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‘Let Them Grow’: AOC and Other Electeds Rally Against Scorched-Earth Treatment of Corona Plaza Vendors

After Hell Gate broke the story of a crackdown against street vendors in Queens, local politicians called out a broken licensing system.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks out against the treatment of street vendors. (Erin Durkin / Hell Gate)

Laying into a system that has long failed to keep up with the demands of vendors and street food customers, Queens politicians condemned the Adams administration Wednesday for shutting down most of the vendors at the celebrated street food hub at Corona Plaza, next to the 7 train at 103rd St.

At the boisterous rally, and flanked by vendors holding up signs denouncing their treatment, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Borough President Donovan Richards, and other elected officials said the raid, first reported by Hell Gate, was senseless and counterproductive. 

"It's disgusting. It's immoral. And it's simply anti-American," Richards said.

On Friday, armed police officers from the Department of Sanitation evicted vendors who were operating without permits. Most of the street sellers at the plaza don't have the necessary permits, because of a backlog in processing applications with the City.  

Some 78 vendors were shut down, according to the Street Vendor Project.

The politicians said they were particularly incensed because they had been working with City agencies for over a year to address issues of cleanliness and overcrowding at the plaza, recently installing trash bins and giving out bags for vendors to dispose of their grease. 

"That's what makes the City's raid of Corona Plaza so disturbing and infuriating," Richards said. "Let's be clear—the City has systematically failed our Corona Plaza street vendors for years."

The plaza has become a popular destination for Latin American street food, even earning a spot on the New York Times's list of the top 100 places to eat in the city. 

"It is the heart of entrepreneurialism and community that helps drive this entire local economy," said Ocasio-Cortez, adding that vendors in the neighborhood generate $71.2 million in tax revenue.

The City caps the number of permits available for food vendors, and a plan to issue additional permits—already expected to take a decade—has faced delays. For merchandise vendors, there are only 853 licenses available citywide, and the waiting list has been closed since 2016.

"The answer is to let them grow, not kick them out," Ocasio-Cortez said. "It is functionally impossible for these street vendors to comply with the law. We should not penalize small business owners for the government's failure."

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. (Erin Durkin / Hell Gate)

A handful of vendors who have permits remain in the plaza, but they were required to remove canopies they had used for shade in the midst of the heat wave, a measure Ocasio-Cortez described as "cruelty."

Rosario Troncoso is one of the vendors evicted from the plaza, and the president of the Corona Plaza Street Vendors' Association, which vendors formed last year to develop a code of conduct for the market. 

"We haven't been able to have income for the last several days. We're unable to pay for rent, our bills, our food," she said.

The Department of Sanitation defended the sweep, saying they had received many complaints from neighbors about conditions at the plaza. 

"We take a compliance-first approach to vending enforcement, but 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. The situation was untenable and very much impacted quality of life," said spokesman Joshua Goodman.

Two counter-protesters showed up at the rally, saying the proliferation of vendors has led to dirty streets and hurt local businesses. 

Massiel Lugo, whose family owns a bodega in the neighborhood, said the area is "beyond dangerous."

"I'm not against the vendors, but this is too much," she said. "My father pays his taxes, pays his rent, but now he is losing profit because people are selling the same product in his store. That is not OK."

Vendors told Hell Gate that they are happy to follow safety and sanitation guidelines, and want the chance to work legally. While individual vendors are unable to get permits, they are pushing for the City to give the association a concessionary agreement for the plaza, which would allow them to operate like other established markets, such as Smorgasburg and the Queens Night Market. Of course, these markets have much larger budgets and resources than the group of immigrant vendors. 

"It's very easy to say, 'Follow the rules,'" said Assemblymember Catalina Cruz at Wednesday's rally. "If these folks could get a license, don't you think they would choose to get a license?"

Vendors flocked to the plaza in large numbers starting in the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many local residents lost jobs and turned to vending to make ends meet. 

"The reason I choose to do this is because I can be the owner of my own small business," Troncoso, the vendor, said during the rally. "We want to be respected because we are here contributing to the economy of Corona."

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