairs. But now, she is disappointed when she walks into a street fair- she cannot tell from one from another. Now, due in part to the companies that sponsor the streets fairs, it has become somewhat uniform. According to the Center for an Urban Future website, in 2008 Mayor Bloomberg agreed that street fairs had become too numerous and homogenous. Mayor Bloomberg took action and reduced the number of street fairs every year, which alleviated some of the problem.

While street fairs like these could help the local economy and bring in something to alleviate the repetitiousness of daily life, the ones they have now have become dull and something many New Yorkers have come to dread. Jayne Merkel expressed her displeasure in a 2012 New York Times Article titled Take Back the Streets in which she describes in great detail why the street of New York City are no longer charmed, but littered with the presence of street fairs. Traffic is a nightmare, and city transportation is disrupted by the influx of people that usually take other modes of transportation but are prevented by the closing of select, but crucial streets. As Merkel said “It would be easier to accept most street fairs and parades if they were truly community events,” instead of the companies previously mentioned. While some measures have been taken to prune back the number of street fairs unleashed on the streets, there are still many improvements that can be made.

The harder part is how to get involved a street fair as a vendor. A few basic big production companies, such as Mardi Gras Festival Productions or Mort and Ray Productions, deal with organizing and funding the street fairs that are found on the streets of New York today. They find vendors, find food stands, and find lemonade stands and put together the not-quite-prime experience that has become expected, if not accepted. These companies give deals to street vendors to maximize their profits, and they do not care what merchandise is sold as long as there are vendors to fill the spaces. If there is a special street fair that is widely publicized, many vendors want a shot to participate because it will be more lucrative. But before they can participate, the street vendors must first sign up to participate in five other street fairs, and every street fair could cost between 100 dollars to 400 dollars to participate. While this ensures the companies profit, it leaves most of the other, less popular street fairs doomed to the same vendors selling the same products every time. Suketu Mehta, a New York- based journalist, said in a 2010 interview with the Center for an Urban Future that she had lived in incredibly busy, vibrant places “but here, most of the vendors tend to be the same, whether on Washington Place in the Village or Cobble Hill in Brooklyn. There aren’t enough local vendors.”

To make it easier for novice vendors, Bloomburg made it easier to apply for a permit through on online application. To get involved in a street fair one must get the proper permits. This means going to the Mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office (SAPO), either in person or online, and pay the non-refundable 25 dollars and your submission will be processed and approved and you are officially granted permission to participate in a New York City street fair. There are also rules that check the behavior of the vendors, such as the one for pollution, and there is a fine for those that violate that rule. This makes sure the inconvenience that is placed on those that actually live in the city full time is put at a minimum. That is the easy part.

New York City prides itself on the diversity of its inhabitants. It has always been a place where immigrants congregate and artists flock to live, because it is known as a city accustomed to change and tolerance. With all this diversity at its fingertips, New York City should broadcast what it is proud of. From an economic standpoint, if a more diverse local business population were involved in street fairs, getting more publicity for their products, it could boost local business. Unfortunately, many business owners are not fully aware of this opportunity. And unless the De Blasio administration can change the way the sponsoring organizations put together a street fair, they do not have any incentive to ensure that some variety is inserted.
Recently, in 2012, the organizations in charge of streets fairs, such as Mort and Ray Productions, have taken measures to ensure that street fairs now help local businesses. According to the 2012 New York Times article titled Not All Is Fair in Street Fairs, Some Say, these organizations have been offering local businesses “prime spaces outside of their own stores at discounted rats.” They also agree to refrain from having a vendor outside a store that sells similar wares, and therefore not retracting from their business.

Street fairs have taken a turn for the better; when a vendor perseveres, street fairs can help small business acquire loyal customers. Victoria Tan, a Macaulay Honors sophomore at Queens College who has attended dozens of street, shared a part of her vast experience as a street fair fan. “I ran into this one woman who would always set up a stand selling her handmade jewelry line. I personally loved her jewelry and would always stop by, but it turned out that many other ‘regulars’ would also emerge during the fairs. Some even asked where her store was located or tried to make purchases online.” This success story is proof that if utilized correctly, street fairs can significantly improve business by simply being there time after time. Although it might seem repetitive to some people, others might find it comforting and welcome, if the products they produce are well liked. According to Tan, “the level of interaction and interest that she built with people living in the neighborhood [was built up so much] that she eventually opened up a store and gained more traction with her products.” Street fairs enabled this vendor to establish a base of loyal customers, which is “invaluable to any business.”

This concept of business owners taking to the streets has recently gained traction, especially within the small business owner community. Whimsy & Spice, a small sweets business owned by married business partners Jenna Park and Mark Sopchak, have begun to work the street fair circuit, with positive results. In a 2010 article the Business News Daily, titled New Market: Small Businesses Find Success Taking it to the Street, Park said, “You expose yourself to other customers that you may not otherwise attract. It’s great for marketing and putting your name out there.” Unlike many New York City businesses, Whimsy & Spice works exclusively online and street fairs. They are online to maintain the customers that they meet at the street fairs, and the price for a booth at a street fair is more affordable than the price for permanent real estate offered in New York City.

Another benefit of working in street fairs is the immediate feedback that customers give. A more relaxed environment helps forge a bond between customers and vendors that is not always offered in a typical store setting. Fashion designer Ryan Greer of Flux Productions, says in the same article, “A good market will give me lots of sales and, just as importantly, lots of feedback about the work I’m doing and what products work or don’t work.” Because of the feedback Greer has gotten, he has branched out his merchandise and as a result, as gained a loyal following.

Street fairs are not only good for the vendor-client relationship, but also relationships with those around us. Tan also points out, “As New Yorkers, we’re often so focused on rushing – rushing to get where we need to go, rushing to get things done faster, rushing to have all the latest technological advancements – that we often lose touch with the simple things. Street fairs offer a rare window into one such simple thing – they force us to interact with the city and other people.”

To restore the reputation of the once-famed street fairs, one needs to begin at the source: the people. Sparking interest in passersby is what makes a successful street fair. To attract the biggest audience possible, you need a variety of vendors. Danielle Cohen, a Macaulay Honors student at Queens College, regularly visits Manhattan and happened upon a street fair on Lexington Avenue during the summer of 2013. When asked about the street fair, Cohen said that she enjoyed “walking through it,” and it felt “very cultural.” She was not very excited about it, but felt a bit bored. Instead, she was more excited about the other fairs that she had attended: Smorgasburg in Brooklyn and the holiday fair at Union Square. These had a lot of variety such as crafts, foods, and cider. She “mostly looked around but it was so big [she] kept finding new things.” This contrasted sharply with the incredible monotony of the street fair on Lexington Avenue due to the repetition of the vendors, stating that she ended up not buying anything.

Others had similar experiences. Leora Margelovich, another students at Macaulay Honors College at Queens College, wanted a fun cultural pastime with an old friend in September of last year. After a visit to the Guggenheim Museum, Margelovich and her friend decided to try their hand at a street fair that they heard about near New York University (NYU). What they found was a hot bed of starving artists showcasing their talents and wares. Everywhere she turned, there “were different kings of artists. It was cool to see what kinds of things they could do and produce.” There was an especially intriguing piece that had vodka and beer bottles heated to an extreme temperature and twisted into different shapes, trivets and containers. When asked about her experience, Margelovich explained that she had fun, and she thought it was “a great way to get your name out.”

That street fair managed to be successful where many fail. There were many different kinds of artists, ranging from ones selling pictures of animals, to the warped glasses, and therefore attracted the attention of a diverse crowd. There were many types of people wandering around, ranging from old to young, and from broke college students to the wealthy, and from hipsters to businessmen. Margelovich did not purchase any merchandise due to the “underratedly expensive” products. As she put it, when you lean over and check out a semi-cool painting at a street fair, you don’t expect it to be 800 dollars. With the expensive merchandise aside, this kind of street fair is the epitome of the idea of collecting artists from around the city and giving them some much-needed attention. These artists are getting exposure they would not have gotten otherwise, and if they are lucky, they could find some loyal followers that would jump at the chance to acquire some of their work.

Merkel had a few suggestions on how to fix the problem. One suggestion requires the city to designate certain areas of the city to street fairs and parades alike, to prevent the innocent commuter from an unwelcome change in his commute. Another suggestion is to spread out the street fairs. The city has many boroughs and therefore a great many places to hold street fairs. Long Island has even started hosting street fairs. There was one on Nassau Boulevard in the fall of 2013 that was moderately successful according to Tayler Resnick, a Macaulay Honors student at Queens College. Much the same as in New York City, streets were closed off, and many unsuspecting people were confused with the roadblock. However, once Resnick and her family located the source of the rerouting, they had a great time. “It seemed to support a lot of local businesses” Resnick said in an interview, “there were a lot of dentists, zoo animals and little goats, and little kiosks selling clothing.” Location is also important. Restaurants that line Nassau Boulevard were using the street fair to promote their food, which is another way of promoting business. If more businesses in the city would utilize street fairs to their advantage, it would increase business instead of chase it away. Combining those local businesses with new artists and different kinds of merchandise would bring in an audience much like the street fair near NYU. And if people like what they see, they might come back for more, thereby increasing the profits of local businesses.

Feast of St. Gennaro

Street Fairs today have evolved from the cultural festivals that took place in New York City. Immigrants sponsored these festivities so they could bring a bit of their culture form their homeland and make America feel more like home. Every year, since 1928, the Feast of St. Gennaro has been celebrated throughout Little Italy. The Society of San Gennaro, Incorporated, the original sponsor of the event, was founded by three Italian American businessmen, Donato Nappi, Michael Montanini and Alex Tisi. It began on Mulberry Street because that was the street on which they all owned businesses. Leading up to the feast day, these businessmen would take out their wares and sell them outside. They decorated the streets and gave food to those who gave money for the poor. There was Italian music, food, and entertainment, bringing back memories of the old country and keeping the traditions alive. Eventually, what began as a small block gathering grew into a celebration that took up the entire Mulberry Street. In an article in Crisis Magazine titled The Miracles of San Gennaro, it describes the early decades of the festivities, “up to three thousand men walked in the street processions, along with five hundred on horseback, one hundred and fifty carriages featuring prominent citizens and some eighteen marching bands.”

The rigor that used to fuel these festivities has lessoned somewhat over he years due to assimilation and gentrification, but these types of celebrations are the foundation of the street fairs we have today. While the original was meant to revive some of the religious and cultural traditions, it has become a watered-down version of what it once was. Little Italy is no longer filled exclusively with Italians, and those that have moved in do not find the Feast of St. Gennaro as comforting as the original immigrants. Instead, in the same 2013 article, they complain, “the street vendors and rowdy crowds of the festival block the entrances to their shops…and scare off the wealthy clientele that [the area] hopes to attract.” It used to be a celebration of the mixing of the Italian and American cultures. But too much American culture can overshadow the Italian culture, turning a once-unique festival into a generic street fair.

How Street Fairs Can Help Today

Starting a business is not easy. Not only does one need an idea, but he or she must have a passion for it. Next comes the hard part: finding clientele and stirring up interest for the product. Loyal customers are a necessary part of going from just an idea to a career. The aforementioned feedback is also an important factor when trying to iron out some of the wrinkles that come with starting a new business. Julian Plyter launched Melt Bakery at the Hester Street Fair, and in an 2012 Huffington Post article titled Hester Street Fair Helps Launch Emerging Businesses he gives his account of his experience trying to start a business from the ground, up. “It really enables us to respond quickly and easily to consumer demand and feedback, so if somebody says, ‘this has too much mint in it’ or, ‘this isn’t spicy enough,’ we can easily evaluate it and adjust as needed.”

SuChing Pak, a cofounder of the Hester Street Fair, said in the article, “These types of markets allow people to experiment…you may have a great idea, but sinking thousands of dollars into a brick and mortar retail space may not be the best first move for a small business. At the fair, you can work out the kinks, find customers, refine your product and really get out there.”
Instead of sparking unhealthy competition between similar vendors, there is a sense of community that has grown between vendors in similar situations. Jesse Kramer and Erica Molina are the founders of Brooklyn Taco, and came to the Hester Street Fair in 2011, where they found huge success. Since their success, they have found a permanent address in Essex Street Market. The street fair was a good way of testing their products; as Kramer says, “If your food sucks, you’re not going to make it.” It is a great way to find out what works and what does not. It also means that “you will either blow up or you will die down very quickly.” This sense of make-or-break does not bring out tensions between vendors, but instead creates a bond. The community found between vendors at the street fair was unpredicted; Plyter says, “You know, I didn’t know what to expect. There was another ice cream person there, a popsicle person there, and I sort of just expected it to be competitive. But they have all been really supportive of us, and we in turn have been supportive of them.” By joining the street fair, vendors not only gain an opportunity to connect with customers on a level that enables critique and growth, established loyal customers that is essential for building a business, and a community that supports each other.

Street Fairs in the Future

Street fairs do not happen every day at the same time, throughout the year. They are also not organized under the same, homogenous, management. Maybe if they did, they would more organized and better able to create street fairs that inspire more street fairs like the Hester Street Fair. Not to say that vendors at other street fairs cannot be successful. Tan’s account of a loyal customer proves that artists such as jewelry makers can build a successful business by making connections and establishing relationships with customers. Other vendors, such as Plyter and Kramer have positive and lucrative experiences with street fairs. That is not to say that it as simple as waving a wand and saying “bibbity bobbity boo.” Serious dedication is a must for anyone willing to put in the effort and the enormous amount of time. But it seems that street fairs are the perfect way to get a foot in the door for anyone willing to go the distance.

While these rags-to-riches examples are heartwarming, it does not take away from the issue that some street fairs have become thought of as overrated. In her article Take Back the Streets, Merkel outlines exactly why many New Yorkers are tired of inconveniences that accompany street fairs. Street fairs often get a lot of criticism for the incessant interruption of the regular commute to work and inconvenience it can bring to daily life, along with other side effects. One of her suggestions is to devote a certain part of the city to street fairs. This might take away the hassle of interrupted commuting, but it also takes away the fun of happening upon a street fair. Having a designated place works for events such as the Greenmarket in Union Square, but selling produce is not the same as selling art or baked goods. Most street fairs’ wares include art, and according to Margelovich, pricey art. Artists are not always known for their consistency. Having a repeated art show is one thing; having a street fair is another. The Hester Street Fair is a place where people can support themselves and can use it as a stepping-stone to start their own successful business. These business people have found their niche and made it pay.

New York City has so much to offer its inhabitants; it just needs a little push in the right direction. If the companies in charge, Mardi Gras Festival Productions or Mort and Ray Productions, were given an incentive by the city to promote diversity and promote local artists, the turnout might increase, thereby increasing profits, and supporting local businesses. Advertising the street fairs might also increase turn out. New Yorkers know where to look, but many tourists or commuters do not know if it is not on their route to work. People flock to something new. Give the people what they want, and they will come.

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