Locals rally around Flatbush fruit vendor as he fights to stay on his corner

Kwesi Donald at his fruit stand on Parkside and Ocean Avenues.
Photo by Ben Verde

Visitors to the southeastern side of Prospect Park during the pandemic have likely noticed Kwesi Donald’s fresh fruit stand. Erected just a few feet from the Parkside Avenue entrance, the ramshackle structure often plays jubilant music on summer days while Donald sells fresh fruit, juice, and coconut water.

But now, as the city cracks down on unpermitted vendors, Donald may soon find himself forced off of the corner he’s worked on for two years.

Parks Department workers have already attempted to dismantle the makeshift shop on the corner of Ocean and Parkside avenues, and have informed Donald he needs to leave by Sept. 7, which he is yet to do. 

“I didn’t see anything, so I’m still sitting here waiting to see what’s going to go on,” Donald said on Sept. 8. 

Donald’s stand, a rickety shack constructed by hand, is usually overflowing with fresh fruit and flags. As he readies to leave, his supply is down to just a few crates of summer produce. 

He is currently going through the motions of applying for a vendor permit but is running into roadblocks while dealing with the complex and expensive permitting process. He currently holds a mobile vendor permit, which would allow him to sell out of a truck, which Donald does not own and says he doesn’t have the money to buy. Plus, he says selling out of a truck comes with its own set of issues. 

“The streets are too hard, man, when you’re on the streets anything could come knock you more easily,” he said.

The city’s fight to relocate Donald’s fruit stand came to a head the morning of Aug. 24, when Parks Department employees tried to take down the structure themselves. This led to confrontations between the Parks workers, locals, and Donald, which ended with the police being called.

The clash also inspired community members to rally around Donald. After Flatbush resident Anna Levy posted about the issue on a neighborhood Facebook group, close to five local residents came down to the park to observe, which Levy says resulted in the stand not being demolished that day.

A spokesperson for the Parks Department said the action taken on Aug. 24 was the result of multiple warnings to Donald that went unheeded. 

“Vending in undesignated areas and without permit is against Parks’ rules. Any vending operations on public property must receive the proper approvals from the appropriate City agencies and related partners,” said Crystal Howard. “Our staff works to educate those we encounter before taking official action when able. Over time we have provided guidance to Mr. Kwesi and gave him a heads up multiple times regarding removing his illegal vending set up before taking action August 24.”

Levy, who has helped organize a petition to keep Donald on Parkside Avenue that has garnered over 150 signatures and a fundraiser to help pay off fines from the city, argued that the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a reimagining of uses for public space — and that street vendors should be no exception. 

“For small businesses to have business again, they started normalizing and giving all these permits to restaurants to build structures in the street,” she said. “To then see this two-tiered system being applied where the exact same exemptions being given to restaurants are being used to police street vendors … was enraging to say the least.”  

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, thousands of New Yorkers turned to unpermitted street vending to make ends meet while the economy was shuttered. In recent months, the city has moved to more aggressively enforce regulations against vendors as the city seeks to reopen and attract tourists, with some sellers racking up thousands in fines. 

In the meantime, Donald says he’s going to find a way to keep providing fresh fruits and juices to Flatbush. 

“I’m not giving up,” he said. “I want to stay here and keep serving the community.”