Desires vs. Needs: Informality, Regularization, and Misplaced Priorities in State Responses to Informal Vending in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Authors: Ryan Devlin*, John Jay College
Topics: Planning Geography, Land Use, Immigration/Transnationalism
Keywords: Informality, Street Vending, Regularization, Politics of Space
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 4:00 PM / 5:40 PM
Room: Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Informal urbanism in the Global North is receiving increased attention, however in much of the Northern-based urban geography literature, scholars fail to take into account the differentiated nature of informal practice. Moving the literature forward requires an effort to conceptually differentiate between informality that responds to desires for urban “authenticity”, innovation, or convenience and that which responds to the needs of lower-income urban residents to make ends meet. In this presentation I use conflicts over informal food vending in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York to explore these issues.

I argue that immigrant food vendors in Red Hook came to be valued by young, middle class urban residents primarily because they fulfilled visitors’ desires for “authentic” food and a unique urban experiences. Meanwhile, for the vendors, their activities primarily served a need for income generation. This disconnect was exposed when mainstream popularity led to a formalization process that increased costs and threatened the economic sustainability of the market. For their customers, as long as the vendors could keep selling food, formalization was seen as a successful compromise, but for vendors, formalization ultimately threatened their ability to keep doing business. This presentation argues that progressive-oriented urban scholars should differentiate between needs and desires and pay specific attention to the ways certain informal practices can serve to communicate the needs of the urban poor and as implicit claims to spatial rights and inclusive urbanism.

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