The Center for an Urban Future released a report, Rethinking New York's Street Fairs (PDF), that criticizes city street fairs for being too many, too bland, and too difficult for other vendors to participate in. For instance, did you realize there are 367 street fairs a year (at least planned for 2006)? And did you know that almost 46% of the food permits are held by the 20 largest street vendors - 9 of which are from outside NYC?
Three large production companies—Clearview Fes- tival Productions, Mardi Gras Festival Productions, and
Mort & Ray Productions—organize more than 200 of the fairs. Vendors pay $100 to $400 to participate in each event, with profits split between the production company and the nonprofit sponsor. The city receives 20 percent of the total vendor fees, which is used for police overtime and other expenses.
The problem is that the production companies have no incentive to reach out to city businesses or ensure that the fairs don’t attract a lot of the same vendors. “The production companies don’t care what you sell.They just want their money,” says Jane Bell, owner of Pet Portables, who participated in more than 40 street fairs in 2005. “The merchandise this year is the same as it was last year.”
One of the production companies—Mardi Gras Festival Productions—offers a “buy five, get one free” discount package to vendors who participate in multiple events. Additionally, vendors interested in participating in some of the larger and more lucrative fairs that Mardi Gras puts on, such as those on Manhattan’s West Side, can’t do so unless they also purchase space at other fairs. While these policies may help the event organizer secure profits, it also ensures that the fairs feature many of the same businesses week after week.
Mayor Bloomberg responded to the report, saying, "The politics of street fairs are complex to say the least,. As far as I know, if other vendors wanted to show up and participate, they could." But the Center for an Urban Future argues that many local vendors don't know much about the process and the city should do more to educate a more diverse and NYC-based group of food and merchandise vendors that could be interested in joining. Gothamist has to agree with the Center for an Urban Future on this one: Unless the fair has specific ties to an event (like San Gennaro, for one), the fare is usually the same sausages-n-curly fries, cheap undershirts, and random bric-a-brac. Street fairs are fun the first, oh, let's say five times you come across them, but after that, it's there diminishing rate of return. Unless you need some gym socks.
And the Center for an Urban Future has a great quote from Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the CUNY Graduate Center: “They’re all so similar. You walk through and you have absolutely no sense that you’re in New York City. You could just be anywhere. It’s Manhattan, it’s not Dutchess County. That’s what’s so weird, that it has this kind of Dutchess County Fair feel to it." Hmm, is the dis to Dutchess County or to us - or both? To be fair, there is a Red Hook there, but it's really not the same.
Photograph by Michael Brandon on Flickr