I promise you, I set out to be objective!
But after hearing politician after politician get up to the podium at Red Hook Park on Sunday to celebrate their unique role in “saving” the beloved Latino food vendors, I felt a disgusting gurgling in my stomach — and I know it wasn’t my huarache con carne.
See, I have long been a fan of the Latin food vendors who have ringed the park for decades. Even when Red Hook was a neighborhood that only the dead knew, a dangerous place populated by drug dealers, drag racers and a handful of Latino soccer players who had nowhere else to go, the food vendors set up shop and, year by year, taco by taco, played a vital role in turning Red hook around.
Indeed, the politicians heralded the vendors for sticking by Red Hook when no one else would. Such pioneers led to the new homesteaders: Ikea, Fairway, Yuppie coffee shops and faux dive bars. Now, even people like Borough President Markowitz feel comfortable doing their cheerleading act in Red Hook.
But last year, the city threw a wrench at all the fine work that the vendors have done, requiring them to bid on the open market to run the mercado that they’ve operated for years and then forcing them to meet tighter city health standards than they have ever had to meet before.
New requirements, despite not a single complaint or documented case of food-bourne illness. Suddenly, the vendors were thrown into the four winds of the city bureaucracy. The Parks Department made these hard-working, though certainly unschooled immigrants, draft a technically difficult formal proposal. Then the Health Department required large food trucks, some of which cost $50,000.
Fifty-thousand dollars. To a city bureaucrat, that’s just a number. To a guy slinging tacos 14 hours a day in the hot sun, that’s a lifetime of wages sent home to support a family south of the border.
But, OK, I reasoned. If the city wanted to bring the vendors up to code, that’s fair. Newspaper columnists, after all, would be the first people to condemn the city if someone died from eating spoiled ceviche in an unregulated marketplace.
So when I went to the “Welcome Back” press conference, I was ready to listen to the speeches, get a few benign quotes, and chow down.
But Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe treated the vendors — and the media — like such children that I lost my appetite. First, Benepe laughed about all the red tape he and his agency forced the vendors’ main organizer, Cesar Fuentes, to cut through.
“We really put him through the ringer,” Benepe joked. “When bureaucrats get together, they can make almost anything impossible. I’m surprised he didn’t give up.”
Many did. Only six of the original 13 vendors were back — now consigned to the street outside the park, rather than inside the fence next to the soccer fields where they belong. And those vendors complained bitterly — though certainly not to Benepe — about their added expenses and the needless three-month delay in getting their final approval from the city bureaucrats who hold too much power over their right to earn a fair day’s pay.
Sen. Charles Schumer was also on hand to pat Benepe on the back for the job well done. Schumer’s a fan of the vendors, but in his hail-fellow-well-met banter with Benepe, I didn’t hear the slightest bit of sympathy for the men and women who have been driven to severe financial losses because a few city officials decided they needed to take control of something that was working fine to begin with.
I didn’t hear anyone explain, even when asked, why the vendors couldn’t have simply been given a waiver this summer while the final regs were hammered down, instead of forcing them to hold their opening weekend ceremonies with half the summer (and half their money-making weekends) gone.
When I started asking too many questions of Benepe, Schumer even stepped in and told me that I wasn’t right to “bust his chops.” (You can see it on my video of the press conference embedded in this column. I later told Schumer he was out of line telling reporters when and where they should “bust” the “chops” of city officials; he said he was trying to “keep it light,” and I told him that that’s awfully convenient — but I let it go so that he could pose for the cameras with a huarache.)
But as long as chops are on the menu, and as long as city officials can’t find a way to help hard-working people, I’ll keep busting them. Sorry, Charlie.