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City puts vendors on Hook

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The Parks Department has told a much-loved group of Latin American food vendors that they will be booted from their positions around Red Hook Park if another group or corporation serves up higher permit fees.

More than a dozen mom and pop vendors have been doling out enchiladas and ceviches for about 30 years around the once-seedy, now-popular park, and have paid the city seasonal permit fees of more than $9,000.

But now the Parks Department wants to put the permits up for open bid, raising the possibility that the vendors will be out after this summer.

“We want to standardize the permitting process, so the [Red Hook] vendors will have to go through the normal bidding process,” said Parks Department spokesman Phil Abramson.

The open market has created a frenzy for permits in high-visibility areas like the plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a permit to sell hot dogs and pretzels costs $320,000. But permits in less-trafficked areas like Red Hook can be as low as $600, the agency said.

The Parks Department move, originally reported by New York Magazine and others as the death knell for the cheap taco and the people who sell them, set off a firestorm of outrage that went far beyond the vendors’ Red Hook base.

Food bloggers posted online petitions and an e-mail address for Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, urging readers to write the commish to complain.

And neighborhood Web sites were bristling with the news.

“It would be shameful and spectacularly shortsighted if the Parks Department allows some mediocre commercial vendor to push out this invaluable cultural asset,” said Park Slope writer David Shenk, who is partial to huaraches that he gets at the Red Hook ballfields.

The leader of the vendors, Carlos Fuentes, said he understood the Parks Department’s position, but was concerned that a big corporation would swoop in and displace the 15 or so food merchants.

“We’ve been paying close to $10,000 for many years and we found it quite reasonable,” Fuentes said, referring to a Giuliani-era rule change that required paid permits. “But I don’t know why this is happening now. I can’t help but think there is some other hand at work. We ask the Parks Department what is going on and we’re told, ‘It’s not us. It’s the city.’”

He found the timing of the open-bidding process particularly ironic, given that his vendors set up shop across from one of the city’s largest housing projects long before anyone with money — including developers, real-estate brokers, upper-class culinary tourists, tony bakers and restaurateurs — ever went to Red Hook.

“Now that we’ve made the area safe and attractive, they’ll charge us more to stay,” he said. “If we’re not outbid, that is.”

Abramson disputed the widely held notion that an open bidding process would lead to the eviction of the vendors.

“No one else has called us to express an interest,” he said. “And if there are other bidders, we will look favorably on the fact that this group has been there for 30 years.”

The “request for proposals” that the Parks Department will soon put out will not specify a dollar amount for the permits, Abrahamson added.

At least one food vendor said he’s not interested in making a bid.

“That area is Siberia,” said Bill Castoro, general manager of New York One, which owns vending permits throughout Manhattan. “A permit there should cost at the very low end of the scale.

“Everyone says Red Hook is ‘up and coming,’ but that’s only true for restaurants and bars and maybe even apartments,” Castoro added. “But even if upwardly mobile people move to Red Hook, they’ll eat at restaurants, not at sidewalk vendors.

The target audience for the vendors, of course, is the Latin American soccer players and their families and fans, who compete throughout the weekend. For more than a dozen years, the food vendors have outshone the futbol, with eaters breathlessly awaiting “opening day” like baseball fans long for “pitchers and catchers.” Several bloggers compete to post the first sighting of the vendors in May.

Updated 4:29 pm, July 9, 2018
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