Ridge food cart war may become legal battle

Attorneys for Sammy Kassen, manager of the Middle Eastern Halal Cart (above), threatened to sue the city if his cart is booted from Bay Ridge.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

The city could find itself in court if it messes with a controversial halal cart some Bay Ridge merchants want removed from Fifth Avenue, lawyers for the embattled food wagon said on Friday — claiming that cart workers are being harassed because they’re Middle Eastern.

Lamis Deek, an attorney for the Middle Eastern Halal Cart and cart manager Sammy Kassen said she would sue the city if it goes forward with a proposal to turn Fifth Avenue and 86th Street into a cart-free zone — forcing the vendor to move from a favored, and profitable, location.

“If we have to take it to the courts, that’s where we’ll take it,” Deek said during a press conference held at the intersection that’s become a battleground between food vendors and brick-and-mortar businesses.

Deek claimed that Fifth Avenue merchants are repeatedly harassing Kassen because he’s Middle Eastern — and claimed that the city has done nothing to stop it.

“He has dealt with epithets and physical threats, and the bullies in this neighborhood have continued to attack him,” Deek said.

Kassen said that a man leaving the Lone Star Bar — whose owner, Tony Gentile, has led the effort to get the cart removed from Fifth avenue — made a pistol gesture with his hand at him and his workers on May 10, telling them that they had to move. Kassen also claimed that he overheard Gentile say that the Brooklyn-born Kassen was not an American and should leave the country.

The bar owner denied all the allegations, claiming that his concerns are strictly economic.

“I love the Middle Eastern community in this neighborhood,” Gentile said, adding that many of his customers are of Arab descent. “They want to play the race card because they know they’re wrong.”

The city’s Department of Small Business Services is considering booting all carts from Bay Ridge after Deputy Commissioner Andrew Schwartz listened to a litany of food vendor complaints from Councilman Vincent Gentile (DBay Ridge) — who isn’t related to Tony Gentile — as well as Community Board 10 members and leaders of both the Fifth Avenue and 86th Street business improvement districts. The civic and business leaders attending the meeting blasted vendors and sided with the neighborhood’s brick-and-mortar restaurants who claim food carts get off easy on rent, fees, and ignore regulations.

Roger Desmond, the owner of the Fifth Avenue eatery Hinsch’s and a member of Tony Gentile’s Save Our Streets campaign — which stopped the Middle Eastern Halal Cart from opening on Fifth Avenue for two days by putting up tables at Kassen’s usual spot and distributing anti-cart literature — said his beef was with city regulations favoring food wagons over neighborhood businesses, not the street-meat dealers themselves.

“They’re making this about race to skirt the real issue,” Desmond said.

Bay Ridge resident Billy Norris, who claimed that Kassen’s customers leave trash all over the intersection, agreed.

“We’re not going to win this because, all of a sudden, they’re making it about race,” Norris said.

But fellow Ridgite Effie Demetriadis backed Kassen and his workers.

“How can they be against them?” said Demetriadis, whose father owned a Shish kebab cart. “We all came to this country for a better life. Why are we fighting each other?”

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at (718) 260–4507 or e-mail him at wbredderman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/#!/WillBredderman

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